Bill benchmarking must go beyond the average.
WHEN householders hand Lara Olsen their electricity bills, they watch her with nervous eyes.
“We’ve spent lots of time doing residential energy assessments,” says Ms Olsen, from Energy Return.
“Everyone asks, ‘Is this normal?’ Some look at you as though they’ve received a test result and they’re handing it to a doctor. They’ve paid it for the past 20 years, but never really had a chance to read it and understand what it means. Using as much electricity as we like is something we’ve taken for granted. But I think that’s changing.”
That change, however, won’t necessarily mean lower bills or less brown coal electricity.
If you visit the Energy Made Easy website (set up by the Australian Energy Regulator), you can type in your postcode, together with the number of people who live in your home, and find out the seasonal average electricity use in your area. Electricity retailers are now required to provide this information on our bills too.
It’s a nifty site, but Ms Olsen says just stating the mean isn’t good enough. Average household energy consumption is skewed: it’s pushed up by a relatively small number of very high consumers. And that means we’re creating a social norm that’s higher than the typical home, and much higher than an efficient one.
“At the moment, that benchmark is the average and the majority of people actually use less than the average,” she explains. “If this information keeps going out as it is, we will create the social license to consume more.”
Energy Return has been working with the Moreland Energy Foundation and several councils in Melbourne’s north (and the Horsham Rural City Council) to test a better target.
The councils are part of the Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action. From now until November, they’re piloting the “Go 5” campaign, which promotes a target of 5 kilowatt-hours per person per day (for households with gas).
“We’re helping people think about their individual energy use,” says Judy Bush, executive officer of the alliance. “But we’re also creating targets and benchmarks for this region. We’re saying: ‘This is what you and your neighbours could all be aiming for’.”
The councils are testing different tactics, from community workshops to publicity campaigns. Some will focus on “bill busting” and others on using new metering portals to understand how we use electricity.
In Nillumbik Shire, the “Watts your power 3099?” campaign will encourage householders to set their own energy targets, based on 5 kilowatt-hours per person per day, and offer prizes and incentives for those who take part.
For most people, it isn’t a stretch target. Ms Bush, for example, says she uses “dramatically less than that” in her two-person household.
But, just as with the Target 155 campaign on water, they picked a number that’s achievable, rather than intimidating.
Ms Bush says the pilot campaign will help her team analyse whether “Go 5” is the right goal, and also, whether or not people will continue to cut their bills, even if they reach the magic number.
The target is harder for a one-person household than for a family of five, so larger households could comfortably aim much lower. “The more people you have in a household the more efficient it gets per person, because you’re spreading the use of appliances, like fridges and heating, across more people,” she says.
You might be interested in this related article, about the effect of social norms on consumption.