By Faye Wade, on 7 March 2014
In our post for Climate Week 2013, the UCL Energy Social Sciences Group highlighted the importance of understanding the way that people view energy. What people do can be difficult to predict; as we pointed out this can limit the success of strategies aimed at reducing energy use. In our previous post, we commented on the recent launch of the Government’s Green Deal, a programme aimed at improving the efficiency of dwellings by providing a loan for householders to invest in interventions like insulation and more efficient space heating technologies. This loan is then repaid through the energy savings delivered by the intervention. At that time, there were concerns about low uptake of the scheme. One year on we find ourselves with a scheme that has, so far, struggled to take off, prompting widespread media coverage and headlines like: “How the Green Deal turned into the green disaster”.
How did the Green Deal turn into the green disaster? There are issues with the complexity of the process (a multi-stage procedure, requiring, for example, an initial assessment before any works can take place), the financing mechanism used, skepticism around expected savings and general awareness of the scheme. Arguably, one of the key challenges is the sheer number of different stakeholders involved in the process. We have the homeowner, the person performing assessment, the tradesmen involved in installing the interventions, the organisations financing the scheme and those involved in the supply chain, all of whom have to be suitably aware of, and able to play their part in, the Green Deal. Coordinating so many individuals and organisations is not an easy task. Somewhere in this complex network, something appears to have come unstuck. To really understand the barriers to uptake of the Green Deal, we need to take a holistic approach to investigating the people and groups who are involved at all levels. Drawing on theories from the social sciences can be an effective way of unravelling the complex interactions between people, energy, organisations, policies and the physical fabric of the built environment.
For example, sociological theories position energy use as largely invisible and instead focus on the routine practices that people carry out in their daily lives, some of which consume energy and resources (e.g. cooking a Sunday roast) and some of which may actually save energy (e.g. the daily activities of an insulation installer). In these theories, the context in which certain practices occur is very important. So, for example, what are the circumstances under which a homeowner would decide to make improvements to their home? Are they really interested in saving energy, or would they prefer that to be a happy side effect of installing a brand new kitchen or adding value to their property by building out the loft? And how do they feel about taking out a loan to finance these kind of ‘invisible’ improvements that the Green Deal offers? These are the kind of questions that social scientists ask, questions that need to be investigated much more if we are to boost the success of promising, but highly complex, programmes like the Green Deal.
The relevance of the Green Deal to a number of the topics relating to climate demonstrates the multi-dimensional nature of these issues. Five topics were outlined for the content of these Climate Week blogs; these are the relationship between climate and health, poverty eradication, water, resources and energy. Arguably, the Green Deal has implications for all of these topics within the context of buildings. For example, the quality of our buildings and thus the energy, and money, it takes to be comfortable in them has a direct impact on the health and poverty levels of their occupants. So, not only is the lack of Green Deal uptake a problem involving multiple individuals, it also impacts on several elements of the climate problem. Consequently, it’s important to understand this problem, and so many others within the energy field, from a range of different perspectives.
The UCL Energy Social Sciences Group recognise this and have built an expanding group of multi-disciplinary individuals, all looking at energy problems from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. In the last year we have continued to build on the strengths of the Social Sciences Group, including hosting a regular reading group and welcoming a range of external speakers from the wider UCL community and beyond. These events have covered a range of topics, varying from studies of the tradesmen installing external wall insulation to transition management in low-carbon neighbourhoods. We are currently planning a conference aimed at bringing together the different perspectives of social sciences and energy that are being applied across UCL. If you’d like to find out more about the group, visit the UCL-Energy Social Sciences Group website, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
 http://www.theguardian.com/money/2014/jan/18/green-deal-green-disaster, accessed 25 February 2014.
 DECC & CHATTERTON, T. 2011. An introduction to Thinking about ‘Energy Behaviour'; a Multi Model Approach. In: CHANGE, D. O. E. A. C. (ed.). DECC.