Consumer engagement in low-carbon home energy in the United Kingdom: Implications for future energy system decentralization

By Thomas Roberts and Aimie Hope

Cutting CO2 emissions from buildings is central to the UK government’s overall emissions reductions plans. The Household Energy Management Strategy states that by 2019 all new build properties will be ‘zero carbon’ and all existing buildings by 2030. If this is to be achieved fundamental changes are needed to both the way in which we consume and generate energy. While there are currently a number of competing visions for what future low-carbon energy systems might look like, it is likely that consumers will be more actively involved in managing their energy use. This is likely to involve the re-configuring of some energy intensive domestic social practices such as laundry, food production maintaining thermal comfort and entertainment.  Furthermore, new practices are likely to develop related to micro generation and storage of energy.

It is vital that as these transitions occur the disruption of everyday life is kept to a minimum and the changes result in the maxim real world reduction in emissions. With these concerns in mind Aimie Hope, myself and Ian Walker have recently brought together the findings from two separate studies into off-grid and semi-off grid households. In doing so we explore what can be learned from people who already take a more active role in managing their energy supply, with the aim of identifying transferable lessons that could be applied to future energy system decentralization.

The first of these studies, ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The problem of invisibility for environmental policy’ was a project funded by the British Academy. The project explored the impact that the visibility of energy has on the way in which people think about and utilize it. The research was carried out in communities on the North Norfolk coast who had electricity but not gas supplied by the national grid. Furthermore, due to the rural nature of these communities electricity outages are relatively common compared to other areas of the United Kingdom.

The second study was conducted on the Kennet and Avon Canal (UK) as part of the ‘High energy and power density (HEAPD) solutions to large energy deficits’ project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Participants lived full- or part-time on boats, disconnected from any centralized energy networks.

Three key findings from the research are briefly discussed below:

When people had constraints on their energy use they:

  1. diversified their energy supplies, including adopting traditional fuels such as coal and wood
  2. planned, monitored and shifted their energy use, responding in ways favourable to micro-generation and demand-side response
  3. curtailed their energy use


Multiple fuel strategies

The most significant finding from this research was that people in both off-grid and partly grid-connected contexts adapted to limited energy supplies by diversifying their energy sources. In practice this meant that a range of more traditional polluting fuels such as wood, coal and oil continued to be used (or adopted) alongside cleaner options like solar and air source heat pumps. It seems that in conditions where there is a real or perceived risk of energy supplies being limited, people resort to using traditional (but polluting) energy sources alongside cleaner more modern energy sources.

We’re a bit dependent on electricity and a working heat pump so we had a stove put in (House, 0870 FM).

Well I have a mixture. Mostly in the winter for heating I use the … it’s a multi-fuel burner. […] So I don’t use it [the oil powered heating] very much but it’s there as a back-up if I need it (House, 0369 F).

I would say go solar all the time and change all your stuff down to LED lighting inside and not house lamps, but always have a generator for back up because you never know when something goes wrong. […] You must be prepared (Narrowboat, P17).

While solid fuels do offer increased energy security where gas and electricity supplies may be limited or unreliable, they also pose welfare issues in terms of air quality and people’s physical ability to use them in maintaining thermal comfort. A clear implication of this research is that a range of cleaner, more sustainable options (and perhaps incentives) may need to be in place to prevent people adopting more polluting fuels as a response to scarcity or intermittency. Policy could facilitate the adoption of alternative cleaner sources of energy such as battery storage that would not only address environmental concerns, but also support more vulnerable households who may find use of solid fuels a burden.

Planning, monitoring, and shifting

Both the participants living on narrowboats and those in semi-grid connected houses in Norfolk demonstrated that the environment in which they were living had an impact on the way they planned and performed everyday domestic practices. In particular, on the boats running out of essential supplies was a constant concern with immediate and tangible consequences – meaning that energy intensive practices had to be planned to coincide with the availability of adequate power:

Yes, I think like you need to keep your eye on it obviously because if you run out of wood, can’t keep warm […] So, it’s kind of, it’s always on my mind (Narrowboat, P1)

In Norfolk motivations were different. A number of the participants noted that the availability of ‘free’ solar energy at particular times of the day facilitated the shifting of energy intensive practices such as laundry:

I never put my dishwasher on in the evening now which I would have done previously, it goes on in the morning, and if I’m going to do dishwasher and put the washing machine on then I’d try to get one finished before I put the next thing on (House, 057FM).

In short living off-grid or semi-off-grid means that energy resources not only became more visible, but also became visibly constrained, leading to changes in practices. Furthermore, rather than energy simply being a by-product of going about daily-life, our participants daily lives came to involve specific energy-focused practices including monitoring, managing, shifting and curtailing energy. Both the disruption to everyday practices and the creation of new ones caused by moving into an off-grid or semi-off grid environment supports the idea that habit discontinuity and ‘moments of change’ offer potential opportunities for the reconfiguration of everyday practices.

Curtailed their energy use

To make a significant contribution to the de-carbonization of energy supplies decentralized energy production needs to be accompanied by a reduction in overall energy consumption. This presents a number of potential challenges, particularly when it comes to ensuring the welfare of energy users. This research demonstrated that people curtailed resource use for a variety of different reasons depending on their contexts. Reasons included making limited energy supplies last longer and managing energy bills:

I’ve got a monitor so I know that when it’s [battery] running low, then I stop using things (Narrowboat, P14).

Well yeah, I mean, obviously we try to keep it to a minimum purely from the expense point of view (House, 1278 M).

When we look at the strategy of ‘diversifying’ in more detail, it can also be seen that participants on narrowboats also adjusted the types of appliances they used thereby reducing their energy demand. In the kitchen, for example, a number of participants had switched away from electrical appliances to using manually operated appliances such as a hand whisk instead of an electric one.

A source of significant annoyance amongst both the narrowboat residents who owned a washing machine and those living in houses with solar thermal water heaters was that new machines were designed to heat their own water:

So we get hot water, effectively, as a by-product of the engine. […] An issue for us as individuals – [is that] most modern washing machines are single feed cold water so it’s much more inefficient to heat up hot water with electricity than it is with gas or with our system. We were lucky because we got the washing machine ten years ago (Narrowboat, P4).

I don’t use that much hot water really because in fact when it comes down to it […] washing machines and dishwashers are cold-feed. And I find that really, really annoying because when I had that [solar thermal] installed I had a washing machine that wasn’t [cold feed] and now the only way you can use hot water is a shower or a bath (House, 0369F).

These examples clearly demonstrate that if more people become reliant upon decentralized renewable energy there will be an urgent need to redesign many common domestic appliance in a way which enables people to make the most of ‘free’ energy when it is available.


This research supported existing work indicating that changes to the domestic environment can be effective in changing habitual everyday practices. It is of course unrealistic to suppose that people in grid-connected houses could all move off-grid, move into more efficient dwellings such as passive houses, or downsize. However, we can learn a great deal from people living in off grid and semi-off grid homes which can be used to ensure future energy transitions occur as smoothly and effectively as possible.

For a full details of the results of this study and a more comprehensive analysis please see our recently published open access paper in the Journal Energy Research and Social Science:



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