Employee engagement cuts energy bill in Victoria building

Nina Winham

Buy the energy-efficiency tool you need, plug it in, let it do its thing. For some types of conservation programs, a purely technological approach like this will work. But if you want to maximize your efficiency gains, getting your employees and building occupants on board makes a significant difference.

The potential of that difference was tested by a social marketing experiment in a government building in Victoria last year. The experiment results were shared in a recent webinar hosted by Pulse Energy, whose energy usage reporting software was used during the program.

The experiment was conducted at the Jack Davis building in Victoria, in the offices of the Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources.

The goal was "to see if we could squeeze a little bit more energy savings out of the building over and above the engineered efficiency level by engaging employees," said Andrew Pape-Salmon,director of the Energy Efficiency branch of the department. Pape-Salmon presented the results of the experiment, which was designed by his colleague, strategic energy manager Brooke McMurchy.

When it was constructed in the 1990s, the Jack Davis building was the most energy efficient building in British Columbia on an energy use-per square metre basis, said Pape-Salmon. Building features included daylighting, photo sensors, dimmable lights, and light shelves. In a clear demonstration of the risks posed by not engaging occupants, however, many of these efficiency features had long been rendered ineffective.

"A lot of the nifty technology features were disabled as soon as people moved in," said Pape-Salmon. "The light shelves were disabled by putting blinds in front of them, and the photo sensors were disabled and the dimmable ballasts because people didn't like the way there was a very sudden drop in light intensity."

Sensors and dimmable ballasts added

The energy efficiency effort began by upgrading technology in several different ways. On the building's fourth floor, Pape-Salmon says the project took a "technology-intensive" approach, installing new photo sensors and dimmable ballasts that dim slowly, so they don't cause sudden reductions in light. On the fifth floor, 50 new light switches were installed.

"The purpose [was] to use this as a way of enhancing employee engagement, because prior to that there were only four light switches for the whole floor," said Pape-Salmon. "Basically all the lights went off in banks. If an individual wanted to save energy they really couldn't because their neighbours would be affected as well." Finally, the sixth floor was left with its existing technology to act as a control in the test.

With the new technology, an employee education and engagement program has also been put in place. Pape-Salmon said the program is based on social marketing practices and included the following elements:

  • Retrofits (as mentioned) – to remove barriers to taking action;
  • "Workstation tuneups" – energy audits of employees' workstations and offices to promote understanding of efficiency options and improve equipment settings;
  • Launching a Green Team and establishing "champions" who model energy efficient behaviour and encourage others in their efforts;
  • An invitation to sign a green pledge – an individual commitment to participate;
  • Communications – targeted, vivid, and interactive efforts, including posters, emails, and in some cases, friendly visits from energy champions.

In addition, the project team decided to try a special effort to see if energy savings could be improved through additional engagement measures. During one week in July, 2009, 200 occupants of the three designated floors in the Jack Davis building received extra reminders about energy efficiency and requests to play a role in conservation. They were also provided with easy access to a real-time energy information system that was able to show changes in demand almost immediately when lights were switched off.

Engagement pays off

The results of the engagement efforts were very clear. On the fifth floor, where people had access to light switches and an opportunity to make a difference through their behaviour, energy conservation rose 12.6% above the level provided by the energy-saving technology alone.

The fourth floor showed similar savings, and even the sixth floor, with limited technological options, reduced power consumption by more than 2%.

On the Wednesday of the campaign week, people on the fifth floor were targeted by additional prompts reminding them to turn off their lights at lunchtime. More than half the employees complied, resulting in a clear drop in electricity use during that hour. Interestingly, there was a corresponding spike in visits to the energy usage information system during the prompting campaign, showing employees' curiosity about the effort.

Pape-Salmon said the results clearly demonstrated that engaging employees/occupants enhances energy efficiency programs. He noted that timely feedback, ideally no less frequently than once an hour, is important to success. Other key elements were the behaviour prompts (email reminders), establishing champions, and making the actions convenient (i.e. by installing multiple light switches).

Long-term program a necessity

However, Pape-Salmon cautioned that lasting results don't automatically follow from initial successes, noting that people who participated in the single day lunchtime lights-off effort mostly went back to old habits the next day when left unprompted.

"That's one of the lessons: yes, you can do prompting and yes, you can save energy on a short term basis, but in order to see persistence in those savings you need a long term plan," he said. "That involves long term prompting and also setting new norms through company or organizational policy." Even more effective, he noted, is establishing new social norms, "making it unacceptable to leave your light on during lunch hour."

Pape-Salmon said the team continues to work on removing barriers and understanding how to accomplish long-term behaviour change. Meanwhile, they will be presenting the results of their 2009 study at the Summer Study on Energy Efficient Buildings, to be hosted by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in California this August.

The webinar is also available for those interested in learning more.

BC Hydro's Workplace Conservation Awareness program includes tips and resources for those working on energy efficient behaviour change in the workplace. Commercial building owners should also check out the Continuous Optimization Program for Commercial Buildings, which assists owners in retrocommissioning their building, then helps maintain and continually improve the level of efficiency in building operations.

Nina Winham is a Vancouver-based sustainability consultant and regular contributor to