Conserving Electricity in an Office Setting


  • There is an enormous need to scale effective behavioral interventions to reduce emissions in office settings.
  • We worked with the Western Cape Government (WCG) and the University of Cape Town to design and test interventions to reduce electricity consumption at WCG’s largest office tower.
  • Our interventions led to large declines in energy consumption, challenging the conventional wisdom that it is harder to achieve reductions among employees than it would for individuals in a household setting.

The Challenge

Electricity consumption contributes 64% to carbon emissions in the City of Cape Town, with residential and commercial sectors accounting for 83% of its total electricity consumption. In thinking about energy and electricity efficiency in Cape Town, it is essential to pay special attention to power consumption within these sectors, as well as within government, which is also a major user of electricity.

Office building context offers a unique case and can be more challenging than the residential sector for two reasons. First, unlike residential consumers, occupants of office buildings—who are not typically liable for electricity bills incurred by their use—do not have any direct financial incentives to reduce their energy use. 

Secondly, while the average residential household has four members, office floors can have between 50-200 individuals, making coordination much more challenging even where the will exists. At the same time, office buildings are major consumers of electricity in cities and towns worldwide. For example, it is estimated that offices in the United States consume about 14% of commercial power. As a result, there is enormous need for innovation to develop, test, and scale up effective behavioral interventions in this setting.


Our Approach

We developed and tested a set of nudges (social competitions and assignment of responsibility) designed to affect electricity consumption in a single large provincial office building in the City of Cape Town. These nudges were tested in a randomized controlled trial from June 2015—October 2016. 

Floors were assigned to two treatment arms and a control group, with seven floors in each group. Floors in the first treatment arm received general energy conservation information emails and participated in weekly inter-floor competitions. Meanwhile, floors in the second treatment arm received both energy conservation information, participated in weekly inter-floor competitions, and were also assigned a weekly energy “floor advocate.”



Our interventions led to large declines in electricity consumption, with a 9% reduction from Treatment 1, and a 14% reduction from Treatment 2. Further, Treatment 2 led to a 25% reduction in electricity use outside of work hours.



These findings suggest the need to re-evaluate the conventional wisdom that it is harder to achieve reductions among employees who do not pay for their electricity use than it would be to achieve such reductions in a household setting.

Interested in learning more about this work applying behavioral science to a crucial social problem? Reach out to us at or tweet at @ideas42 to join the conversation.