Introduction to the ‘hard-to-reach’ energy users
Many of our behaviour change and demand response interventions concentrate on the uptake of energy-efficient technologies in developed countries and so-called “green consumption” efforts. Much of our focus is on technology choice per se, with a lot less on the cognitive, motivational and contextual factors that are affecting those choices (e.g. Rotmann and Mourik, 2013). Relatively speaking, behavioural-oriented policy initiatives are rather limited, and often confined to experimental settings, and utility-driven programmes (e.g. Rotmann and Ashby, 2019). Our Swedish National Expert (Mundaca et al, 2018) undertook a global review of policy efforts (at the national and city level) addressing low-carbon energy technologies. Results show a clear orientation towards technology market development (mostly subsidies), and market failures (particularly, information asymmetries). In fact, policy efforts addressing behavioural anomalies explicitly, are the exception. This has led to the continued energy efficiency gap – the difference between the cost-minimising level of energy efficiency and the level of energy efficiency actually realised.
In addition, so-called “Behaviour Changers” (those agencies or individuals tasked to change energy user behaviours via policies, programmes or pilots) often have a blind spot when it comes to tackling the most difficult audiences – like HTR energy users. Too often they literally disappear into what can only be called the “too-hard basket”. All up, this has led to continued increases in our energy consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions, with the associated consequences on runaway climate change, ecosystem breakdown, and massive societal inequity.
What defines a “hard-to-reach” energy user?
As there are many different, sometimes conflicting definitions of what constitutes a “hard-to-reach” energy user (see Rotmann et al, 2020), we have co-created this broad working definition as a starting point for our research:
“In this Task, a hard-to-reach energy user is any energy user from the residential and non-residential* sectors, who uses any type of energy or fuel, and who is typically either hard-to-reach physically, underserved**, or hard to engage or motivate in behaviour change, energy efficiency and demand response interventions that are intended to serve our mutual needs***.”
Glossary of terms
* Non-residential sector focuses primarily on the commercial, but does not exclude examples from e.g. the industrial or agricultural sectors
** Underserved energy users are people or populations:
*** Our mutual needs pertains to not just fulfilling e.g. regulatory requirements or government policy directives, but also increasing demand for energy services (e.g. cooling, heating) and the (often only implied) needs of the HTR audience. The audience needs (e.g. equitable access to affordable energy, healthy homes) may sometimes conflict with government or utility needs (e.g. reducing energy use, competition for customers).
What is our shared goal for this Task?
“Our shared goal is to identify, define, and prioritise HTR audiences*; and design, measure and share effective strategies to engage** those audiences to achieve energy, demand response and climate targets*** while meeting access, equity, and energy service**** needs.”
Glossary of terms
* HTR Audience refers mostly to energy users in the residential and non-residential (see HTR definition above) but also includes HTR “Behaviour Changers” and stakeholders.
** Engage audiences includes any strategies intended to either encourage participation in energy programmes or shift energy usage behaviours, such as education, incentives, subsidies, nudging, mass marketing campaigns, peer-to-peer or face-to-face communications etc.
*** Energy, demand response and climate targets can mean energy-savings goals and/or greenhouse gas reduction targets that are set either locally (e.g. by the municipality or a community), statewide or regionally (e.g. by utility regulators), nationally (e.g. by EPA or DOE or an energy ministry), or internationally (e.g. the Paris Accord or EU Directives).
**** Access includes the provision of affordable, secure energy for all. Equity here means expanding all programmes and policies to ensure the inclusion and facilitate the participation of individuals in vulnerable or underserved communities, such as minorities, women, indigenous and low-income people, and formerly incarcerated persons. Energy service refers to the delivered benefits of useful energy consumption, such as heating, refrigeration, lighting, cooking, transportation, etc., as opposed to the simple provision of units of energy as such. Therefore, energy services refer to those functions performed using energy which are means to obtain or facilitate desired end services or states.
The predecessor of this work called Task 24: Behaviour Change in DSM – Phase I and Phase II showed, over an 8-year research period, how to successfully apply behaviour change interventions both in theory and practice (for a summary Toolbox for Behaviour Changers, see Rotmann, 2018). It was a global research collaboration of more than 400 behaviour change experts from 20+ countries.
Rather than picking a specific disciplinary approach or model of understanding behaviour, the Task showed that facilitating multi-stakeholder collaboration and visualising the socio-ecology of a given energy system could lead to highly successful behavioural interventions (e.g. Cowan et al, 2018). What this Task also showed, however, is that most interventions focused on generic audiences, like “households”. They often failed in defining detailed audience profiles based on their relevant contexts, barriers and needs. In addition, there was limited identification which specific behaviours could and should actually best changed, by whom, in what way, and how to measure impact and successful outcomes for end users and a variety of stakeholders.
This international research collaboration focuses on a very distinctive audience segment, the hard-to-reach (HTR) energy users, and how to better motivate and engage them in energy efficiency and demand-side interventions geared at changing specific energy-using behaviours. It is important to recognise that the best outcome for these audiences is often not energy-saving per se, but an improvement in health and wellbeing.
This research collaboration provides country participants with the opportunity to learn and share successful approaches how to identify and better engage HTR energy users. The research facilitates the development of robust social science-based process for designing policies, pilots and programmes (e.g. national, municipal, utility- and community-driven) that are better tailored to specific HTR audiences and specific behaviours.
The main objective of this research is to undertake wide-ranging empirical research and field research pilots on HTR energy users to allow Behaviour Changers (from government, industry, research, the service and the third sectors) to:
- Partake in a global research collaboration under the umbrella of the Users TCP by the International Energy Agency (Subtask 0); Task Workplan 2019, Task kick-off eceee Summer Study June 2019
- Engage in, and have access to, a broad international HTR expert network in which to disseminate work on HTR energy users widely (Subtask 1);
- Define HTR energy users in the residential and non-residential sectors by undertaking a landscape analysis (literature review) and stakeholder assessment (survey and in-depth interviews of HTR experts), collect & analyse case studies highlighting past and current work to better engage this audience, and help countries prioritise which audience segments to focus on (Subtask 2);
- Develop a cross-country case study comparison with participating and interested countries that attempts to analyse the proportion of energy users (effect size) that would fall under the hard-to-reach category and guidelines on how to engage them better (Subtask 2a);
- Use and test the tools highlighted in the Task 24 Toolbox for Behaviour Changers, including the ABCDE Building Blocks of Behaviour Change to discover, define, design and deploy better interventions geared at HTR energy users (Subtask 3);
- Identify and undertake voluntary field research pilots to test these theoretical learnings in practice (Subtask 4).
Motivation and Research Questions
The motivation for this new work comes from five directions:
1) To build on IEA DSM Task 24 behaviour change expertise and global expert network.
Research Question: How can the Toolbox for Behaviour Changers developed by Task 24 be used to support better interventions targeted at HTR energy users?
Answer: Yes, clearly. We have since further developed and field-tested the Building Blocks of Behaviour Change Framework (Karlin et al, 2021) and Behaviour Changer Framework 2.0 (Rotmann & Weber, forthcoming).
2) To explore the many differing definitions of what constitutes a “Hard-to-Reach” (and thus, motivate and engage) energy user in the residential and non-residential sectors and to assess different approaches and barriers when targeting these users.
Research Questions: Who are main HTR energy users in each participating country? How can they be defined and described? How materially are these HTR segments underserved?
Answer: We have identified, described and characterised, in-depth, HTR energy users from expert interviews and surveys (Ashby et al, 2020a&b), and from over 1000 publications, in a literature review (Rotmann et al, 2020). They are all materially underserved, but to varying extent. For example, low-income households are relatively easy to identify and target with programmes, policies and interventions. The more compounding and intersecting vulnerabilities they endure, the harder-to-reach they become (see diagram below). Renters and landlords (residential and commercial) are extremely HTR, and for very different reasons. Socially-marginalised/stigmatised/criminalised groups and SMEs are very likely the hardest-to-reach, and most underserved energy users, especially on the extremely-diverse small business end (70% of commercial businesses).
3) To test the hypothesis that this underserved user group may entail a large number of energy users (>30%) which also means there is a large potential for energy efficiency and conservation improvements.
Research Questions: Based on country statistics and expert opinions, what is the approximate, estimated size of the HTR user group in each participating country? Based on implemented pilots and case studies in each participating country, what is the potential effectiveness (or effect size) that one can expect from behavioural-oriented policy or programme intervention on this group?
Answer: Based on all of our research (but especially our HTR literature review; Rotmann et al, 2020), we believe that this group is extremely large and entails at least 2/3 of all energy users. These estimated numbers are increasing rapidly with the global energy (poverty) crisis. For example, in the UK there are estimates that up to 2/3 of households will fall into energy hardship by the end of this year!
4) This Task aims at collecting insights into best practice and shared learnings about what type of interventions have the greatest potential to motivate and engage the HTR, and which were less successful (and why).
Research Questions: What type of policy and behaviour change programmes have the potential to motivate and engage HTR users to use energy more effectively and efficiently? What is the level of public acceptability of such policy interventions in each participating country? What are the ethical challenges associated with them?
Answer: Our Year 2 Case Study Analyses and the international research overview into energy hardship recently prepared for Aotearoa’s Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (Rotmann, 2022) delve deeply into best practice interventions and their challenges. Clearly the most important strategy is to engage trusted Middle Actors (especially from the community or frontline services) to help identify, recruit and engage vulnerable HTR energy users (in the residential sector). However, it needs to be acknowledged that these Middle Actors are also extremely hard-to-reach, and that building these trusted relationships and networks takes time, and involves a lot of humility, listening and empathy rather than approaching them with fixed ideas or top-down engagement strategies and interventions that aren’t fit-for-purpose.
5) To explore opportunities to develop and test field research pilots for HTR energy users based on robust social science process.
Research Question: Can we use field research pilots to prove that a robust, internationally-validated, standardised process for behavioural interventions on the HTR is a better approach than the current, scatter-shot one?
Answer: Yes. We have several field research pilots underway, in Aotearoa New Zealand and Canada, and our research process has been used highly-successfully to date (e.g. Rotmann & Karlin, 2021; Karlin et al, 2022; Mundaca et al, forthcoming).
Multi-stakeholder and trans-disciplinary collaborations
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Technology Collaboration Programmes (TCPs) highlight, in their name, the importance of research and technology collaborations. Over 6000 scientists partake in the 38 TCPs. We have utilised and built on these networks (Subtask 1) and collaboration tools developed by Task 24 in this Task. We also have co-created and -tested an internationally-validated, standardised research process (see Subtask 3).
Task aims and research process
The primary aim of the Task is to enable participating countries to improve policy, industry, research and community outcomes focusing on hard-to-reach energy users, by applying insights and lessons learned from collaboration with other countries and global experts.
Our Project Partner See Change Institute (SCI) has developed a process to identify and test programme variables as the “ABCDE building blocks of behaviour change”. This process is aimed at helping Behaviour Changers better design, implement, and evaluate such programmes. This process, which we will utilise for case study analyses and in any field pilots to be developed as part of the Task, contains the following elements:
Diagram of the “Building Blocks of Behaviour Change” Research Process
To summarise our research process (see diagram above): Each phase includes both qualitative and quantitative research to marry inductive and deductive strategies of learning.
First, the overarching, shared programme or policy goals are discovered in the context of the existing landscape of work and the mandates of key stakeholders. Second, the target audience and behaviours are defined through mixed-methods customer research and modelling. Then, the interventions can be designed to address specific audience and behavioural needs and key content and delivery variables can be “pretotyped” via experimental and usability testing. Finally, once the intervention has been optimised based on empirical data, it can be deployed and evaluated in a pilot study, using both process and impact evaluation to determine not only whether it worked but how it can be continuously improved over time.
Storytelling will continue to be our overarching language and method of ‘translation’ between different countries, sectors, and disciplinary jargons. We will continue to explore the power of storytelling in its many forms, as outlined in our 2015 eceee summer study paper and our highly-cited Special Issue in Energy Research and Social Sciences called ‘Storytelling and narratives in energy and climate change research’ (see Rotmann, 2017). Task 24 has also published an ‘A-Z of storytelling’ report (Rotmann, 2018).
Benefits for Participants
Benefits for Behaviour Changers and co-funders to join this Task
Participants in this Task gain:
Opportunities for Global Networking and Co-creation
- Participating countries only get to shape the direction and focus of this global research collaboration.
- They become part of, and gain access to the combined HTR expert platform encompassing 100s of experts from different countries, research disciplines and sectors (including national and local government, utilities, community groups, academia, health, commercial, industrial, transport, education etc.).
- They gain access to, and participate in cross-country case study comparisons on their chosen priority research areas via the highly-reputable IEA Technology Collaboration Programme (TCP) network.
- They gain access to, and participate in the User-Centred Energy Systems Academy including ability to disseminate their case studies and field pilots in promoted webinars, peer-reviewed publications and technical reports.
- It helps them to reduce duplication of efforts by learning from success stories on engaging the HTR in other sectors or jurisdictions.
Our overall objective is to help participating countries move from individually-focused, programme-level approaches to multi-stakeholder collaborations aimed at the common, shared goal of achieving societal and energy systems transformations that lead to increased social, environmental and economic benefits and reduced energy injustice.
Access to Cutting-Edge Tools and Resources
- Behaviour Changers learn from and share global best practice in facilitating multi-stakeholder collaboration and co-creation on how to better reach the hard-to-reach.
- They get access to, and expert support for using the internationally-validated, standardised, robust research process developed and tested in this Task.
- They get expert facilitation and backbone support to design, implement and evaluate their own field research pilots.
Non-state actors who are in active development of a behaviour change programme or intervention focusing on the hard-to-reach were invited to join the project as “implementation” partners. These Behaviour Changers work closely with the Task researchers on the field pilots in Subtask 4.
HTR Definition, Literature and Stakeholder Review on Audience Characterisation
Ambrose A., Baker W., Batty E. and A McNair Hawkins (2019). “I have a panic attack when I pick up the phone”: experiences of energy advice amongst ‘hard to reach’ energy users. People, Place and Policy, Early View, 1-7.
Ambrose A., Baker W., Batty E. and A McNair Hawkins (2019). Reaching the ‘Hardest to Reach’ with energy advice: final report. Sheffield Hallam University: Sheffield.
Ashby, K., Smith, J., Rotmann, S., Mundaca, L. and A. Ambrose (2020a). HTR Characterisation. HTR Task Users TCP by IEA: Wellington. https://doi.org/10.47568/3XR102
Ashby, K., Rotmann, S., Smith, J., Mundaca, L., Reyes, J., Ambrose, A., Borelli, S. and M. Talwar (2020b). Who are Hard-to-Reach energy users? Segments, barriers and approaches to engage them. ACEEE Summer Study for Energy Efficiency in Buildings. Proceedings: Monterey. https://doi.org/10.47568/3CP103
BEHAVE 2021 Conference proceedings (all extended abstracts below can be found in there):
Ashby, K., Rotmann, S. and L. Mundaca (2021). A collaborative international approach to characterising hard-to-reach energy users. BEHAVE 2021 Conference Proceedings.
Chester, M., Karlin, B. and S. Rotmann (2021). A gap analysis of the literature on energy-saving behaviours in the commercial sector. BEHAVE 2021 Conference Proceedings.
Rotmann, S., Ambrose, A., O’Sullivan, K., Karlin, B., Forster, H., and L. Mundaca (2021). To what extent has COVID-19 impacted hard-to-reach energy users? BEHAVE 2021 Conference Proceedings.
Rotmann, S., Mundaca, L., Ambrose, A., O’Sullivan, K. and K.V. Ashby (2021). An in-depth review of the literature on hard-to-reach energy users. BEHAVE 2021 Conference Proceedings.
eceee Summer Study 2021:
Rotmann, S., Ambrose, A., Chambers, J., Mundaca, L., O’Sullivan, K., Viggers, H., Helen Clark, I., Karlin, B. and H. Forster (2021). To what extent has COVID-19 impacted hard-to-reach energy users? eceee Summer Study online proceedings.
Rotmann, S., Mundaca, L., Castaño-Rosa, R., O’Sullivan, K., Ambrose, A., Marchand, R., Chester, M., Karlin, B., K. Ashby, Butler, D., and J. Chambers (2020). Hard-to-Reach Energy Users: A Literature Review. Prepared for User-Centred Energy Systems TCP – HTR Task. Published by SEA – Sustainable Energy Advice Ltd: Wellington. 252pp. ISBN: 978-0-473-64983-8
E-book version available for free at mebooks (registration required) or for $0.99 on Amazon
- Ashby, K., Rotmann, S., Mundaca, L., O’Sullivan, K. and A. Ambrose (2021). Summary of HTR Task Literature Review. User-Centred Energy Systems TCP – HTR Task by Users TCP by IEA: Wellington.
Subtask 2 – Case Study Analyses and Cross-Country Case Study Comparison
- Rotmann, S., Mundaca, L., Ashby, K., O’Sullivan, K., Karlin, B. and H. Forster (2021). Subtask 2: Case Study Analysis Methodology Template for National and Contributing Experts. HTR Task Users TCP: Wellington. https://doi.org/10.47568/3OR111
- Rotmann, S. (2021). Case Study Analysis – Aotearoa New Zealand. HTR Task Users TCP: Wellington. 70pp. https://doi.org/10.47568/3XR112
- Mundaca, L. (2021). Case Study Analysis – Sweden. HTR Task Users TCP: Lund. 34pp. https://doi.org/10.47568/3XR116
- Ashby, K. (2021). Case Study Analysis – U.S. and Canada. HTR Task Users TCP: Boston. 41pp. https://doi.org/10.47568/3XR118
- Butler, D. (2021). Case Study Analysis – United Kingdom. HTR Task Users TCP: London. 79pp. https://doi.org/10.47568/3XR117
- Sequeira, M.M., Gouveia, J.P. and P. Palma (2021). Case Study Analysis – Portugal. HTR Task Users TCP: Lisbon. 38pp. https://doi.org/10.47568/3XR115
- Feenstra, M. (2021). Case Study Analysis – the Netherlands. HTR Task Users TCP: Delft. 19pp. https://doi.org/10.47568/3XR114
- Realini, A., Maggiore S. and Varvesi, M. (2021). Case Study Analysis – Italy. HTR Task Users TCP: Milan. 18pp. https://doi.org/10.47568/3XR113
- Feenstra M., Middlemiss L., Hesselman M., Straver K., S. Tirado Herrero (2021). Humanising the Energy Transition: Towards a National Policy on Energy Poverty in the Netherlands. Frontiers in Sustainable Cities 3: 31. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/frsc.2021.645624
Field Research Pilots
Rotmann, S. and B. Karlin (2020). Training commercial energy users in behavior change: A case study. ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings: Monterey. https://doi.org/10.47568/3CP104
Uplight (2021). Bridging the Gap: Driving Energy Customer Action. Uplight Research Series: 21pp.
Rotmann, S., Cowan, K. and H. Forster (2021). Uplight Customer Engagement Research: Qualitative Insights from Focus Groups On Energy Management Activities in the MUSH Sector. Client Report, See Change Institute: 109pp.
Uplight (2021). Getting to Yes with Municipalities, Universities, Schools and Hospitals. Research into the MUSH Sector (partnered with See Change Institute). Boulder, Colorado: 26pp.
Rotmann, S., Hibbert, C., Ward, D. and B. Karlin (2022). Uplight SMB Research: How to better engage SMB customers with rate offering and tools. Client Report, See Change Institute: 29pp.
Uplight (2022). Six Reasons Why Most SMBs Don’t Switch Rates. Research into the SMB Sector (partnered with See Change Institute). Boulder, Colorado: 21pp.
Rotmann, S. & V. Cowan (2022). Piloting Home Energy Assessment Toolkit (HEAT Kits) to empower hard-to-reach energy users. eceee Summer Study Proceedings: Hyéres.
Rotmann, S. (2022). EnergyMate Phase 3 Evaluation. Client Report for Energy Retailers Association New Zealand (ERANZ). SEA – Sustainable Energy Advice Ltd, Wellington: 42pp.
Rotmann, S. & Cheetham, E. (2022). Hidden Hardship Hui Report. Client Report for Mercury and Genesis Energy. SEA – Sustainable Energy Advice Ltd, Wellington: 23pp.
Rotmann, S. (2022). Memo to Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE) summarising international research on energy hardship programmes. SEA – Sustainable Energy Advice Ltd, Wellington: 6pp.
This research includes an online database of 68 energy hardship programmes and interventions in 4 regions (North America, EU, UK and Australia).