Saving energy: two successful social experiments

What is the most effective, most immediate way to increase our energy availability? It is not by installing a nuclear power plant. Actually, it is not even by adding extra energy to the grid; we already have the energy! I’m talking about the energy we waste daily, like when we leave home for few hours but keep the A/C or the lights on. There’s no big news about it.

What is big news, is how much of energy is actually wasted on our daily lives. Some estimates for the USA place this number on more than 50%! This number considers all factors, i.e. includes households and industry, using inefficient electrical devices, etc. However, when taking out these factors, and just concentrating on the purely avoidable electricity waste (of the likes of leaving the lights or the A/C on when there is nobody home), this number still hovers around 20%. That is a full 1/5th of our daily energy use that is wasted!

And this 20% of energy waste is completely avoidable.

So how to avoid this waste? Below I show two successful experiments, which have tackled the problem from a social angle, and then discuss how we can implement this concept.

Your neighbor knows how much you are wasting!

In the TED Talk below, Alex Laskey (founder of Opower, a company which helps utilities reduce energy consumption) explains how his company achieves to have consumers not waste energy: through behavioral science. Or, in other words: “I don’t want to lose face before my neighbors”.

What is remarkable about his explanation, is the description of human nature: people have been asked to save energy based on several grounds, namely:

  • we are harming the planet
  • we will save money
  • it makes a good social cause

and all these reasons have completely failed, they have not made people change their behavior. However, the following factor:

  • we will tell your neighbor how much energy you are consuming (wasting)

did actually work out! The “losing face” factor makes people improve their behavior, and this is in the United States, not even in Asia, where “face” is arguably the most important asset for an individual.

The Tidy Street Project

A group of students from Brighton, England, set-up to raise awareness about the electrical energy usage among the local population, by measuring the daily electrical use of households of Tidy Street, and painting this data as an info-graphic right there on the pavement, for all neighbors and passersby to look at. The data compared the daily energy use among neighbors, and with other locations from the UK.

As a result, local residents began to get interested in why different houses with similar needs have dissimilar energy consumption, ultimately leading to an average 15% energy reduction at the end of the project.

Image taken from CollabCubed: The Tidy Street Project:


“Naming and Shaming”: Put it into practice!

The other day I saw a notice sticked inside the elevator of a friend’s condo, posted by the condo’s administration (names and figures invented by me):

As a consequence of lack of funds, the administration will be forced to cut down on the services provided. We have contacted every resident who owes money, however, after innumerable attempts, we have been unable to collect payment from any of them. So we have no option but to publish their names, and hope they will pay so we can keep on delivering our services:

  • Mr Zhu, from 15th floor apt 3 owes 10.000 RM
  • Mr Hassan, from 12th floor apt 7 owes 15.000 RM
  • And the winner is: Ms Shiva from 4th floor apt 8 owes 20.000 RM!


I do not know if the administration has been successful, or if Ms Shiva is still owing that huge amount of money. But if anything can be effective form them to pay back, even if it’s a last resort, is to show everyone that they owe money. The social pressure factor might make them change their mind.

Isn’t this the same strategy as with the behavioral science examples above? So then, we can do the same to lower our energy bills! Below, some ideas that we can put into practice:

  • Involve your condo’s administration into publishing the electric usage figures of all residents, for everyone to see. It’s not about shaming anyone, but as a piece of information that many can find helpful, and show us why/how we are using so much energy.
  • Ask your child’s school to publish this data, showing how much energy the schools uses, and compared to other schools (possibly in the same area). This will in turn send the right message to the kids, and give them awareness about energy consumption.

This way, just through knowing about our neighbors’ energy use, we can save quite a lot of energy!

Bonus: Guide to energy saving by Suruhanjaya Tenaga (Energy Commission)

The Energy Commission working together with KeTTHA has created a nice guide with plenty of advice on how to save energy. Enjoy it!

Download (PDF, 1.95MB)

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