Hard-to-Reach Energy Users in the Residential & Commercial Sectors


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We believe that there may be a significant percentage of the human population that is currently not engaged or informed by our many efforts to elicit change in their energy-efficient technology uptake and energy consumption. This is even more so the case once you expand from hard-to-reach individuals and groups in the residential, to those in the commercial sector, and across all fuels and energy services, including mobility. This, potentially very large energy user group is the focus of this new DSM Task.



The highly successful Task 24: Behaviour Change in DSM – Phase I and Phase II showed, over a 7+ year research period, how to successfully apply behaviour change interventions both in theory and practice (for summary toolbox, see Rotmann, 2018). It was a global research collaboration of more than 400 behaviour change experts from 20+ countries. Rather than picking a specific disciplinary approach or model of understanding behaviour, the Task showed that facilitating multi-stakeholder collaboration and visualising the socio-ecology of a given energy system can lead to successful behavioural interventions (e.g. Cowan et al, 2018). However, what this Task also showed is that most interventions focused on generic audiences, and there was a lack of identifying precise behaviours, and audience profiles based on their specific contexts and needs. This research collaboration focuses on a very distinctive audience segment, the hard-to-reach energy users, that often fail to be addressed by common energy efficiency or behavioural interventions.


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Introduction to the hard-to-reach energy users

Many of our behaviour change efforts concentrate on the uptake of energy-efficient technologies in developed countries and so-called “green consumption” efforts. Much of our focus is on technology choice per se, with a lot less on the cognitive, motivational and contextual factors that are affecting those choices (e.g. Rotmann and Mourik, 2013). Relatively speaking, behavioural-oriented policy initiatives are rather limited, and often confined to experimental settings, and utility-driven programmes (e.g. Rotmann and Ashby, 2019). Our Swedish National Expert (Mundaca et al, 2018) undertook a global review of policy efforts (at the national and city level) addressing low-carbon energy technologies. Results show a clear orientation towards technology market development (mostly subsidies) and market failures (particularly, information asymmetries). In fact, policy efforts addressing behavioural anomalies explicitly, are the exception. This has led to the continued energy efficiency gap - the difference between the cost-minimising level of energy efficiency and the level of energy efficiency actually realised. 

In addition, we believe that there may be a significant percentage of the human population that is currently not engaged or informed by our many efforts to elicit change in their energy-efficient technology uptake and energy consumption. This is even more so the case once you expand from hard-to-reach individuals and communities in the residential, to those in the commercial sectors and looking at different types of fuel and energy services, including mobility. All up, this has led to continued increases in our energy consumption and related greenhouse gas emissions, and the associated impacts on runaway climate change and social inequality.

What defines a “hard-to-reach” energy user?

As there are many different, sometimes conflicting definitions of what constitutes a “hard-to-reach” energy user, we have created this broad working definition to start our research from: 

In this Task, a hard-to-reach energy user is an energy user from the residential and commercial sectors who uses any type of energy or fuel and energy services, including mobility, and who is typically either hard-to-reach physically, underserved, or hard to engage or motivate, for a variety of reasons. These could include lack of access to information, lack of government or industry policies and programmes targeting such user groups, lack of financial means, lack of confidence, vulnerability, or being a new type of user (e.g. new technology owner) who has not yet been identified or engaged by the relevant agency.”


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Overarching Objectives

This research will provide country participants with the opportunity to learn and share successful approaches how to identify and engage HTR energy users. This can include a wide range of behavioural interventions such as providing energy audits and advice, energy savings tips, energy-efficient technology or Apps to control and reduce energy consumption, energy saving kits etc. The research will facilitate the development of robust social science-based guidance for designing programmes (e.g. national, municipal, utility-driven) that are more tailored to specific HTR audiences. It will also help identify effective approaches for improving existing programmes to increase uptake among specific HTR segments. The main objective of this research is to undertake wide-ranging empirical research and field pilots on hard-to-reach energy users to allow Behaviour Changers (from government, industry, research, the service and the third sectors) to:

  • Partake in a global research collaboration under the umbrella of the DSM TCP (Subtask 0);
  • Engage in, and have access to, an international expert network (Subtask 1);
  • Define HTR energy users in the residential and commercial sectors, collect & analyse case studies highlighting past and current work to better engage this user group (Subtask 2);
  • Develop an international publication with participating and interested countries, including those outside the OECD, that attempts to analyse the proportion of energy users that would fall under the hard-to-reach category and identifies some of the distinct groups and subgroups beneath the broader HTR umbrella. This work will be based on the case study analyses and definition work undertaken in Subtask 2, in participating countries (Subtask 2a);
  • Use and test the tools highlighted in the Task 24 Toolbox for Behaviour Changers, including the See Change Institute Process to align, define, design and deploy better interventions geared at the HTR energy users identified in Subtask 2 (Subtask 3);
  • Identify and, where possible, undertake voluntary field research pilots to take the theoretical learnings into practice (Subtask 4).

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Subtask diagram HTR

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Motivation and Research Questions

The motivation for this new work comes from five directions: 

1) To build on IEA DSM Task 24 behaviour change expertise and global expert network as well as using the many tools that were developed and have successfully informed policy in our participating countries. These are described in the Task 24 Toolbox for Behaviour Changers.

  • Research Question: How can the toolbox for Behaviour Changers developed by Task 24 be used to support better interventions targeted at the hard-to-reach energy users?

2) To explore the many differing definitions of what constitutes a “Hard-to-Reach” (and thus motivate and engage) energy user or customer, in the residential and commercial sectors and to assess different approaches and barriers when targeting these users (including potential gender bias and/or socio-economic inequalities). This would include an assessment of the different HTR groups and segments that the participating countries are trying to reach, an identification of which of these HTR segments are common across multiple countries, and which are less so.

  • Research Questions: Who are HtR energy users in each participating country? How can they be defined and described? How materially are these HTR markets underserved? 

3) To test the hypothesis that this underserved user group may entail a large number of energy users (particularly when we define “hard-to-reach” also as “underserved”,  “hard-to-motivate or engage”, see below) which also means there is a large potential for energy-efficiency and conservation improvements.

  • Research Questions: Based on country statistics and expert opinions, what is the approximate, estimated size of the HTR user group in each participating country? How many vulnerable HTR users are situational and transitory and can we better quantify these groups by better categorising them? Based on implemented pilots and case studies in each participating country, what is the potential effectiveness (or effect size) that one can expect from behavioural-oriented policy intervention on this group?

4) This Task will aim at collecting insights into best practice and shared learnings about what type of interventions have the greatest potential to motivate and engage the HTR, and which were less successful (and why). 

  • Research Questions: What type of policy interventions (e.g. non-pricing mechanisms addressing contextual factors) and behaviour change programmes have the potential to motivate and engage HTR users to use energy more effectively and efficiently? What is the level of public acceptability of such policy interventions in each participating country? What are the ethical challenges associated to them?

5) To explore opportunities for non-state sector co-funding to develop and test field research pilots for HTR energy users based on international best practice and the Task 24 toolbox for Behaviour Changers. We need to show that behaviour change on this hardest-to-reach target group actually works in practice – thus opening up a very large potential new energy user group that can be targeted for tailored behaviour change interventions. These, in turn, will provide positive financial, energy efficiency and social (including health) outcomes for this user group – as well as macro-economic benefits for their countries, whilst contributing to significant climate change targets, globally.

  • Research Question: Can we use field research pilots to prove that a robust, internationally-validated, standardised process for behavioural interventions on the HTR, is a better approach than the current scattergun one?


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Multi-stakeholder and trans-disciplinary collaboration

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Technology Collaboration Programmes (TCPs) highlight, in their name, the importance of research and technology collaborations. Over 6000 scientists partake in the 38 TCPs. We believe that IEA DSM Task 24 has created one of the most extensive and engaged expert collaborations, extending its reach to all sciences studying “behaviour” (grouped into the 3 main disciplines of psychology, economics and sociology but encompassing many sub-disciplines) and other “Behaviour Changers” from government, industry, the community and service sectors. The entire premise of the Task 24 “Behaviour Changer Framework” (Rotmann, 2016) is based on facilitating multi-stakeholder collaboration, following a Collective Impact Approach (Kania and Kramer, 2011). We will utilise and build on these networks and collaboration tools in this Task. We will specifically aim to co-develop and -test an internationally-validated, standardised research process to enable data collection and analysis, as well as intervention design and implementation, in this Task (see Subtask 3).

Task aims and research process

The primary aim of the Task is to enable participating countries to improve policy, industry, research and community outcomes focusing on hard-to-reach energy users, by applying insights and lessons learned from collaboration with other countries and global experts. 

Our Project Partner See Change Institute (SCI) has developed a framework to identify and test programme variables as the “building blocks of behaviour change” and a process for policy makers to design, implement, and evaluate such programmes. This process, which we will utilise for case study analyses and recommend for any pilots to be developed as part of the Task, contains the following elements:

See Change process diagram

Diagram of the See Change Institute Process


1. ALIGN stakeholders and explore landscape  

We will conduct a stakeholder assessment which will bring together experts from the government, industry, research and community sectors to identify individual and collective goals and mandates. The Task 24 Expert Platform will be built on and broadened to include global HTR experts from different sectors and research disciplines. We will use the Behaviour Changer Framework to visualise the current socio-ecosystem and end user contexts and decide on main HTR target groups in each sector. We will also undertake a landscape analysis on current literature, policies and programmes on how to reach the hard-to-reach in the residential and commercial sectors. This will include stakeholder interviews how they ran engagement trials and monitored and evaluated outcomes (using the ABCDE framework: coding for Audience, Behaviour, Content, Delivery and Evaluation). This Phase will help us to better understand similarities and differences across national boundaries.

2. DEFINE target Audience & Behaviour 

Based upon the stakeholder and landscape analyses undertaken in the ALIGN Phase, we will define each of the HTR target groups (our audience) and identify the target behaviours for each group that show the most promise for behavioural interventions. This Phase will (1) create an audience profile for each group, (2) identify target behaviours, and (3) identify barriers, motivations, and key leverage points to select strategies and design interventions.

3. DESIGN and test Content & Delivery Strategies  

Building from the ALIGN and DEFINE research, this step is comprised of identifying and pre-testing (where possible) appropriate strategies for each audience / behaviour. Content and Delivery strategies will be identified based on this research and we will develop the programme concepts that can be used by participating countries for field pilots. We will focus on a different HTR audience group in each of the sectors so different country contexts can be explored, contrasted and compared. 

4. DEPLOY and Evaluate field pilots  

In this phase, we will collaborate with in-country partners to deploy a field pilot of a new or improved HTR programme (where co-funding can be found). We will evaluate each pilot to not only measure savings, but also to understand how and for whom the programme did (or did not) work and identify best practices for scaling and /or replicating it. This will follow robust social science and programme evaluation methods, including those already developed by Task 24.

To summarise our research process (see diagram above): Each phase includes both qualitative and quantitative research to marry inductive and deductive strategies of learning. First, the overarching programme or policy goals must be established and aligned in the context of the existing landscape of work and the mandates of key stakeholders. Second, the target audience and behaviour are defined through mixed-methods customer research and modelling. Then, the programme can be designed to address audience and behavioural needs and key content and delivery variables can be “pretotyped” via experimental and usability testing. Finally, once the programme has been optimised based on empirical data, it can be deployed and evaluated in a pilot study, using both process and impact evaluation to determine not only whether it worked but how it can be continuously improved over time.  


Storytelling will continue to be our overarching language and method of ‘translation’ between different sectors and disciplinary jargons. We will continue to explore the power of storytelling in its many forms, as outlined in our 2015 eceee summer study paper and our Special Issue in Energy Research and Social Sciences called ‘Storytelling and narratives in energy and climate change research’ (see Rotmann, 2017). Task 24 has also published an ‘A-Z of storytelling’ report (Rotmann, 2018). In addition, we are collaborating with Rick Davies on assessing ParEvo, a web-assisted participatory scenario planning process that is based on storytelling methods. 


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Benefits for participants

Benefits for Behaviour Changers and co-funders to join this Task

Non-state actors who are in active development of a behaviour change programme or intervention focusing on the hard-to-reach will be invited to join the project as “implementation” partners. These Funders and Implementers will work closely with the Researchers (OA, NEs, PhD students and Project Partner/s) on the field pilots determined in Subtask 4. At the end, the Implementers will have conducted a new (or evaluated a current) behavioural field pilot and the Researchers will have completed formative, summative, outcome and process evaluations with guidance on how to replicate and / or scale-up their pilot. 

In addition, all experts and Behaviour Changers joining this Task (formally, or in-kind) will partake in the following benefits: 

Opportunities for Global Networking and Collaboration

  • Implementers will become part of the combined expert platforms with 100s of Behaviour Changers from many different countries, research disciplines and sectors;
  • They can bring their own DSM issues and get cutting-edge, tailored advice and research support for the entire chain of designing, implementing, evaluating, reiterating and disseminating behavioural interventions that work;
  • They will gain access to, and participate in the IEA DSM University including developing and disseminating their field pilots in promoted webinars, peer-reviewed publications and technical reports;
  • They will gain access to global dissemination and cross-country case study comparisons via the highly-reputable IEA TCP network.

Access to Cutting-Edge Tools and Resources

  • Behaviour Changers will gain improved knowledge and understanding on what different models and theories of behaviour change are available and when and how to best use them in practice;
  • They can learn from and share, directly and via the DSM TCP network, best practice case studies and stories;
  • They can get access to, and expert support for, the standardised, robust research process developed in this research;
  • They will get expert facilitation and backbone support to develop the Collective Impact Approach in practice, tailored to their stakeholders, mandates and needs.

Co-creation and Promotion of New Solutions to Old Problems

Behaviour Changers will gain access to a highly respected global brand. This includes being invited to collaborate on joint behaviour change publications in DSM including, but not limited to:

  • Re-framing the big issues facing HTR energy users and the agencies trying to reach and engage them, together;
  • Learning how to apply good research process to design, implement and evaluate better interventions and share learnings via cross-country case study comparisons;
  • Reducing duplication of efforts by learning from real-life field research so we can move from individually-focused, programme-level approaches to collaborations aimed at the common goal of achieving systemic, societal changes with collective community and citizen participation at its core.

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Deliverables HTR

Deliverables of HTR research

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Task Publications

Task Workplan

 Subtask 0 – Admin

Task Kick-off: HTR survey of eceee Summer Study participants

Subtask 1 – Expert Platform & Dissemination

Task Flyer

HTR Task in the Media

eceee column by Dr. Sea Rotmann: How to Reach the Hard-to-Reach?


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Countries and Contacts

Financially-participating countries:

New Zealand (Lead Country)

Operating Agent: Dr Sea Rotmann, drsearotmann@gmail.com 

National Expert: Dr. Kim O’Sullivan, kimberley.osullivan@otago.ac.nz 


National Expert: Dr. Luis Mundaca, luis.mundaca@iiiee.lu.se 


National Expert: Kira Ashby, kashby@cee1.org

United Kingdom

National Expert and Chief Science Advisor: Dr. Aimee Ambrose, A.Ambrose@shu.ac.uk 


Project Partners:

See Change Institute

Subtask 3 – See Change Process 

Experts: Drs. Beth Karlin, Philip Ehret, Lisa Zaval, Hale Forster 

Sheffield Hallam University

Subtask 2 – Case studies

Experts: Drs. Aimee Ambrose, Danielle Butler

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