Energy Use and Understanding

What is energy use?

Mental models interview

How we use energy – for example to heat spaces and run appliances — can be greatly affected by how we think energy is used in those processes, and what we think happens can often be different to what is actually happening.

The most obvious reason is that energy is invisible, and abstract, therefore we can often overestimate the amount of energy used by very visible things (such as lighting) and underestimate the amount used by heating and cooling. However, different people can have very Attari et al (2010) and Kempton & Montgomery (1982).different understandings of how much each thing uses.

We pursued research around this interaction with energy with Dan Lockton of Brunel University. Dan spoke to staff at DECC about how they thought energy was used, mapping out what are called mental models.

Mental models are the models we generate in our heads of how the world works: how what we do affects other people and the systems around us. With technology in particular, the models we imagine are often very simplified, and for the most part, this is OK, but energy is an area where our incomplete mental models can cause problems.

The aim with Dan’s DECC study (one of an ongoing series of similar studies that we are doing) was to explore the intersection between the diversity of mental models and people’s behaviour in the workplace. We investigated:

Where do other people (such as colleagues, groups, facilities managers) fit into people’s models of how energy is used in buildings? Is it always someone else’s problem, or do people feel responsible themselves? Do people feel they can do anything to make a difference, and if so, what? Should we try to work with people’s existing mental models or should we try to change them?

Some of the key DECC-specific insights from a series of in-depth interviews were:

  • DECC staff are pretty knowledgeable about energy use (not unexpectedly!); outside the office they are confident about interacting with their home heating system controls, using a range of strategies.
  • People had a range of different mental models of how energy is used in the building, especially around how the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems work. Some people believed that the systems were fully automated, with little opportunity for any human intervention, while others considered the systems to be completely ‘open loop’ and manual, with a decision made about whether to switch the heating or air conditioning on centrally, and then left, with no feedback. Others had a more nuanced picture combining automation and the ability to override the automated systems — this is important because if people assume the system is entirely automated, they may not realise there is anyone they can talk to if they are uncomfortable.
  • People didn’t think there were many behaviour changes they could directly make themselves in the office to reduce the building’s energy use, beyond making sure equipment is turned off when not in use.


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Real Time Energy Displays

DECC's energy display

An effective way of joining up incomplete mental models of how energy is used in the workplace is to help staff to see their energy use as something tangible, easily accessible and something they can understand. To address this in 3-8 Whitehall Place, we took real time energy data (every 5 seconds) and presented this information in clear, highly visible displays on screens within the building, as well as online.

This was an important first step to frame the situation, and to prompt input from the user community. We designed the displays to use the power of real time feedback to engage and inform. The fact that they were so attractive to users let us bring an initial user community together, giving them a way to feel engaged and usefully contribute to the project.

These visualisations showed when energy consumption was high and low over daily, weekly and monthly periods, and we were able to explain some trends to users, as well as to enable staff to ask their own questions about their energy use.

We thought it was important to quantify this energy use in kilowatt hours (usage), carbon emissions and monetarily (how much it’s costing DECC). This allowed staff to see the impacts of their collective energy use and helped to explain the need to save energy, as well as identifying where individual actions may achieve real savings.

While this tool is an integral part of engaging building users in behaviour change around energy use, it can also be deployed as a separate tool, and has been introduced across other Government Departments including: the Cabinet Office, Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, HM Revenue and Customs, HM Treasury, and Number 10.

The tool provides facilities managers (in this instance, the DECC Sustainability and Estates team) with a friendly and accessible way to navigate the performance data within a building or estate, and to identify savings that can be made by using the building systems differently. In this way, it provides clarity for building users that building managers are doing all they can, and now it is up to them, as individual users, to contribute toward more savings!

These Real Time Energy Displays not only show visualisations of the energy being used, but also explain what uses the energy in the building — what uses a lot, and what uses just a little. They present a collection of simple facts about the building and how it uses energy to increase DECC staff’s awareness of these facts. Information displayed includes how the Sustainability and Estates teams have already made operational improvements, where they have been maximised, and where there is still scope for further improvement. This information is played out through infographic posters and blog posts.


Can somebody tell me how did the platform explain but also explain what uses the energy in the building? Was it based on statistic or were metering devices in differents appliances and devices used? …

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