Can the UK achieve an energy efficiency revolution?

The Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) was officially launched at a well-attended joint event with the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group at Portcullis House, London on 12th June 2014. Dr Alan Whitehead MP chaired a vigorous debate on the future energy-efficiency revolution – introduced by five panellists and followed by broader and very informed contributions from the floor.

Steve Sorrell, Director of CIED and Co-Director of the Sussex Energy Group, SPRU, began by providing an overview of the Centre and its approach to reducing energy demand. Steve argued that the dominant approaches to energy efficiency policy, informed by orthodox economics and social psychology, needed to be supplemented by much greater emphasis on technological innovation and long-term transformation of the ‘socio-technical’ systems used to deliver heating, mobility and other services. Moreover,sustaining long-term reductions in energy demand requires the multiple rebound effects triggered by such changes to be effectively addressed.

Clive Maxwell, Director General, Consumers and Households at DECC, summarised the UK Energy Efficiency Strategy and the government’s approach to reducing energy demand, while Andy Deacon, Director of Delivery, Energy Savings Trust, elaborated on some of the practical challenges involved. Frank Geels, Co-Director of CIED, highlighted some of the difficulties with current policy (such as the slow progress on the Green Deal) and emphasised the importance of systemic change and ‘socio-technical transitions’ as well as the need for putting intentions into practice. Finally, David Hall, Executive Director, Behaviour Change, discussed the challenges of consumer engagement with energy efficiency, including some of the approaches used in the Big Energy Idea.

There followed a series of challenging questions and observations from the audience, including the relative merits of voluntary action and regulation, the importance of new entrants versus incumbents, the critical role of energy efficiency and reducing energy bills and the potential for ‘apps’ to encourage demand reduction. The discussion highlighted a variety of barriers and possible solutions to significant energy demand reduction, on which the panel gave their views.

One message was that the UK’s recent performance appears relatively good by international standards, with household energy consumption falling by ~2% per year since 2005 and with the UK being one of the least energy intense economies in the G8. However, this position results in part from the offshoring of energy intensive manufacturing and the combined effect of the challenges faced by the Green Deal and the changes to ECO are likely to slow the rate of improvement in the household sector in the medium-term.

Frank Geels commented upon the lack of ‘revolutionaries’, change agents and broader political will. He suggested there was too great an emphasis on individual technologies rather than the systems in which they are embedded, with users of technologies and the human factor being relatively neglected. A greater focus on emotional and rational benefits was suggested to move away from supply-side interests dominating demand-side responses. User engagement could be effectively framed around empowerment, with community energy service providers potentially providing an important role in implementing projects and raising awareness.

Driving the energy efficiency revolution requires more integrated policy making and cross-departmental cooperation to tackle the multiple cross-cutting issues involved. This requires the government taking a more active role. There is significant progress with the government estate, but this should not be confused with broader initiatives on public sector procurement and greener government – which forms a necessary part of leading by example. The issue of trust was also highlighted, together with the potential catalytic role of smart meters in facilitating broader systemic change.

On the other hand it was suggested that government and dominant business interests may hold the energy efficiency revolution back as there is an unwillingness to challenge perceptions and consider more radical options. Smaller cars were one example but downsizing and reconceptualising spaces for living and working were also put forward to avoid the need to travel in the first place. Systemic change can only come through a shift in focus from technologies towards the customers of demand-side solutions such as individuals, communities and cities which act both as incubators and diffusors of demand side innovations that are fuelling the energy efficiency revolution.

The event concluded with a summary and remarks from Alan Whitehead and a brief but fruitful networking opportunity.

By Colin Nolden,