Cultivating intrinsic motivation, energy efficient behaviours

by Neil Salisbury

The question of how to motivate behavioural change in organisations has been the subject of considerable amounts of research for quite a long time now, however the underlying determinants of energy use and energy related behaviours have not been examined in great detail and the problem of sustaining behaviours without a ’carrot & stick’ approach has not been appropriately tackled. A culture whereby individuals and corporations are intrinsically motivated to drive energy efficiency rather than one based purely on extrinsic rewards is achievable and worth pursing, but requires cultivation.

Energy efficiency has for a number of years been seen as an untapped energy resource globally, as successful energy efficiency initiatives reduce electricity demand and subsequently assist in reducing the need for increasing capacity. Its widely understood that energy efficiency policies and measures account for a large share of carbon emissions abatement, however the required transformation of the global energy sector to achieve the necessary reduction in emissions requires substantial spending on low-carbon technologies and energy efficiency measures. Can this spending only be achieved by the implementation of specific mandatory measures and schemes and other extrinsic rewards or can it be achieved by influencing long-term behavioural change in individuals and corporations to invest in energy efficiency without the ’carrot & stick‘ approach, i.e. intrinsically motivated to achieve energy efficiency.

Typically, the ’price effect‘ - the cornerstone of economics - influences an individual’s decision to invest (or not) in a particular product or service, whereas in the corporate world, terms such as return on investment, shareholder value and other financial ratios are used to assess whether a particular energy efficiency opportunity makes financial sense. Which is why in general we see energy efficiency projects that have a payback of two years or less more likely to be implemented than others.

Intrinsic motivation can be described as a person’s desire to complete activities for their own benefit, and typically causes people to take action without external encouragement or influence1. There are a number of examples in other areas demonstrating that intrinsic motivation works. For instance, economic incentives to donate blood are crowded out by intrinsic motivations, i.e. in the western world the supply of blood is a gratuitous, voluntary activity, unrelated to extrinsic motivations.

So if intrinsic motivation works, how do we inspire individuals and organisations to integrate energy efficiency into day-to-day operation and to assess, evaluate and implement longer-term energy investment options? Intrinsically-motivated opportunities are currently reviewed but typically not considered for implementation as they don’t meet internal corporate financial metrics, but may become important under long-term business risk scenarios.

The challenge, then, seems to be in addressing these investment decisions, which may unlock a new generation of previously untenable energy efficiency projects.


1. Definition of Intrinsic Motivation in the Workplace, by Tara Duggan, Demand Media

Neil Salisbury is a Director of Net Balance (, 
one of the world’s leading sustainability advisory firms.
Neil is based in Melbourne.

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