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Building energy resilience in low income communities

What happens to low income households whose energy bills suddenly increase? When, for example, prices rise dramatically or there’s a change in circumstances such as an elderly relative living at home.  And how can such households and their neighbourhoods be supported to become more ‘energy resilient’?  Harriet Sansom from the Centre for Sustainable Energy outlines the questions they are exploring through the Powering Up! project, working in three low income communities – Duffryn in Newport, Penhill in Swindon and Hamp in Bridgwater.  

The project started with a six month ethnographic study undertaken by Bradon Smith, in partnership with Bath University, involving in-depth interviews and a workshop with three residents in each community.

So what did we learn?

Firstly that, for most of the people we spoke with, energy reduction is not a priority even though energy bills are one of the biggest domestic expenses. This isn’t because the issues or techniques for saving gas and electricity aren’t understood – in most cases they are – but rather because these households are already among the lowest energy users in the UK and few savings could be made without dramatically impacting on their quality of life.

This reminds us that for low income households energy behaviour interventions shouldn’t be solely focused on energy reduction but rather on smarter behaviours that improve the condition of their homes, such as draughtproofing, and reducing damp, and on income maximisation, for example through ensuring households are accessing available financial support.

Secondly that ‘energy literacy’, especially of the wider energy system, is higher than we presumed. This became clear through workshop activities, such as asking participants to collectively draw a map of our energy system, which revealed that there was more latent knowledge of how the system works than first impressions might suggest. The opportunity to discuss how the energy system works also led to people finding out more about local energy histories and stories in their own time. This tells us that there are opportunities to engage people’s interest in energy issues, even where initial conversations fall flat! Persistence and using interactive and fun ways to explore energy is critical.

Thirdly, that people are very aware of renewable sources of electricity, to the extent that wind and solar power are more prominent in people’s descriptions of how the energy system works than even coal, oil and gas. But whilst people consider them favourably, labelling them ‘green’ or ‘eco’, the connection to their role in reducing CO2 emissions and mitigating climate change is not made. This suggests that the issue of climate change would not be a motivating factor for these communities to engage with energy issues; focusing on the message of ‘reducing wastage’ would be more salient.

Finally, and significantly, there is considerable scepticism about the fairness of the energy system, and householders expressed a strong sense of disempowerment and disengagement from it, their only sense of control being seen as the option to switch supplier. The notion that communities could, for example, collectively own energy generation facilities was entirely absent. Where reference to household-level generation was made – solar panels on houses, say – this was considered as desirable but not financially accessible. This finding resonates with our observations that most community energy activities emerge either in more affluent areas, or in lower-income areas where there are intermediary organisations who are engaged in community energy activities. Using messaging which links to ‘energy justice’ themes could prove useful for engaging people in energy activities in these communities.

These lessons provide rich learnings for the community engagement work that the Centre for Sustainable Energy is now doing in each community, and updates on how the Powering Up! project is progressing will be published on CSE’s website.

Harriet Sansom is a Project Manager in the Centre for Sustainable Energy’s communities team. She delivers a range of projects which support communities, local authorities and young people to engage with sustainable energy projects and low carbon policies, with a particular focus on working in low income areas.

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