Energy Cultures 1

Energy Cultures (2009-2012) was an interdisciplinary research project which developed a better understanding of household energy behaviour, and of opportunities to support adoption of more energy-efficient practices and technologies.  The research team backgrounds included human geography, physics, economics, marketing, and law.


The core research team in Energy Cultures 1: Prof Gerry Carrington, Dr Paul Thorsnes, Dr Janet Stephenson, Prof Rob Lawson (all from Otago University), Prof Barry Barton (Waikato University).


The Energy Cultures framework

The Energy Cultures framework was developed by the research team to help understand the drivers of energy-related behaviours, and to help direct attention to the parts of the system that may benefit from change in order to influence energy behaviour in a desired way. The framework (see diagram) depicts energy behaviour as primarily arising from the interactions between three components: norms (individual and shared expectations about what is ‘normal behaviour’), material culture (physical aspects of a home including the form of the building and energy-related technologies) and energy practices (energy-related actions). These in turn are subject to broader influences that are largely outside of the individual’s control, such as standards, subsidies, energy pricing and social marketing campaigns which directly shape householders’ norms, material culture and energy practices.

Figure 1: Energy Cultures Framework


The research involved ten research streams (hyperlink to Research Streams below), with the Energy Cultures framework acting to integrate findings.  Reports, publications and selected conference presentations (hyperlink to further down the page) can be found below.

Key Findings

(i)        Policy design should consider the triple role of norms, material culture and energy practices in contributing to overall energy behaviour.  Each will respond differently to policy interventions.  Policy design should consider which of the three elements to target for any given energy issue, while being aware that a change in any one element (e.g. material culture), is likely to lead to a change in others (e.g. practices and norms).

(ii)       Households with the highest energy use tend to be those that pay little attention to improving the energy efficiency of their house, own many energy-using appliances, and have little regard to energy-efficient practices.  This cluster of households (around 20% of the population) is generally wealthier and thus has fewer barriers than others to making efficiency improvements.  This group represents a policy opportunity to achieve significant gains in energy efficiency and conservation.

(iii)      The lowest energy users tend to have substandard housing and inefficient energy technologies, yet have very economical energy practices.  This combination of circumstances tends to be aligned with cold, and often damp, housing.  This cluster of households (around 25% of the population) has lower incomes and restricted choices, creating a substantial barrier to improving their energy situation.  The WUNZ programme partially addresses their financial constraints to action, but it needs to be continued, and to include clean, efficient space and hot water heating, as well as other means to assist with financing (e.g. low-interest loans).

(iv)      The particular energy-related problems and constraints faced by tenants were evident in many of the research streams.  The proportion of people renting is growing, and the tenancy population has characteristics such as poor health that make it a particular priority for substantial policy action to address the lack of drivers for landlords to improve the energy standards of their rental properties.

(v)       Achievement-related values – being capable and being intelligent – are strongly linked with energy efficient behaviour. Appeals to such values in energy efficiency social marketing can be expected to continue to be successful.

(vi)      Making choices about energy-related changes in the home can be exceedingly complex, and a barrier to action.  People value independent trustworthy information to help them in this process.  This represents a policy opportunity to support the provision of independent home energy advice.

(vii)     A person’s family and friends are the key influences on household energy behaviour changes, more so than media, community action groups or other organisations such as councils, tradespeople or power companies.  There are gains to be made by supporting the positive work of social networks.

(viii)    Tradespeople and design professionals are, however, very influential in household energy decisions. There is a need for better training in energy efficient products and services, and better incentives to supply them.

(ix)       Some of New Zealand’s energy efficiency policies are lagging behind those of other similar OECD countries.  Of these, introducing home energy rating and certification schemes and introducing a wider range of Minimum Energy Performance Standards on energy appliances would assist with policy challenges (ii), (iii) and (vi) above.

(x)        New Zealand’s energy policy framework should give a central place to energy efficiency. Data collection on energy use and behaviour should be improved in order to support the development and monitoring of energy efficiency policy.

Table 1: Research streams