Notes on the Pulse Energy webinar on Building Occupant Engagement

oday I attended a webinar hosted by Pulse Energy on building occupant engagement, titled Save Energy in Your Buildings by Engaging Occupants in Your Energy Reduction Plan. The presentation was led by David Helliwell, CEO of Pulse Energy, and Andrew Pape-Salmon, Director of Energy Efficiency Branch for the government of British Columbia.

While the focus of the discussion was on engaging occupants of large buildings in a work context, the findings that Andrew presented clearly overlap with my own research. He presented the results of an energy conservation study undertaken at the Jack Davis building in Victoria, BC. The study combined targeted community based social marketing with feedback and a web-accessible energy information system (Pulse Energy). Three floors of the building were monitored to gather data on three different conditions: one with automated daylight dimming, one with light switches and occupant engagement, and one control. The first two conditions resulted in 12% and 12.6% reductions in lighting system energy use respectively, while the control group experienced a 2.4% reduction from the baseline.

I’ve collected a few of my notes from the presentation in point-form below:

  • The Jack Davis building, when opened, came equipped with numerous energy saving features such as automated daylight-sensitive dimming, light shelves, and an efficient building envelope. Andrew related that when his team assessed the building, they found that the occupants of the building had disabled each of these in turn. For example, automated dimmers were routinely overridden because people disliked the rapid and unexpected fluctuations in ambient light, and light shelves had been blocked with blinds in favour of artificial light.
  • Andrew’s team undertook energy audits of employee workstations, conducting interviews with 1/4 of employees and providing an online tool for the other 3/4 to use. They assessed standby losses, lighting and printing habits, and other opportunities to engage employees in energy saving behaviour.
  • In response to occupant’s dissatisfaction with the rapid fluctuations caused by automated dimming, slow-dimming ballasts were installed to make sure that dimming was slow and less perceptible.
  • Simply installing light switches in individual rooms and areas in the building had a significant impact on energy use, in comparison to the existing light banks and centralized controls that were installed during building construction.
  • Andrew characterized occupant engagement as the “low-hanging fruit” of efforts to support energy efficiency and conservation.
  • He also specifically addressed his use of the term “occupant engagement” in contrast to “behaviour change,” the term more commonly used in the literature. He suggested that the tone of the former is more inclusive and less demanding than the latter: emphasizing that occupants can make choices rather than sacrifices.
  • The study revealed a clear relationship between energy savings and visits to the Pulse energy information dashboard, which was accessible to employees on the web without requiring a login.
  • Andrew noted the various standard techniques for motivating conservation, but drew attention to the idea that long term change can only be reliably produced through changes in norms surrounding energy use. His team partly addressed this by identifying and supporting “energy champions” to encourage others to become engaged.

The study itself confirmed many of my own findings, as well as echoing common themes in the literature, but also provided a great case combining lots of the relevant factors in occupant engagement. It was interesting to hear Andrew’s perspective on the problem, given his substantial credentials, and also to see the rollout of the new version of Pulse Energy’s software. I hope this will be the first in a series of webinars from Pulse and their collaborators.