Role of human behaviour in driving electricity use

This is the final post in the blog series “Plugging in: Electricity consumption in Indian Homesby Prayas (Energy Group) and Centre for Policy Research (CPR).

Energy-demand interventions are important for shaping consumption patterns as India’s energy and technology infrastructure transitions. At the same time, implementation of demand-side solutions is not always straightforward because of the variety of influences on consumption decisions. In the final piece of this series, we initiate a discussion about the drivers of residential electricity consumption.            

What conditions electricity use in homes? In particular, are there factors outside of the technological and physical aspects of the house structure and appliances that can have an impact on a household’s electricity consumption? We examine this question in low-income households in Rajkot, Gujarat. The sample provides a suitable context in which to undertake this study, because it contains identical home units, each with the same floor area and layout. This architecture allows us to control for the physical effects of the building, the floor area and the surrounding climate across the sample. The work is part of our ongoing study on energy use in low-income urban households under the CapaCITIES project.

Conventional understanding suggests electricity consumption is a function of building, technological and climate characteristics. Alongside, appliance ownership within a household is a key driver of how much electricity is used. Homes which own only lights and fans will have a different consumption pattern to homes that also own a refrigerator and television – as will be reflected in a different electricity bill between the two. Thereby, in order to control for the effect of appliance ownership on electricity use, we develop an appliances-asset index that ranks each household according to the appliances they own. That is, households with the same rank on the index own the same appliance, in the same quantity. In affordable housing units, the index can also serve as a proxy for economic class, as wealthier households tend to have more and more expensive appliances. Having now controlled for the major building, technological and climate drivers of residential electricity use, we compare the metered electricity consumption (from the utility) of homes that have the same rank on the asset index, to test how similar or different their consumption will be (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Variation in electricity bills for households as per their score on the appliances-asset index
Source: Residential electricity use in affordable homes (Khosla et al. in preparation)

Figure 1 provides interesting initial results. It shows a dramatic difference in the electricity bills of homes, even when they own the same appliances (displayed by the same rank on the appliances-asset index between -1.5 and 1.5). Further, when categorised according to the number of people within a home to account for differences that may arise from differing number of household members (either less than or more than three per home in the Figure), the large variation in the bill remains.  

What explains this difference in the electricity bill of homes that own the same appliances, have similar number of people, the same floor area, are in buildings with similar physical characteristics, and under the same weather conditions?

The literature on household energy use offers a number of different factors that influence electricity consumption. Many of these are related to physical building characteristics, for instance, building age, materials, number of windows, etc. In addition, climate conditions are important drivers of how much electricity households consume to be thermally comfortable. And within the household, the area of the home, the number of people that inhabit it and the appliances owned are important determinants of how much electricity is consumed. Figure 1 is striking because in spite of controlling for all these aspects, the electricity bills of the homes are significantly different. This points to an important finding that human behaviour, or how people actually operate and use appliances, after they are purchased, is a key factor in driving electricity use. A better understanding of such human dimensions of energy consumption is particularly needed in the Indian context, where research on the role of behaviour and lifestyles in influencing household energy use is limited.

In addition to energy use behaviour, Figure 1’s electricity bill variation could also be a function of the age and efficiency of the appliances, which can be different even for the same appliance type, along with differences in the orientation of the buildings of the different households. Uncovering these details and developing an interdisciplinary understanding of the techno-economics of electricity consumption, with the social and cultural roots of behaviour patterns, is needed to better predict the interactions between people, buildings and technologies. This will enable better management of household electricity use, especially as the urban population grows and income levels rise. More so, such insights are necessary for informed future consumption projections and policy choices, to step away from traditional economic models that assume humans make rational, utility-maximising, everyday decisions and that appliance usage hours are uniform across individuals, an assumption that many studies make. Ultimately, understanding how individuals, households, and more broadly, societies, use or convert electricity has much to bear on the effectiveness of demand-side measures.

At the conclusion of this residential electricity series, we hope its different themes have provided new insight into the challenges and opportunities of electricity use in Indian homes. These have included trends and disparities in access and consumption across states; the impact of the country’s large LED lighting programme, including in affordable homes; the effectiveness of appliance standards and labels; the energy services demanded within affordable housing and more broadly, across the National Capital Region; metering appliance use patterns; and the role of energy use behaviour in influencing consumption. These findings drew from recently published work, and from new research that will be published shortly, all aimed at emphasising demand-side solutions for energy and climate change, within the context of development.

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This piece is authored by Radhika Khosla at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

This blog series is also available on the Centre for Policy Research website.

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