7 science-backed strategies to nudge Solar energy adoption

nudge toward clean energy
Getting people to adopt solar energy is challenging. These science-based strategies will help you encourage people's behavior for good.

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A better understanding of human behavior – motivations, desires, dislikes, and more – helps to design effective policies and marketing techniques to create a shift in mass consumption. Both, psychological motivators and barriers to undertaking a behavior, are necessary when designing effective behavioral change strategies.

Since behavioral change is a powerful tool, scientists are advocating for the use of this tool within fields that enhance social good such as health, education, and sustainability. Answering questions such as… 

  • How to motivate people to exercise more? 
  • How to cause more people to become teachers or organ donors? 
  • How to incentivize people to study more? 
  • How to nudge people to make smart financial decisions? 
  • How to make renewable and solar energy the most popular form of energy? 

…are paramount to creating a more efficient and improved society.

The answers lie in the psychology of decision-making.

Within sustainability, there are several ways to be more sustainable but the likelihood of adopting these swaps varies based on cost, effort, and desire. Making a major decision such as a solar installation is very different from the decision to switch off a light or turn off a tap. This leads to an intention-behavior gap when it comes to solar adoption.

Although people might believe and accept solar energy (stated preference), they do not always act on this belief to change their behavior to be more sustainable (revealed preference). Here are some effective, science-backed ways to use consumer psychology to fill this intention-behavior gap.

7 science-backed strategies to nudge Solar energy adoption

1. Community Leadership

Researchers at Yale University, USA report that community leaders who had actually installed solar systems in their own homes were able to recruit 62.8% more residents to install solar than leaders who had not installed solar plants themselves. This finding corroborates the adage that actions speak louder than words. When someone installs solar, they are providing a clear signal that their belief is that doing so is beneficial.

Solar ambassadors or community leaders who lead by example are important when promoting non-normative behaviors. Solar adoption, unfortunately, is not yet the norm and hence, such leaders can cause a shift by increasing the credibility of solar.

2. Defaults

Defaults are a powerful policy adoption strategy. They are defined as the choice a consumer receives if they do not explicitly specify otherwise. In other words, defaults change initial choice sets so that consumers do not need to opt-in to a choice but rather must opt-out of the choice given to them. Such default or opt-out strategies have significantly increased participation in organ donation and retirement financial planning. 

Two researchers from Germany have found that defaults can also increase the adoption of solar energy in households by making solar-paneled houses the norm. In the experiment, half of the participants were given contracts wherein they actively had to opt into green energy solutions. The other half were given a contract where green energy was already selected. By creating a default or norm that housing contracts will be powered by renewable sources of energy, instead of a choice the buyers had to opt into, the researchers increased solar panel installation by 60%. Hence, a simple change in the way a decision is presented can change decision-making.

3. “Norming”

The idea is to tell consumers what other consumers are doing, or using. “Norming” (what your neighbors are doing) combined with feedback (how well you are doing in comparison) may be a powerful mechanism for behavior change. 

A recent experiment in Italian households found that when households in a community are given a document with information of their energy consumption compared to others in their community, the households that consume more energy are motivated to consume less energy by adopting sustainable practices. This is because people tend to consider what others think and do as right. Seeing many people being energy efficient created a social norm of energy efficiency and nudged such behavior.

4. Signalling Theory

Another interesting finding from the above Italian households experiment is the impact on virtuous households or households that consume electricity more efficiently. These households also saw a small dip in energy consumption following receipt of a document of community energy expenditure per household. 

This serves to validate the use of signalling theory as a behavioral strategy. Signalling is the tendency to adopt a behavior not because of the intrinsic value of the behavior, but because of what it shows about us. Humans like to be role models and at a higher position relative to our peers. Since efficiency is a desirable quality, emphasizing model behavior in energy efficiency is a useful tactic.

5. Return on Investment

Consumer decisions are tangible for people standing on the shop floor of a goods retailer but otherwise can seem pretty nebulous. If you can’t quantify it on the spot, what does it mean? In the solar rooftop industry, return on investment is far better understood by the industry than by the end consumer. Hence, more effort must be made to convey a return on investment for this high investment good. 

Recent research has indicated that individuals view solar energy as:

  1. An environmental benefit
  2. An innovative technology reducing long-term costs
  3. A consumer good that signals high status

By tailoring messaging in an integrated framework describing return on solar investment as a combination of these three facets has proven useful in increasing solar energy adoption

6. Loss Aversion

As a prominent theory in Behavioral Economics, loss aversion states that we care more about losses than we do about gains even if our end position is identical. The behavioral science implication is that, instead of telling someone how much better off they’d be from taking a shorter shower, it is more meaningful to tell them how much they are losing from taking a long one.

In the rooftop solar industry, it is more meaningful to frame options as what one stands to lose by not adopting solar as opposed to what one gains by adopting solar because losses hurt more than gains help, psychologically.

7. Discounting the Future

One of the barriers to making energy efficiency improvements through rooftop solar relates to the fact that the benefits are accrued over a long period of time, whereas the costs associated with them are immediate and sometimes large.

We know that people often have a tendency to ‘discount the future’ – in other words, they may prefer a smaller reward today over a larger reward in the future. A solution to this irrational human tendency is to provide immediate rewards (such as discounts, vouchers, or prizes) to individuals (rather than long-term paybacks) for taking proactive action thereby increasing the value of the future.

Climate change is the pressing problem facing our generation and changing consumer behavior is a viable solution. Research identifying and defining strategies that might help change consumption patterns is robust and ever-evolving in an attempt to fill the intention-behavior gap that exists in adopting energy-efficient practices.

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