Think energy

How fast would you have to cycle a bike to power a lightbulb? What about making a cup of coffee? One of the things that makes it hard to save energy is that for most of us the ways that we use and lose energy seem fairly abstract. That is why Dublin City settled on information campaigns as a key part of the city’s strategy to save energy and reduce its carbon footprint.

“We talk an awful lot in Europe about energy efficiency and upgrading buildings and that sort of stuff. And I suppose a very important part that’s often ignored, and it can be ignored too often, is the whole behavioural side of awareness. There’s really no point in upgrading a building or retrofitting or carrying out works if you’re not actually going to educate people about the energy use of that building,” says Suzanne Fitzpatrick, communications manager at Codema, an organisation set up by Dublin City Council to help the city reach its energy performance targets.

Be the change

So that the city could proudly lead by example, Dublin chose its own civic offices as the demonstration site for an energy campaign that worked to inform employees about their energy use and encourage behaviour change. “The whole idea behind Think Energy is that we would engage with Dublin City Council staff to make them more aware of the energy use in their building – there’s about 1,500 people working there on an average day – and to really kind of make them think that they’re not just a number, that everybody has a part to play in terms of the energy use of the building, and that even small behavioural changes can make a huge difference in reducing the energy consumption of a building or an organisation,” Suzanne explains.

The campaign took a number of creative approaches to getting people to reconsider their energy use. Suzanne acknowledges that creativity is necessary if you want to bring people out of their daily routines: “We’re aware that when people wake up every morning, energy efficiency is not the first thing that they always think of. So to really engage with people, we try to keep the activities as interesting, as seasonal and as engaging as possible.”

Power Normal Activity

This included a Halloween themed campaign that turned posters for popular horror movies into energy awareness posters. The Blare Witch Project became the ‘Dare Switch Project’, and Paranormal Activity became ‘Power Normal Activity’.

For Christmas, Codema took on the family spirit to reach people via their children, hosting a competition where employees kids coloured in energy saving drawings and came up with their own energy saving tips. “Because the kids were involved,” Suzanne says, “the parents were automatically interested.”

Learning by cycling

But interventions were not just seasonal. A series of lunchtime talks invited local experts and inspirational speakers to spread the good news about energy saving, for example “somebody from the Dublin fire brigade who was instrumental in creating the world’s first carbon-neutral fire station”. They also used free coffee as an extra incentive to draw people in.

The campaign also had some useful props, like a bicycle that showed people how much energy is required for everyday appliances like lightbulbs. “The staff could jump on and they could cycle and see, depending on how fast they were cycling, how much electricity they would produce, just to create the sense of how hard it is to generate power and not to take the energy supply for granted.”

Someone on the inside

Like any good government operation, this campaign also made sure it had ‘someone on the inside’ in each office. “We often see that if one or two people start changing their behaviour then chances are other people start doing it as well.” These ‘energy ambassadors’ chose energy saving themes that were important to them, and acted as role models to show their colleagues that it is just as easy to act in a more energy-conscious way.

‘Ambassador’ is a key term here, and Suzanne says that its important not to be too over-bearing, “rather than them, you know, coming in and switching people’s computers off while they’re still working on them and that sort of thing – they really just have to have a positive influence and a positive impact around the office.”

Low-cost, high impact

Suzanne emphasised that by following a few simple tips you can run a low cost, high impact campaign. The first thing to do is “research, research, research”, which will help you run a “properly targeted campaign”. Knowing where the energy in the building is being wasted, for example, is essential when choosing which points to focus on for behaviour change. Another tip is to work closely with the communications department in your organisation. They already have all the contacts to “make sure your campaign goes through the right channels” and gets to “the right people”.

Another important point is to be flexible. “Your plan should always be live. So never be afraid to change your plan, you know, and don’t just stick to something because it’s down on paper.” A plan that is too rigid will not be able to react to feedback that comes in from people who are participating in it.

Spreading information online and through social media is a great low-cost way to get the word out, “whether it’s through your website, there’s an awful lot of activities that you can actually run through online channels that you don’t physically need an awful lot of resources for.”

Nor do live events necessarily have to be budget-drainers, “so for example, our lunchtime talks on energy efficiency, when you break it down, you need one or two speakers who know what they’re talking about in terms of energy efficiency, and you might need to put on a few teas and coffees and sandwiches and things like that, but really you can actually, surprisingly, do that with not an awful lot of budget.”

The results

The campaign’s target had been to save about 5% of the overall energy use of Dublin City’s corporate offices. Because there were some energy-saving works going on in the building at the same time as the campaign, it is hard to determine exactly how much of the energy savings it was responsible for, but the results were impressive nonetheless. Suzanne is proud to say that the “energy use of that building actually went down by 13%”.

Bringing it home

However, change doesn’t just happen at the office. Codema also wanted to create awareness in peoples’ homes. That is why they developed a ‘Home Energy Savings Kit’ that could transport the insights of the campaign into peoples’ homes. “These kits have six different tools in them,” says Suzanne, which you can use to get “a good understanding of areas that you might need to improve in your home: insulation, draft-proofing, electricity, maybe there’s appliances in your home that are driving up your energy bills, that sort of thing”.

These six tools are a ‘thermal leak detector’ that shows you where heat is escaping from your home; a plug-in energy monitor which shows you how much electricity each of your electrical appliances is using; a temperature & humidity meter; a radiator key so that you can give your home heating a quick service; fridge and freezer thermometer so that you can make sure you are not wasting energy keeping your food colder than it needs to be; and a stopwatch so that you can, for instance, get a sense of how much hot water you use up in the shower.

Get your kit on

Dublin City Council used its local libraries to make the kits available and people can now borrow them there just as they would borrow a book or a DVD. Now the kits have really taken off, says Suzanne. “There was huge interest and demand from the public, so we actually extended it into all of Dublin city council’s libraries.” And it hasn’t stopped there, “since then it’s gone from strength to strength. It’s been expanded not only further out into Dublin, but also into other counties within Ireland, so it’s going nationwide at the moment.”

A survey that is included in the kit shows that people are putting the tools to good use. 86% of survey respondents stated that the kits made them think about how they use energy in the home’ over half reported intentions to act following their experience of borrowing the kit; 60% stated that it made them think about getting home upgrades; and 51% stated that it made them think about buying more energy efficient appliances.

In the end, Suzanne says, doing your bit to save energy really just requires a little thought and common sense, “We think of energy efficiency and energy awareness as something that’s very complicated, and actually it’s not. It just goes back to basic things, like switching off lights, closing doors, making sure your appliances are switched off. And it might sound very obvious, but if you’re doing all of these things in one go, it actually can have a significant impact in the home or within your organisation.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer