If consumers apply demand-side management measures, for instance by making use of the battery storage of photovoltaic plants or electric vehicles, they can flexibly adapt their electricity demand. © High Contrast

Consumer policy for the energy transition

15. March 2017

On the occasion of World Consumer Day on 15 March, the Academies of Science are taking the energy consumption in Germany into their focus: After all, private households account for more than a quarter of the country’s total power consumption. If the energy transition is to succeed, each and every one needs to make an effort. It is not only necessary to save energy, but also to adjust our consumption to the fluctuating feed-in from wind and solar energy sources. So how can consumers be motivated to permanently change their behaviour? A Working Group of the Academies’ Project “Energy Systems of the Future” (ESYS) has analysed the latest research developments and summarised the results in the position paper “Consumer policy for the energy Transition”.

It should be easy to economise on energy in everyday life. We could replace old household devices by more efficient ones, reduce our car use or lower the average temperature in our houses and flats by one to two degrees in winter. However, behavioural studies show that most people find it difficult to change everyday habits in the long term – even if it were reasonable and saved money. “Rebound effects, for instance, are typical: People buy a new car, that is more efficient, but larger and use it more frequently than the old one,” says Ortwin Renn, scientific director at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS). He chaired the interdisciplinary Working Group on “Consumer Policy for the energy transition”.


Information and “nudging”

So, what can we do to break this perseverance without imposing bans? The position paper identifies easily accessible and comprehensible information and consulting, customised to the needs of different target groups, as a central element. A method largely influenced by Cass Sunstein, a lawyer and formerly advisor to former US President Barack Obama, revolves around gentle “nudges”. If, for instance, the electricity bill contains the information that the neighbours’ average consumption is lower than one’s own, this can incentivise more economical behaviour. A further example are energy labels on household appliances, such as washing machines and refrigerators, which should make it easier to select a power-saving device.

While international studies show that “nudging” does indeed incentivise energy-saving, there is so far little empirical evidence for Germany. Hence, the three Academies acatech – National Academy of Science and Engineering, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities recommend further research on its effectiveness. Country-specific differences must also be considered. Nudging has indeed shown noticeable effects in the United States. However, since American households consume about thrice as much energy as German ones, the savings potential in Germany is considerably lower.

Smart and interconnected

If in future the power supply is mainly generated from renewable energy sources, flexibility technologies will be necessary to compensate for the weather-induced fluctuations in wind and solar energy generation. In the position paper “Flexibility concepts for the German power supply in 2050”, published in 2016, the Academies’ Project ESYS demonstrates that short-term fluctuations are most cost-efficiently buffered by flexible consumption systems (demand-side management measures). Electric vehicle batteries can, for instance, be charged and used for electricity storage when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. As an incentive for consumers to participate in demand-side management, the Academies propose supply contracts with dynamic pricing: If a lot of power is fed into the grid, the prices are low; in the event of a bottleneck, they rise accordingly.

This would require intelligent control technologies as well as the consumers’ willingness to have some of their devices “remote controlled” from the outside. A first step in this direction was the political decision to incrementally install digital electricity meters, so-called smart meters, in German households. They can visualise the electricity consumption of a household and motivate – in other words: nudge – to economise on energy. Heating and cooling systems can likewise be individually controlled. “Consumers can use apps to evaluate and customise their needs for heating and cooling. Besides saving energy, this also heightens the user comfort”, says Ortwin Renn. “A further advantage is that by using apps, the consumer maintains the control. This increases acceptance.”

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