Energy Engineering Conscience – University of Sheffield responds

At the University of Sheffield we are exploiting the opportunity to reconnect people to their resource use. Climate change science is slowly being increasingly accepted, but it has to be used in the right way. Rewards and incentives get our staff and students into good habits, not scare tactics. It means we can develop staff and graduates who understand and are prepared for the future’s challenges. In the process, we get them more involved in our University’s work, taking students out of the “student bubble” and showing everyone their potential impact. The following three case studies of behaviour change campaigns, all focused on switching off, taught us valuable lessons:

The Arts Tower Blackout proved the potential impact of behaviour change. The iconic Arts Tower, visible for miles, was refurbished only 2 years ago with new energy efficient technology. We, with 26 staff and student volunteers, recorded which office equipment was unnecessarily left on one weekend and switched it all off. Conscientious switching off reduced energy usage by 20%, giving annual potential savings of 26 tonnes of carbon and almost £5,000 in one building – which already has energy efficient technology. We showed that small actions add up to have a large effect (bear in mind that we have hundreds of buildings at Sheffield), which has motivated others to take part in a larger Blackout.

The Faculty of Engineering “Switch-Off Weekend Event” was created by an engineer for engineers, using the right incentives for the right audience. It directly equated energy savings to money and faculty-specific benefits, putting money saved towards scholarships for future engineering students. What’s more, an infographic with technical information encouraged technically-minded staff to engage with the campaign. The event was a great success, saving £1,500 over 2 days and creating 3 scholarships.

Student Switch Off, franchised by the NUS, uses the right incentives for the right audience at the right time. Students submit photos of energy-saving poses to Facebook competitions and win club tickets and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It overcomes the built-in “disincentive” from including energy use in students’ rent in residences. The key is basing its approach firmly in behaviour change psychology. Habits (such as energy usage) are easiest to change during “moments of change”, e.g. when people move away from home, and fun peer-to-peer competition is more effective than information at changing behaviour (“New Rules: New Game”, Futerra). Its success is obvious: this year we saved 82 tonnes of carbon and over £12,000 on energy use in residences.

These campaigns taught us that showing the significant effect of behaviour change motivates others to take part; providing the right incentives for your audience helps everyone relate to the event; and picking the right time using behaviour change theory helps embed behaviours as habit.

We are not suggesting that these campaigns will change the world, but by grasping the opportunities presented to us by climate change IN THE RIGHT WAY we can reconnect people to their energy usage, which has a real impact.

Be sure to join in with the 'Energy Engineering Conscience' debate on the CIBSE LinkedIn group

Kim Croasdale (author), Sustainable Behaviour Assistant, Tim Allen, Environmental Project Officer and Environmental Coordinator, and Jon Gregg, Graduate Intern for Reducing Carbon Footprint by Individual Behaviour Change - Faculty of Engineering, are all leading the University of Sheffield to improve their environmental impact. The case studies above are just one example of how each of them are encouraging staff and students to take responsibility for their actions. 

You can read more on the behaviour change work at the University of Sheffield by visiting


  1. This is great to see! At the University of Reading, we take a similar approach to energy management through carefully focussed communications. As you say, the right communications for the right people. A key theory in our communications strategy is that building occupants are frequently unaware of the level of control and influence that they have over the University's energy bill and carbon footprint. To address this, we focus communications and feedback on increasing their levels of perceived control – helping people understand that they can have a direct impact on climate change and efficiency on campus.

    We echo Sheffield's approach of having engineers designing communications for engineers with academics designing communications for academic staff. To this end, a members of the Sustainability Team has started the journey towards a Ph.D, focussing specifically on assessing building occupants values to determine the effect of various communications on levels of perceived control and in turn, energy use. One aim of this endeavour is to provide Estates led projects with greater academic credibility.

    A recent project, run in partnership with Carnego Systems demonstrates the impacts of increasing the perceived level of control that building users have over the energy performance of a building. The study was conducted in the Student Services Building at the University of Reading in 2009 – 2011. Building occupant perceived control was influenced by engaging the user with high resolution building energy data. Increasing this perceived level of control contributed to overall savings in the building of 25% in small electrical items and lighting. The majority of a building’s carbon emissions are a result of operational activity. Often building occupants are not aware of the level of control they have on the energy performance of the building they occupy. Two behavioural models have been developed that include perceived control as a key factor for enabling and motivating environmental behaviour. Ajzen’s ‘Theory of Planned Behaviour’ and Stern’s ‘Value-Belief-Norm' model demonstrate increases in the amount of influence an individual believes they have over the outcome of a situation will increase their action to make that change.

    We believe that behaviour change is a fundamental contributor to reaching our 35% carbon reduction target by 2015 and welcome further ideas from within and outside of the HE sector.


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