The Low Carbon Dichotomy: Efficiency Versus Demand Reduction

by Briony Turner


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One could say that effective low carbon solutions will be those that respond to the requirements of energy infrastructures and to the ways in which people actually integrate the social and technical aspects of energy systems to achieve comfort, cleanliness, and other ordinary ways of life.  This requires developing a better understanding not only of householders’ daily practices within their homes and how adaptable these practices are but also the practical application of this understanding into standard industry working practices.

An international climate change audit found that the UK lags behind others in Europe on programmes to move consumer choice to more energy-efficient appliances, recommending that the government “undertake evaluations of effectiveness based on real practice in homes so that programmes can be responsive and kept on track”.   We increasingly have the research findings to enable this.  Take for instance Harriet Bulkely and Sara Fuller’s article in Area which explores how British people who have recently migrated to Spain actually adapt to new regimes of heat. Intriguingly, one of their findings is that adapting to the heat may potentially result in “increasing vulnerability to the cold, demonstrating how responses to stresses on thermal comfort are culturally and materially conditioned”.

So, bearing in mind the challenges posed by cultural and material norms, people’s expectations of comfort and the potential for adaptability, all-be-it with repercussions, there is an additional challenge in the form of a divergence in industry strategies within the UK, at the heart of which is the interlinking black box of domestic practices. The built environment industry is focused on low carbon in the form of reducing emissions of buildings through improving their energy performance, reducing their overall energy usage, i.e. focusing on how much electricity the buildings (including the human activity within them) use.   Yet, the energy supply industry sees the issue, within a future grid system based on inflexible nuclear generation and intermittent renewable generation, as one of balancing supply and demand.  This requires demand management which is not just focused on how much electricity people use, but, is actually more concerned with when they use it –for more on this, see Sarah Higginson and colleague’s 2011 conference paper.

Both industries diverge on the strategy for tackling people.  Whilst both confine people to the term “end user”,  the supply industry regards the end user as an object necessitating “demand management” whereas, the built environment industry sees the building (which contains the end user) necessitating “demand reduction”. The householder has in many ways been divorced from the home, with the focus of behaviour change activity resting predominantly on utility supply and demand chains.

Both industries concede some acknowledgement of the impact of individual behaviour on energy demand with most interventions in both industries aimed at encouraging activities based on small lifestyle adaptations that enable continuation and/or enhancement of existing standards and conventions. Yet the dichotomy of managing energy demand to uphold/lock in/enhance existing ways of life when everyday practices are constantly changing is widely criticised –for those interested in this have a look at Yolande Strengers’ paper on ‘Peak electricity demand and social practice theories’.

To achieve the ambitious energy consumption and carbon emissions reductions set out in statute, low energy/low carbon design and retrofitting needs to shift from focusing on building energy performance, to domestic energy performance, with the building fabric, services and interior design being better understood as contributory factors to locking in, but also with the potential to change domestic energy practice. This perspective leads beyond the supply and demand rhetoric to analyse how energy systems lock in or challenge existing unsustainable needs and what opportunities there are across the material infrastructures to change domestic practice.

books_iconSara Fuller and Harriet Bulkeley, 2012, Changing countries, changing climates: achieving thermal comfort through adaptation in everyday activities, Area, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01105.x

GJ book reviewSarah Higginson, Ian Richardson and Murray Thomson, 2011, Energy use in the context of behaviour and practice: the interdisciplinary challenge in modelling flexible electricity demand presented at Energy and People: Futures, Complexity and Challenges Oxford University 20-21 September 2011

GJ book reviewINTOSAI, 2010,  Report by the INTOSAI Working Group on Environmental Auditing:  The Climate is Changing – Key Implications for Governments and their Auditors

GJ book reviewYolande Strengers, 2012, Peak electricity demand and social practice theories: Reframing the role of change agents in the energy sector, Energy Policy 44 226-234

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