Matching Policy and People

One of the benefits of studying at Durham University is the wide range of interesting talks organised, where leading researchers present and answer questions on their current research. The Durham Energy Institute’s events are highly relevant for the MSc Energy & Society course and I love to go along to broaden my knowledge of energy-related topics.

Last week’s lecture was given by Tanja Winther, a visiting fellow in the department of Anthropology from the University of Oslo. Her book, The Impact of Electricity, was one of the books that led me to study Energy & Society and I highly recommend it for anyone who is wondering what kinds of insights anthropology can give to the study of energy. Winther’s book is based on her doctoral research and discusses the effect of the introduction of electricity to rural Zanzibar in the 1990s. The talk she gave last week focused more on her current research in Norway on sustainable electricity consumption measures and why they often fail, encouraging us to link up people with policy by taking a practice approach to the study of energy with two case studies.

The first case study involved installation of heat pumps in Norwegian homes. 80% of Norway’s domestic energy usage is electricity, a very different setup to the UK which uses much more gas for heating. To reduce this electricity demand, the Norwegian government subsidised heat pump installations and now 27% of Norwegian homes have one installed. Winther’s study looked at how people interacted with their heat pumps and the effects on consumption, in a study of 28 households.

While people cited a reduction in consumption (and consequently a reduction in their energy bill) as a key reason for installing heat pumps, Winther’s study actually found evidence of a spatial and temporal rebound effect. While participants wanted to save energy, in practice they appreciated the increased comfort using more energy gave them. While before individual rooms would be heated, the heat pump enabled the whole house to be heated so that people did not have to experience the discomfort of going from warm rooms to cold ones. In addition, people tended to leave the heat pumps on even if they were going away for the weekend while they would not have done so with their previous heating systems. Both of these are partially due to the advice they received from the installers – heat pump owners are advised not to switch them on and off to preserve their lifespan and are also advised to leave inside doors open so that the air can circulate around the whole house. This expert advice was heeded because it allowed participants to be more comfortable, whilst still assuming that they were saving energy (despite this not being the case).

This interview data clearly shows that technology alone does not necessarily reduce consumption. In this case, the combination of technology, individual choice and instruction from experts led to no affect on energy consumption. Technofixes are often considered to be one of the key ways in which we can reduce our energy consumption, but without appropriate consideration of the people involved, this can clearly backfire. This is one reason why the social sciences are needed in the study of energy, something our degree course focuses on very strongly.

The second study that Winther presented was a case study of in-home energy consumption displays in the UK and Norway. The assumption of this energy-savings intervention is that if people understand their energy usage, they will be able to reduce their consumption. The energy monitors seemed to go through the following phases of use:

  1. Test Phase – where people experimented with their usage
  2. Consumption Monitoring – where intra-household conflict is reduced as the facts about consumption are known, control is gained as they know what the bill will be
  3. Discovery of Irregularities – where the usage of the device is normal and is mostly used to respond to external changes and making conscious purchasing decisions

Again, whilst it was assumed that people would want to save money with this scheme, people also cited learning as one of their top reasons for participating in this project, as well as saving money and supporting research. These kinds of insights into motivations for participation in energy savings schemes, as well as understanding how they are received and used, are key to designing effective policy initiatives. In order to really reduce energy consumption, we need to be able to match policy and people, through the work of social scientists.

The DEI lectures are often livestreamed so if you found this interesting, you can follow @dei_durham on Twitter for updates or check out the list of upcoming events.

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