UCL Energy Institute & UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources Climate Week Blog
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    Focus on the people

    By Michael Fell, on 7 March 2013

    peoplePost by Faye Wade, Carrie Behar and Mike Fell

    As part of Climate Week 2013, the UCL Energy Social Sciences Group wanted to demonstrate how our research could help in encouraging a new wave of action to create a more sustainable future. Here at the UCL Energy Institute, we know how important it is to understand behaviour and the effect this has on energy use. There is wide recognition that despite decades of work in this area, our ability to predict how programmes and innovations aimed at reducing energy use will be received remains crude. Discussions with people working in this area are peppered with stories of low uptake, rebound, backfire and a whole range of unintended consequences associated with various new energy-saving initiatives.

    An example of this is the use of advanced central heating controls in homes. It is now a requirement to include thermostats, programmers and thermostatic radiator valves to control central heating systems, based on their potential to save energy. However, research has revealed difficulties with the use of these controls, including people not understanding their functionality, confusion with symbols and confusion about the most energy efficient ways to operate the system. What’s more, the physical location of these controls in homes can influence the way that they are used. If this is the case, and people don’t understand their heating controls or cannot find them, how can we hope to achieve energy reductions through fitting controls?

    Real people don’t follow instructions, don’t understand, disagree, get frustrated, change, and change again. All of this makes understanding people’s energy use a challenging task. Yet if we are to adapt to new constraints on our demand for energy, it is an essential one. A second pertinent example is the government’s recent launch of the Green Deal, an innovative scheme that allows people to take out a loan to fund energy efficiency improvements in their homes, with the idea that repayments will be less than the energy savings made through the intervention. However, reports suggesting that initial uptake has been slow demonstrate how the assumption that people will always behave rationally and strive towards maximising economic benefits is flawed. In fact, a whole range of factors, which can include technological, political, social, economic and psychological elements, shape people’s behaviour.

    The research of the UCL Energy Social Sciences Group acknowledges how complex the situation is and focuses on understanding and minimizing these problems. The Social Sciences Group is made up of students and staff at UCL Energy Institute and the Bartlett; some of the topics being investigated include:

    • What influence central heating installers might have on people’s space heating practices (Faye Wade)
    • The relationships between people’s physical surroundings and their responses to thermal discomfort (Stephanie Gauthier)
    • Why people often don’t save as much energy as predicted when their homes are made more energy efficient (Jenny Love)
    • How people adapt to living with innovative energy efficient ventilation systems (Carrie Behar)
    • How people’s perceived control affects their acceptance of smart energy systems (Mike Fell)
    • How to determine which policy approaches might feasibly be employed in the UK to encourage energy demand side management (Peter Warren)

    We’re keen to share experience with, and learn from, other departments within UCL and beyond. If you’d like to find out more, visit the UCL-Energy Social Sciences Group website, or email ucl.energy.ssg@gmail.com.