Energy saving in halls of residence

In 2009-2010, NUS received funding from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to carry out an action-based research project which aimed to examine the effectiveness of a range of interventions for encouraging energy-efficient behaviour in halls of residences.  To do this, we delivered five interventions at five different universities:

  • At Durham University we ran an information campaign
  • At the University of Leeds, we delivered peer-to-peer encouragement
  • UCLan were involved in raising awareness of the energy efficiency of the built environment on campus
  • Students at the University of Bradford were given comparisons with others or with past behaviours 
  • And at the University of the West of England (UWE) students were provided with financial incentives.

Each of the interventions were based on different academic findings and theories. Two additional case studies were included in the project to further explore behaviour change: face-to-face training in energy efficiency behaviours; and a second year study on habit persistence, which involved an email information campaign at Durham University.

The key recommendations drawn from the research findings include:

  • Use multiple interventions in multiple contexts: A combination of interventions is likely to work best to influence students’ energy behaviour due to the range of motivations and barriers to behaviour change. Given the important influence of parental insistence and formal education, peer influence, perceived control, altruism, and financial motivations, effective interventions are likely to include informational, social, normative, and financial measures targeted at multiple time points and in multiple contexts (e.g., school, home, halls of residence, private accommodation, university buildings, etc.)
  • Target interventions to the right moment of change: Second year at university may be a more significant window of opportunity to engage students in energy saving, since this is where the external (i.e., financial) incentives for behaviour change are greater. Designing suitable interventions needs to involve relevant delivery agents, such as landlords and letting agents. Although second year at university may be a more significant window of opportunity, interventions in the first year may act as useful lessons or practice to be drawn on in the second year (e.g., as at UWE, Leeds)
  • Design and locate information appropriately: Information should be located where behaviour is carried out (e.g., by light switches, kettles); and given competing informational demands, emails tend to be ignored as will posters in the wrong place or which are not eye-catching. Since there are different preferences for informational content (images, statistics, etc.) and how to receive energy information, a mix of designs and formats may be most effective at engaging large numbers of students.
  • Choose and train peer representatives carefully so that they engage well with their fellow students: Peers should be well briefed, enthusiastic and be able to communicate well in order to be effective.
  • Provide information early and dispel misperceptions: Since a common barrier to energy saving is perceived lack of control, this suggests a need for educational/or infrastructural interventions. Where students are unaware of energy saving behaviours that they can carry out in their halls of residence, there needs to be more focus on educating students about this when they start university
  • Target intrinsic and extrinsic values: Competitive interventions often motivate students but they may backfire if measures to avoid cheating are not implemented; these might include better security between floors. However, any scheme which encourages energy saving for purely financial or material reward reasons risks this kind of behaviour as a side-effect. A better approach is likely to be to motivate change for both environmental and financial reasons.
  • Target ‘meaningful’ social groups: Norm-based messaging (i.e., comparative or competitive) only works under certain conditions, and may even lead to an increase in energy use (e.g., those who consume less than the comparison group). This approach requires target individuals to feel part of and identify with the group (e.g., flat rather than whole floor) they are being implicitly linked to.
  • Structure incentives appropriately: Utilise variable rather than fixed financial incentives (i.e., responding to amount of energy used – a more accurate signal) and at an appropriate level. Non-financial incentives (e.g., cinema tickets) may work better in some cases than financial ones.

You can read the full research report here.

This research informed the development of Student Switch Off, NUS' energy-saving campaign for students in halls of residence.  To find out more about Student Switch Off, click here.