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Smart Energy GB and DECC: the two policy worlds of domestic energy demand reduction policy
Kevin Burchell

Kevin Burchell

I spent Tuesday 22 March at two policy events. Ostensibly, these were related meetings, both held in support of the UK government’s objectives relating to the role of energy consumption feedback – presented on the in-home displays provided with smart meters – in domestic energy consumption reduction. However, this is where the similarity between the two events begins and ends. In fact, the two events couldn’t have been more different. Given the importance of energy demand reduction and the huge amounts of money that are being spent on smart meters, I found this lack of integration very frustrating, so I thought I would write a very short paper in the hope of prompting some integrative and collaborative action.

In the morning, I was in the company of Smart Energy GB – set up by the government to manage the communications and engagement around the smart-meter rollout – at their large-scale and glitzy event on behaviour change. This event featured talks by economist Tim Harford and behavioural scientist David Halpern about the ways in which behavioural science and economics can deliver behaviour change in the context of smart meters and domestic energy demand reduction. Here the talk was of automation, data, incentives, cues, defaults, testing and randomised-controlled trials (RCTs). In disciplinary terms, we were in the territory of behavioural science and behavioural economics; since the audience’s questions were mediated by the Smart Energy GB hosts, even these remained firmly within the behavioural frame.

A couple of hours later, I was with DECC’s smart meter implementation team, researchers from Ipsos MORI and others, at a workshop to hear about and contribute to progress on the development of materials to support smart meter installers in providing in-home energy efficiency advice to householders. By contrast, the discussion here was all about relationships, trust, know-how, information, householders and their needs, qualitative research and even ethnography. The disciplinary setting for this meeting was much more sociological and – due to the emphasis on information – social psychological. Given that I have had quite a bit of success with this in-home energy efficiency advice approach in my own research and that DECC is actively pursuing it, it was pretty dismaying to hear David Halpern dismiss it earlier in the day on the basis of a single RCT in Newcastle a couple of years ago.

As someone who has been working on domestic energy consumption reduction since 2009, these contrasts were but the latest manifestation of a long-standing (if rather one-sided) debate between approaches from behavioural science, social psychology and sociology. Not much of the relevant material is open-access, but Elizabeth Shove has presented a pretty combative sociological view (to which Lorraine Whitmarsh has responded from a social psychology perspective). Meanwhile, Charlie Wilson, Tim Chatterton and Yolande Strengers have all presented perspectives – to which I would largely subscribe – which are certainly sociological but also recognise the value of other approaches, and that the distinctions between approaches can become blurred the closer you get to interventions in the home. It is notable that behavioural scientists have not entered into these debates.

At its heart, and this is a gross over-simplification, the sociological critique of the behavioural approach has two elements to it. The first is that the challenge of climate change is so profound that it requires systemic or structural societal change, and behaviour change not only represents a relatively small part of this, but also obscures and depoliticises the broader challenge. The second is that, even within the more limited remit of changing how things are done in the home, the behavioural approach is relatively narrow in scope and is determinedly overlooking many of the valuable insights that sociologists are producing. For instance, it is surely curious that behavioural science is relatively incurious about: how patterns of energy consumption have come to be the way they are (might this offer some clues about how they can be changed?); what happens in people’s homes in general, how they live their lives, and the place of energy in their lives; and, more specifically, what actually happens in people’s homes in the context of interventions designed to reduce consumption (this might help us to improve and refine interventions, for example).

Sociologists – using qualitative and ethnographic methods that are a million miles from the superficial works/doesn’t work binaries of RCTs – are producing varied and valuable insights into these issues. It struck me as particularly ironic that a discussion between Tim Harford and David Halpern concluded with a call for research on energy consumption reduction to be funded by government! I suppose they specifically meant their beloved RCTs, but this comment made me wonder what I have been doing for the past seven years (and others have been doing for longer), and it made me worry at the apparent influence of people who appear to know little or nothing of this research.

In the remainder of this paper, I’d like to comment on a couple of insights from my own work that are relevant to the behavioural approach. Behavioural scientists in the UK are keen to highlight areas of success – for example, enrolment in pensions, payment of income tax, vehicle tax and court fines and simplification of application processes – and they should be congratulated. However, on the basis of talking to many householders about energy and energy demand reduction, my own research and that of others suggests that energy consumption is very different to these issues. Two key aspects to this can be readily identified.

  • What are we trying to change?
    First, these areas of success might be described as single and one-off (or, typically, infrequent) actions, and as actions that are relatively discrete from other aspects of our lives. For example, once you enrol in a pension you stay enrolled, and enrolling in a pension is not tied up with other aspects of everyday life. By contrast, energy consumption is the outcome of many or even most actions around the home, and these actions are both interlinked and endlessly repeated in the daily patterns of people’s lives. This is why I would suggest that, when it comes to energy, it is not behaviour or even behaviours (or even practices!) – but instead a rather more complex thing, that we might call everyday life – that we need to act on.
  • Hard work?
    In addition, the actions in these areas of success are relatively easy to take. To put this another way, people typically know how to, for example, pay their road tax. By contrast, in my own research, people typically tell us that they do not know how to reduce their energy consumption, and that the advice they are given is typically unhelpful because it is not relevant to specifics of them and their home. This means that they have to spend a lot of time researching and experimenting before they hit upon what works for them in their home. This is one of the reasons I refer to energy consumption reduction as ‘hard work’ that is time-consuming for householders (and a key reason why in-home advice is so helpful). Another reason that energy consumption reduction is hard work is that, while one person in a household can decide and act on paying their road tax, my own research and others’ shows that energy consumption is the social outcome of actions that are negotiated among household members. In this context, energy consumption reduction often becomes a matter of conflict within households, and this is understandably a constraint on change. ‘Thermostat wars’, as described by a participant in one of my workshops, are a good example of this phenomenon.

My intention here is not to dismiss behavioural science and its methods, but rather to ask behavioural scientists: are your insights and methods alone equal to this rather different and challenging task. I would appeal to behavioural scientists to try to take a broader perspective and to appreciate the value of other approaches and methods. I think it would be extremely valuable if DECC and Smart Energy GB could collaborate on a major event designed – in its content, form and conduct – to promote greater understanding and collaboration between proponents of behavioural, social psychological and sociological approaches to energy demand and demand reduction. It’ll require a lot of energy, but I think it would be worth it.

You can access Kevin’s energy papers here.

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