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Harnessing community power for greenhouse reductions

1 Esther Abram and 2 Michelle Bennett,

1 Moreland Energy Foundation Ltd, 2Darebin City Council

Successful energy action programs cannot be built on assumptions about what motivates actions. We don’t make assumptions about which technical features will save energy in homes. We use recommendations based on research by technical energy specialists. Likewise, before choosing how to motivate action, we need recommendations based on research by social scientists.

——Michelle Shipworth, ‘Motivating Home Energy Action
— A Handbook of What Works’, April 2000
for the Australian Greenhouse Office

The Moreland Energy Foundation Ltd was established by Moreland City Council in Melbourne’s inner north to reduce community greenhouse gas emissions. The combination of our unique position as an organisation focussed on reducing local greenhouse emissions, and the strong links we are developing with the community, positions us well to develop and deliver innovative and exciting energy reduction programs.

Prior to commencing program development we conducted a social research project aimed to identify attitudes and behaviour on greenhouse and energy usage. The research collected data from householders and business separately, with 400 households and 200 businesses randomly selected and surveyed by telephone. Controls were in place to ensure the sample represented the whole municipality both geographically and ethnicity wise.

Not only will the findings provide us with data to reflect upon in program design, they also provide benchmark data which we will use to monitor our success over time.

Research findings

One of our key interests was to discover the level of environmental concern in our municipality and, most importantly, people’s knowledge of global warming. We discovered that the majority of householders have a high level of concern about environmental issues, with an average of 7.53 when ranked on a scale from 1–10. Concern of business was slightly lower with an average rating of 6.65. However for business concern did not necessarily lead to action, with just under half saying environment was important in terms of business decision making and over a third saying it was low.

Virtually all surveyed were aware of global warming, with 94% of households and 96% of business saying yes to this question. 74.4% of residents could think of at least one action to reduce the production of greenhouse gases, citing actions such as reducing electricity use and using public transport

However, almost half of businesses could not think of any actions they could take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When asked whether they were aware that reducing the amount of energy used by business would reduce the level of greenhouse gas production, 82% answered in the affirmative. The difference in results from these two similar questions shows that this knowledge is not top of mind.

Householders said they were prepared to take action to reduce greenhouse with 87.9% agreeing that they would try to follow ideas about reducing energy use if they heard them. 85% agreed that ‘cutting down the amount of energy I use will make a difference’ indicating that people felt their actions would have an impact.

77.4% said that they had tried to reduce their energy consumption over the last 12 months, particularly women (82.7%) and people aged 18–34 years (82.3%)

Business also demonstrated willingness to take action, with 93.5% agreeing that if they heard some ideas about reducing energy usage they would follow them and 90% agreeing that reducing energy usage would save their business money.

68.2% of respondents said that they would be quite likely or very likely to try to reduce the amount of energy they use if they received more information about it

Encouragingly, 34.8% said that there is nothing which makes it difficult for them to reduce the amount of energy they use. In terms of barriers to reducing energy, the main ones cited were the needs of children, wanting to manage the temperature of their home (heating and cooling), habit and convenience.

Interpreting and using research — things to bear in mind

The research has led us to conclude that there are high levels of knowledge about global warming and a reasonable understanding that energy usage leads to global warming. There is also considerable good will, demonstrated by the numbers of people who say they try to reduce their energy usage and those who say there is nothing difficult for them to reduce the amount of energy they use.

However, what is also clear is that energy use is not ‘top of mind’ for most people. This is supported by anecdotal evidence from other energy practitioners — with cheap electricity, the convenience and positive benefits associated with its use, most people don’t focus on energy. There is not a clear link between global warming, energy usage and personal behaviour in their minds, shaping their relationship with energy.

While the social research has provided excellent material for us to integrate into our program design and delivery, the complexity of human beings and their motivations means that we have to be careful about how we view the results. A good example of this is the tendency of respondents to claim that more information is likely to make them try to reduce their energy usage (68.2% of householders and 71.3% of business). There is little evidence that more information leads to behaviour change, as knowledge is only one link in a chain of complex requirements and relationships that shape behaviour.

Research follow up

The challenge now is to use the research to help shape programs, while taking into account some of the contradictions between what people might say and what they will actually do.

It seems sensible to try and make energy more front of mind for people. This is facilitated in part by Full Retail Contestability, which is forcing people to think about who they want to buy their electricity from for the first time. Our participation in Community Power (see below) is motivated by our desire to utilise the opportunity presented to engage with people, as well as to provide an excellent energy product for the community.

The results have also highlighted where potential to work with particular groups is higher or lower. For instance, middle and high income respondents tended to be more motivated by environmental considerations and quite willing to reduce their energy usage. They are also in a better position to pay for the changes that energy efficiency can require. Through running focus groups in future we can build upon these insights into different groups within the community.

We will also be using more community development oriented techniques, such as developing relationships with ethnic community groups to understand how their culture relates to energy. When we understand the different relationships people have with energy we will be much closer to knowing how to motivate them to adopt behaviour change.

There is also much to be learnt from doing, so all of our programs will be developed with learning in action in mind. For instance, providing energy audits to householders is a good way of alerting people to opportunities for saving energy. It is also a good way to understand how a broad range of people use energy and to experiment with introducing new services and ideas aimed to impact upon their energy use.

The Community Power Project

The Community Power project is an innovative example of a new service — an electricity buying group — which aims to impact on energy use within the community.

Community Power is a partnership project involving Darebin City Council, Port Phillip City Council and the Moreland Energy Foundation. The objectives of the buying group are reduced greenhouse gas emissions, cheaper electricity prices for group members and customer protection through appropriate contract and service conditions. Residents, community organisations, businesses and industry will be eligible to ‘join’ the purchasing group and buy electricity via a ‘Community Power’ contract from a pre-selected electricity retailer.

The idea of an electricity buying group was originally raised with Darebin City Council by a local community group, the Westgarth Action Group. The concept was proposed in May 2001 in response to the introduction of Full Retail Contestability of electricity that was scheduled for introduction in Victoria in January 2002. Electricity Purchasing Groups have been established overseas in response to competitive electricity markets.

Darebin City Council recognised the positive potential of the idea — particularly in reducing greenhouse emissions via the incorporation of a component of Green Power1. In August 2001 Darebin Council commissioned a telephone survey of 300 Darebin households to assess community interest in the project prior to proceeding.

The survey results showed strong support for Council’s involvement in the project and strong interest in joining the group. 97% of respondents believed that Darebin City Council should pursue an Electricity Buying Group. Given the stated objectives, the intent translation2 for involvement in the group was estimated at 51%. Of the reasons why residents indicated they would join the group 35% indicated environmental benefits and 31% indicated cost benefits. Interest in Green Power was high at 79%.

Following this strong show of support Darebin Council resolved to proceed with the project and was joined by Port Phillip City Council and the Moreland Energy Foundation — whose involvement is also supported by Moreland City Council. Community representatives continue to have input into the project via an advisory committee.

The administrative model that Community Power is pursuing is one in which the Community Power partners will select a retailer on their ability to meet the Community Power objectives. There will be a contract between Community Power and the retailer that will oversee service delivery to consumers, information exchange and payment to Community Power for cost recovery and program delivery purposes. Residents, organisations and businesses will take up a ‘Community Power’ contract offer directly with the selected retailer. The relationship between consumers and Community Power will be one of quality control and service delivery of energy management programs. It is anticipated that this model should minimise administrative burden and risk to the Community Power partners but optimise the opportunity to monitor changes in electricity consumption and influence customers’ energy use behaviour. In addition there is the potential to influence electricity retailers and drive the development of innovative quality products.

Community Power is planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the first instance through the purchase of a component Green Power (and possibly some non-accredited green energy). The models we are pursuing in relation to the incorporation of Green Power are designed to encourage maximum take-up of the Community Power offer (and therefore Green Power) by both residents who are environmentally concerned and those who may place a higher priority on pricing and/or service delivery considerations. Notably, the purchase of Green Power allows for significant greenhouse reductions with no real behaviour change required from customers (other than signing the contract).

The first model would build in an optimal percentage of Green Power across the group purchase. The optimal amount would depend on savings achieved through the bulk purchase of ‘black power’ so that the overall energy price will still be marginally cheaper than what a household outside of the purchasing group would pay. This optimal percentage of Green Power would apply to all group customers with the option for individual customers to purchase a higher percentage of Green Power if desired.

The second model is similar to the first but would include a shandy mix of accredited Green Power and green energy sourced from Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA) — approved generation that may not be eligible for Green Power accreditation. SEDA — approved generation that is not eligible for Green Power is produced by generators commissioned prior to 1997. In order to drive investment in the renewable energy industry Green Power requires 80% of green energy to be sourced from post 1997 sources. While the aim of this requirement is positive, there is the possibility of pre 1997 accredited generators closing because without a significant share of the Green Power market they are no longer cost competitive.

The benefits of this ‘shandy’ model are larger greenhouse gas savings as non-accredited green energy is significantly cheaper than Green Power. The purchase could also be regarded as supporting older renewable energy generators that may be in danger of closing unless their product is differentiated in preference to ‘black’ electricity. The major drawback of this model is the challenge to communicate effectively the difference to residents and businesses between Green Power and green energy sourced from SEDA-approved generation. This is not an insignificant issue. Awareness and understanding of Green Power are still relatively low. The Final Report on Community Perceptions Regarding Green Power in Victoria, commissioned by Energy Efficiency Victoria (now the Sustainable Energy Authority Victoria) in 1999 indicated that while 25% of people were familiar with the name ‘Green Power’ less than half of them understood what it entails. These figures may well be lower in communities from diverse cultural backgrounds and lower socioeconomic standing. The partner organisations have been committed to supporting and facilitating the uptake of Green Power and the purchase of a mix of Green Power and green energy may confuse the issue.

Further greenhouse reductions are anticipated through energy management programs that Community Power will deliver to Community Power customers. These programs may include free or subsidised energy audits of homes or small businesses, interest free loans for approved energy efficiency works, education and awareness programs, rebates on energy efficient appliances, heating or hot water services and renewable energy technologies such as solar panels or solar hot water systems. The potential exists to develop partnership programs with the electricity retailer to pilot the roll-out of smart meters to households and to explore demand management strategies particularly with households and businesses that use air conditioning. Through data recovery from the electricity retailers Community Power will be in a position to monitor the success of various programs and specifically target households with large bills.

The Community Power project facilitates and synergises community involvement in energy use behaviour change in a number of key ways. Through triple bottom line objectives we not only create a quality product, but attract the purchasing group residents interested in the environmental benefits, those primarily interested in dollar savings and those that trust a product endorsed by their local council. By using a model that includes a percentage Green Power for everyone that takes up a Community Power contract we facilitate a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from minimal behaviour change. Once established we have a core group of people to work with to introduce education and energy management programs and to monitor the success of these programs and obtain energy consumption data from the retailer.

About the authors

Esther Abram is the CEO of the Moreland Energy Foundation Ltd. She has been in this position since July 2001, following 4.5 years as Director of Environment Victoria, the non government umbrella group for conservation interests. She is also the deputy Chair of the Environment Defenders Office of Victoria.

Michelle Bennett is the Environmental Planner at Darebin City Council. Michelle’s environmental work in local government has included the development of Darebin’s Environment Policy, Greenhouse Action Plan and Environmental Purchasing Code and the implementation of an environmental management strategy, energy management programs and currently the Community Power project.

1 Green Power is electricity sourced from accredited renewable energy sources and is greenhouse neutral

2 The intent translation formula ascribed by the market research company is 90% of the ‘definitely would’ answers; 40% of the ‘probably would’ and; 10% of the ‘neither would nor would not

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