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Faculty of Engineering

Real-world social networks critical to energy saving campaigns

Monday 30 September 13

Solar PanelsCasual conversations over the garden fence and chats with family members can make or break public energy-efficiency campaigns, according to a new study conducted by the University of Leeds Centre for Integrated Energy Research.

Researchers at the University of Leeds combined real-world data with mathematical modelling techniques to explore the ways in which energy-efficiency measures spread across households in a city.

They found that social interactions between family, friends, colleagues and neighbours could be more critical to an energy campaign’s success than financial incentives or environmental arguments. The Leeds research brings these social influences into a quantitative model for the first time, giving official planners the basis of a new tool for planning more successful campaigns.

With councils coming under increasing pressure to find cost-effective ways of reducing local carbon emissions and helping their residents with ever-increasing fuel bills, the new findings may suggest a way for energy-efficiency programmes to be delivered more effectively.

The models developed by the Leeds team could be particularly effective in understanding and identifying strategies that could enhance uptake of the government’s Green Deal, which is so far delivering only very low uptake compared with targets.

Lead author Dr Catherine Bale, EPSRC Research Fellow in the University of Leeds’ Centre for Integrated Energy Research, said: “It is clear that the familiar arguments in favour of energy-efficiency measures like insulation just aren’t enough to get householders to act, even though there is often a clear financial advantage to doing so. Our models show that using smarter ways of harnessing social influence through the networks that people are already part of might be a better way of getting the energy-efficiency message across.”

Bale added: “Councils could be doing more to take advantage of these effects – by implementing recommend-a-friend initiatives, for example. Improving the communication of energy information between households leads to more network connections, which in turn can lead to a wider uptake.”

Co-author Dr Nick McCullen said: “It’s sort of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses effect. If people see that their neighbours have installed rooftop solar panels, or if their friends tell them that they’ve benefited from installed loft insulation, it could make a real difference to the chance of uptake.”

“Councils are key to improving the energy efficiency of our housing stock and, as a trusted source of information, will be important for encouraging uptake of the Green Deal,” Dr Bale said. “By modelling the influential social influences that guide household decision-making, we can help councils identify the most effective strategies to roll-out retrofit initiatives.”


Further information

Dr Catherine Bale is available for interview.

Contact: Chris Bunting, Senior Press Officer, University of Leeds; phone: +44 113 343 2049 or email c.j.bunting@leeds.ac.uk

Notes for editors

The full paper, Bale, C.S.E. et al., “Harnessing social networks for promoting adoption of energy technologies in the domestic sector”, Energy Policy (2013), is available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421513009579#.
A copy can also be requested from Dr Catherine Bale; email c.s.e.bale@leeds.ac.uk.

This research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under grant EP/G059780/1.