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Rebecca Priestley: "Individualistic behaviour is increasing energy use"

Doing things with other people rather than on your own can save energy and reduce emissions.

Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

Individualistic behaviour is increasing energy use, says Kajsa Ellegård, a keynote speaker at an energy cultures conference in Wellington early this month.

“During recent decades, we have seen individuality growing,” says Ellegård, professor of technology and social change at Sweden’s Linköping University. “People are at home at different times, people eat at different times. If you cook individually rather than for the household, if you watch television in many different rooms and if everyone has their personal mobile phone and personal computer, electricity use increases. The more individualistic your activities, the more energy is used.”

We all know about energy-saving measures such as putting the lid on pots, switching appliances off at the wall and walking or cycling, but Ellegård is urging a more fundamental change. “If you do things together, you will use less energy than if you do things one by one. It’s very important that people act together to minimise or reduce energy use in our homes and when it comes to travel. And there are other things connected to this breakdown of the collective life … we have to be more conscious about being social and not being individualistic.”

Behaviour change – across households, businesses, councils and governments – is necessary for a transition to a low-carbon future, says the University of Otago’s Janet Stephenson, who chaired the Sustainable Energy Futures: Understanding Behaviour and Supporting Transition conference in Wellington this month.

Stephenson leads an energy cultures project that has developed a framework to study “the interactions between the physical objects in people’s lives, the norms or expectations they have about how they should behave, and the practices they carry out on a day-to-day basis”. It also examines external factors that individuals can’t control. A person living in a suburb without a bus service or bike lanes, for example, is unlikely to use public or active transport. In this sort of suburb, external forces are shaping the mobility culture towards heavy use of private cars. “So while people have particular energy cultures in their day-to-day lives, which they have some ability to change, we also need to take into account external forces – regulations, pricing regimes, infrastructure and so forth – that are impinging on their ability to make free choices.”

About a third of New Zealand’s energy is used in transport, a third in electricity and another third in industry. Some 80% of our electricity is already renewable. “So the big areas for opportunities are in transport and industrial heating.” A lot of coal use bypasses the electricity sector, with coal burnt to heat large buildings or for industrial processing such as drying milk powder. The Government is working to decarbonise transport – an Electric Vehicles Programme was launched in May – but the less obvious problem of industrial heat “has huge potential for reducing emissions”.

Back at the household level, recent technological advances are enabling a massive culture change. “When you get the prices of solar generation and battery storage low enough for ordinary households and businesses to generate and store electricity on their own roofs, then you have a complete revolution in energy systems. What we’re seeing now is consumers becoming pro-sumers – that is, they both produce and consume electricity, which is a big shift in energy culture. Internationally, some pro-sumers are coming together as collectives.”

This social, rather than individualistic, trend towards collectives “has enormous repercussions not only for global emissions but also for the nature of the electricity sector”, says Stephenson. “The electricity industry is facing a period of enormous disruption, with a lot of reshuffling of relationships of power.”

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