A new conversation about energy

Sensemaking / A new conversation about energy

UK coalition aims to turn public anger over energy bills into energy efficient action.

By Duncan Jefferies / 06 Nov 2013

Every rise in energy prices is accompanied by a spike of public indignation. The big six energy companies are duly pounded by the press. Government ministers scramble to announce measures that will bring down bills, while their opposition counterparts demand ‘action’ on energy costs. Ed Miliband has even announced plans to freeze gas and electricty prices for two years if Labour win the 2015 general election. Meanwhile, the practical steps people can take to reduce their energy consumption are forgotten or ignored.

Behaviour Change and Forum for the Future aim to tackle this situation by changing the conversation about energy. A coalition of business, Government, NGOs and communities will be formed to shift the debate on domestic energy from anger to positive action, helping consumers to control their energy bills and insulate themselves against future price rises.

The project will develop clear, unified messages to encourage people to look at their energy use throughout their home, from generation to consumption. It will encourage a more conscientious approach to the energy demands of existing devices, and motivate people to invest in energy efficient retrofits of their homes, building a market estimated to be worth £10 billion/year. It will also advocate energy efficiency technologies, such as smart meters and new boilers, that could help to combat fuel poverty.

It’s an ambitious plan, given how disempowered energy customers currently feel. While 36% of people are more worried about energy bills than any other household expense, 63% currently think there is not very much or nothing at all they can do to reduce them, according to research by Behaviour Change. There is also a widely held belief that energy companies need to stop making excessive profits from their customers (65%), and that the Government needs to force them to charge less (48%).

“There are a lot people worried about their energy bills, which in a rational world would lead to lots of energy efficiency”, says David Hall, Executive Director of Behaviour Change.

Despite the fact that there are now a range of policies and technologies available to help households improve their energy efficiency, from smart meters and solar panels to the Energy Companies Obligation (ECO) and Green Deal, only 8% of people are currently planning to make energy efficiency improvements to their home. This is in part due to the piecemeal way new home energy efficiency policies are presented to the public, and mixed messages from Government on the environment. For example, DECC is encouraging people to take advantage of the Green Deal, while the Treasury throws its weight behind fracking.

There’s a trust issue to contend with too: messages from energy companies and politicians are often treated with scepticism. Pioneer businesses hoping to change the energy conversation believe a consistent voice on all in-home measures to reduce the waste of energy and money, from a broad range of stakeholders, could help to tackle these problems. As Giles Bristow, Head of Energy at Forum for the Future, says, the aim is to build a coalition that will not solely consist of “people with the greatest embedded investment in energy efficiency”, but will also involve community groups and organisations from a range of different sectors. This should ensure it gets a fair hearing.

The initiative builds on previous campaigns to shift behaviour. Fire Kills, for example, helped to raise the number of homes with fire alarms from 9% in 1987 to 86% today. In Japan, when the shutdown of the country’s nuclear reactors cut its electricity capacity by a quarter following the Fukushima disaster, its Government launched a national campaign called the ‘Setsuden’ (Energy Saving) which helped to reduce Japan’s electricity demand by 15%.

Without a similar catalyst, can an initiative that aims to change the UK energy conversation engage the public in the same way? “With the energy of our partners, the pioneer coalition, we think we can have a successful pilot and roll it out national scale”, says Bristow. The true measure of success will be whether or not the campaign captures the attention of working class families in Newcastle as much as it does the chattering classes in Notting Hill. “The whole point is it [the conversation] has to go national for it to work”, Bristow explains. “If this is a conversation that only happens in the square mile, or only happens in Westminster, then it has failed.” – Duncan Jefferies

To help drive the conversation on domestic energy efficiency, email Ben Ross: b.ross@forumforthefuture.org

Photo credit: Pixland/Thinkstock

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