The PSI Blog

Smart Communities: working together to save energy?
Kevin Burchell

One of the peculiar things about academia is the way in which research projects follow us from one post to the next. So it is that, even though I started as a Senior Research Fellow at PSI at the start of April, I have spent the past month or so much more focused on my previous project. Smart Communities was a three and a half year – largely demand-side or ‘behaviour change’ – community energy project that I ran at Kingston University with Professor Ruth Rettie. The project drew on the principles of action research, and took place in Kingston upon Thames. Smart Communities was funded by the ESRC-EPSRC Energy and Communities stream of the RCUK Energy programme and Ruth and I were supported by Tom Roberts (who is now a Research Portfolio Manager at the ESRC). The project was also designed and implemented in collaboration with local partners, including: Fern Hill Primary School, Transition Town Kingston, Royal Borough of Kingston and South West London Environment Network.

The final report of the Smart Communities project, Working Together to Save Energy?, was launched at a one-day event at the British Academy on Wednesday 11 June 2014. The event was attended by academics, people from DECC and Defra, local authorities, community groups, third-sector organisations and independent researchers/consultants.

As well as a review of the project, attendees enjoyed a keynote address by PSI’s own Fred Steward (Professor of Sustainability and Innovation) and a response to Smart Communities by Fiona Booth (Head of Community Energy, DECC). Fred helped us to situate Smart Communities within the emergence of community energy over the past 40 years and considered the place of ‘community’ within broader ideas about transitions to a low-carbon society. Fiona introduced DECC’s recent Community Energy Strategy and highlighted the ways in which this chimes with the findings of Smart Communities. There were also highly valuable contributions from project partners and participants: Diana Brotherston (former head teacher, Fern Hill Primary School), Colin Cooper (Chief Officer, South West London Environment Network), Peter Mason (Transition Town Kingston and project participant) and Sue Matthews (project participant).

In broad terms, the Smart Communities findings support the contemporary policy focus on demand-side action, community energy and energy consumption feedback. At the same time, the project highlights the long term and challenging nature of these approaches, and the implications of this for funding and strategy. The findings emphasis a lack of energy know-how among householders as a key constraint on change, and identifies ways in which more widespread know-how might be developed. With particular reference to the smart meter roll-out, the project highlights a number of ways in which householder engagement with energy consumption feedback can be enhanced and prolonged. The project also emphasises the benefits of action on energy within a primary school, and these ways in which this prompts engagement with energy in the home.

There is more information about Smart Communities here.

Kevin Burchell is a senior research fellow in PSI’s Environment Group.

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