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2015-04-07 | News

Water, electricity and ‘nudging’ households to change behaviour: a South African study

What is the best way to nudge people towards using water and electricity more efficiently? This question is central to a study which kicks off this year in two municipalities in South Africa, with the idea of rolling the models out nationally in the long term.

Dr Kerri Brick and Professor Martine Visser, research fellows at the Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at the University of Cape Town, are part of a South African-Norwegian research initiative which will test the effectiveness of different ways in which municipalities can try encourage behaviour change in households.

‘Research shows that providing people with feedback around their water and electricity use can be an effective way to mobilise behaviour change and that utilities need not be limited to pricing as a way of impacting on demand,’ Brick explains.

Visser agrees, indicating that early studies, mostly conducted in developed countries but recently also in South Africa, have shown that people are motivated by social norms within their communities, and that they care about their own relative consumption compared to the norm. Residential consumers are more likely to reduce their water and electricity use when their utility bills show, for instance, that their own consumption is above or below that of average household in their neighbourhood.

‘Simply by drawing people’s attention to their own consumption by using more visual graphics, for instance, helps to grab a person’s attention better, and therefore makes it more likely that people will alter their behaviour,’ says Visser.

These sorts of interventions can be inexpensive, scalable and can be rolled out over a short time period. An added benefit is that consumers don’t see them as a form of punishment, which is how taxes and tariffs are often perceived.

Interventions of this kind can help consumers save money by getting them to use water and electricity more efficiently, can shift consumption from peak to off-peak times thereby saving municipalities money and reducing pressure on the grid, and can also reduce a city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The research team will focus on Cape Town as the site where they will look at how this sort of ‘feedback’ campaign can encourage residential users to be more conservative with water use. The target municipality for the electricity reduction campaign is still being finalised.

Effective behaviour change campaigns like this can be rolled out amongst municipalities across the country, helping utilities managers address the growing demand for power and water from households. These measures are key, now, amidst recurring load shedding by national electricity utility ESKOM, and also since the Department of Water Affairs estimates that the residential share of national water use is expected to rise between 30% and 35% by 2055. Both energy and water conservation are also central to the national climate change and water management policies.

Brick indicated that a focus group study has already shown that many people only focus on the cost of water and electricity when they read their utility bills, but don’t pay attention to consumption. This study also showed that lower income groups are motivated by mainly financial concerns, whereas higher income users are concerned about both the environmental and cost implications of their utilities use.

‘We are still at a logistical and operational phase of the study. We are currently engaging with local government representatives in various municipalities,’ added Brick.

Visser is heading up the study with Dr Jorge Garcia-Lopez from the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) in Norway. They are supported by EPRU research fellow Dr Kerri Brick, doctoral student Samantha De Martino from Sussex University, along with Dr Thinus Booysen and a team of engineers from Stellenbosch University.

The team is busy finalising the research design. This involves a randomised controlled trial with a large sample of households in the target municipalities. Visser says the study will be rolled out this year, and results will be disseminated to the local municipalities involved in the study. They also plan to publish a series of academic articles.

By Leonie Joubert