Behaviour, Energy and Climate Change Conference 2012

Sacramento, USA ,12-14 November 2012.

Event website.

By Kristy Revell, Agent and PhD student, University College London.

Highlights

  1. The ‘conservative thinking on energy and climate’ spotlight session – hearing about how Republicans in the USA view climate change
  2. Being introduced to the ‘Nest’ learning thermostat
  3. Meeting 800 other people with the same research interests as myself

Conference report

The Behaviour, Energy and Climate Change Conference is arguably the leading conference on ‘understanding individual and organizational behaviour and decision-making related to energy usage, greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, and sustainability’. This year the conference was held on 11-14 November in Sacramento, California and was convened by the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center (PEEC), Stanford University, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE), the University of California.

I was awarded a Precourt Student Fellowship to attend BECC and this covered almost all my conference fee but more than this, it also gave me the opportunity to meet lots of other young researchers working in my field, who were also Precourt fellows. Students were also invited to a separate lunch together on the first day of the conference, to get to know each other.

BECC was attended by approximately 800 academics, students, researchers, government officials and industry professionals and in my opinion, was an incredibly good conference. Of course I am biased. After all, almost every presentation at the conference was relevant to my research interests, but putting this bias aside it was a really well organised conference with many interesting speakers and thought-provoking sessions. The majority of attendees were from North America, with Europeans comprising the next largest group (representing about 8-10% of the total).

The conference had many parallel sessions running, up to six at one time. As a Precourt fellowship holder, I offered to help manage the logistics in some of the sessions – which limited my attendance at others. Topics covered in the sessions ranged from behavioural programme design and evaluation to gamification to encourage behaviour change. Other sessions focused on how to engage different communities and the role of social media in encouraging engagement. Finally policy was concentrated on in other sessions, along with innovative government initiatives.

One of the most interesting sessions that I attended was the spotlight session on ‘conservative thinking on energy and climate change’. In the first keynote, by Andy Hoffman, we were informed that approximately only 30% of Republicans believe in climate change. A statistic that I found shocking, given that in the UK 78% believe that the world’s climate is changing. This session, led by two Republicans and an academic with an interest in the topic really opened up the issue and demonstrated how climate change is a different discussion altogether in the US, compared to in Europe.

Finally, there was a lot of excitement in the last session that I attended entitled ‘feedback and thermostats’. Yoky Matsuoka from Nest Labs spoke in this session and presented ‘Nest’ – a new smart, electronic thermostat that can learn how you like your home to be heated and cooled, so that your heating system is as efficient as possible. Yoky spoke about how Nest learns when you are at home and knows if you are out. That Nest is designed to automatically switch to an ‘auto-away’ mode and an energy efficient temperature if no one is at home and how Nest can be controlled remotely, via your smartphone. Concerns were raised about the security of the data during questions, given that NEST knows if no one is home. This is a concern that is echoed by many in the UK with the roll out of smart meters, to every home in Great Britain between now and 2018. Yoky explained that complex algorithms are used to keep data secure. Despite this, I still believe that security would be a concern for many.

Overall, I felt that the excitement over Nest lay with its easy installation and maintenance. Nest even alleges to be as ‘easy as installing a light fixture’ and does not require programming, it works all by itself. It is intelligent and I think this is what makes the product so marketable, it promises to save people energy (and money) with little effort. People find programming their thermostats very difficult and NEST promises to remove this inconvenience. People want a product that is well designed and easy to use. They don’t want to know the ins and outs of the complex algorithms inside and walking away from this presentation I had the feeling that an intelligent product like Nest could prove very effective at reducing UK emissions, given that about half of residential CO2 ¬emissions are attributed to space heating . Until now, smart metering in the UK has focused largely on reducing consumption of electricity, yet in the UK consumption of electricity only represents 30% of residential emissionsiii (assuming gas is used for space and water heating). As a result, an intelligent thermostat like NEST could really give large savings in emissions, if it is effective.

Focus on software

Overall, the focus on software was limited to messaging, communications and gaming. In terms of messaging, there was a lot of discussion around how best to present complex data so that individuals can understand their own energy consumption, and in turn change their behaviour. There was also a lot of discussion about how to make behavioural changes easier by removing the complexities of energy consumption, for example, with the NEST intelligent thermostat, and making information more digestible. Social media and app technology was also a popular theme at the conference. There is a lot of interest in peer-to-peer comparisons of energy consumption, which has been shown in Opower trials to reduce consumption and in using feedback to reduce consumption. All of which can be easily communicated through apps which importantly encourage that initial engagement which is a necessary precursor to any behaviour change.

Follow ups

As focus on apps and social media may lead to climate, energy and behavioural researchers developing apps when they do not necessarily have the expertise. Intervening at an early stage and providing support to such researchers may mean that the SSI can instil good practices in these researchers, when developing their software.