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Power to change

Rob Lawson Janet Stevenson banner

Tuesday 14 May 2013 2:13pm

The interdisciplinary Energy Cultures project is finding out why New Zealanders are slow to adopt energy-efficient technologies.

Energy extravagant, economic, efficient or easy? Most New Zealanders fit one of these four energy profiles, says Professor of Marketing Rob Lawson.

Lawson, along with Dr Janet Stephenson, is a principal investigator for Energy Cultures (EC), an interdisciplinary project designed to understand why there is a slow uptake of energy-efficient technologies in New Zealand households.

“An initial requirement of the project was to acquire an understanding of personal values in this problem – the logic being, you can design advertising and products with more suitable appeal,” says Lawson.

The research, which focuses on space and water heating, shows that personal values actually play very little part in people’s decisions.

“Current practices and variations in behaviour are much more conditioned by material aspects of the home – the house itself and appliances – and habits formed over long periods of time, such as line-drying laundry and switching off lights.”

About 90 per cent of people fit into one of four energy clusters, which are characterised by different styles of energy use and are strongly related to life stages.

For example, the “energy extravagant” are the wealthiest group and use whatever power they want; the “energy efficient” are often older and keen to do whatever they can to conserve power, especially by investing in their home; the “energy easy” usually choose the most convenient option; and the “energy economic” use a low amount of energy and tend to be younger people in uninsulated rental accommodation.

“The data here also show considerable evidence of ‘fuel poverty’,” says Lawson. “Nearly 20 per cent of New Zealanders are spending more than 10 per cent of their income on energy. This is a reflection of some of the problems families are having in New Zealand.”

As well as defining energy users, EC has identified distinct preferences for new technologies.

“One size doesn’t fit all here. Typically, people focus on either upfront cost, ongoing running costs, aesthetics, reliability, or being less reliant on power companies – partially off the grid.”

As most people were found to be reliant on their social networks, family and friends for information and advice, the current and final stage of the project is to design and trial two alternative advice approaches – one based on home energy audits, the second based on community workshops and building social networks for people to turn to for advice.

The project is supported by a wide range of potential end-users including EECA (Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority), the Community Energy Network, power companies and local authorities. Results from EC1 were presented recently in seminars in Wellington and Auckland to about 60 representatives from industry, central and local government.

EC’s success has led to its being awarded $3.6 million funding over the next four years from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for a second EC project, which will be primarily concerned with energy savings in the transport sector.

It will build on work from the first project and will once more be interdisciplinary, with key researchers from Economics (Dr Paul Thorsnes), Geography/CSAFE (Stephenson, Dr Rebecca Ford), Law (Professor Barry Barton, Waikato University), Management (Dr Sara Walton), Marketing (Lawson and Dr John Williams) and Physics (Emeritus Professor Gerry Carrington).

“It’s one of the things that’s made it distinctive for Otago and internationally,” says Lawson. “We’ve made an interdisciplinary group like this work.”