The Energy Context

Much of the UK’s housing was built before the links between energy use and climate change were understood. Much of it was also built when there were very different expectations of thermal comfort. To put it simply, most families in 1970 lived in homes that would be cold by modern standards in winter – as cool as 12°C on average. There may have been ice on the insides of the windows, and nearly everyone accepted the need to wear thick clothes at home in winter.
The UK Housing Energy Fact File, 2014

The UK’s energy context has clearly changed significantly over recent decades, and our expectation of the conditions we have at home has altered within our lifetimes. This suggests that the energy context is a fluid and changing state, which can be at odds with our housing stock and clothing. It may be informed not just by energy suppliers and markets, but also by the wider cultural context of today. In the UK, domestic energy use now accounts for almost one third of our total national energy use. In 2013 domestic consumption was 29 per cent of total UK final consumption, compared to 27 per cent in 2000 and 26 per cent in 1990. Households are also responsible for one quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions (Department for Energy and Climate Change, 2014b, hereafter referred to as DECC).

Domestic energy as a proportion of the total national use is rising, and addressing the ways in which individuals relate to energy, use it at home and understand their interactions with it is becoming an increasingly important part of reducing our total national energy consumption and the associated environmental impact. The proliferation in digital technology such as computers, tablets and mobile phones over recent years has increased electricity use (The Carbon Brief, 2014), but measures to reduce home energy consumption more broadly are underway, and they are having an effect. The installation of energy efficient appliances (such as fridges, ovens and washing machines) is increasing and is expected to continue as manufacturers improve the efficiency of their products (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2009; DECC, 2014c); and the EU’s Energy Labelling Directive (2010) has meant that the efficiency of such home appliances is clear for all consumers to see. We are also seeing a shift from incandescent to LED light bulbs and improvements in the efficiency of the boilers we install (The Carbon Brief, 2014). Grants have also been offered through the government, energy suppliers and local authorities to improve home insulation (see for example, the Energy Saving Trust, 2014).

With these changes, the actual volume of energy used by UK households has started to fall. When temperature variations are accounted for, we used the lowest amount of energy at home in 2013 since 1985 (DECC, 2014c). This is particularly notable considering the on-going rise in the total population: England and Wales had a population of 48.5 million people in 1981, which had risen to 56 million people by 2011 (Office for National Statistics, 2012).

A key factor that will of course play a role in our home energy use is cost, and the real terms cost of gas doubled in price between 1996 and 2013 (DECC, 2015). Space heating (which is usually from gas) remains the primary use of energy at home – close to 70 per cent of total energy (DECC, 2013). Against this backdrop, it is clear to see how higher costs will affect end use.
The high cost of domestic energy unfortunately also has implications for fuel poverty. In 2012 4.5 million households in the UK (17 per cent of the total) were fuel poor (DECC, 2014a). In 2003 and 2004 there were 2 million fuel-poor households, which increased to 5.5 million in 2009, and has been decreasing again since then (DECC, 2014a). DECC identifies that these changes correlate to household income and changes in the cost of fuel.

Affordable energy is, of course, essential for the wellbeing of the population. Politicians regularly speak of their commitments to reducing fuel costs, and with the decreasing wholesale fuel costs we are experiencing in early 2015, party leaders are championing lower bills for consumers (see for example BBC, 2015a). While we continue to maintain our dependence on fossil fuels, and as shale gas continues to be explored in the UK (BBC, 2015b) these political pledges come at great environmental cost. In the third quarter of 2014, renewable electricity accounted for 18 per cent of the total electricity generated (DECC, 2014c) and this tension between the need for energy to maintain comfort and wellbeing, and national targets to reduce environmental impact (DECC, 2011), highlights the need for innovative new measures that address today’s energy demands. Furthermore, energy companies still largely create their profit from selling energy, meaning that their business model relies on people using more. Whilst we are seeing a growing number of renewable or community-led energy companies and groups (such as Good Energy or the Community Energy Coalition), at the time of writing the old model is still the dominant one.

As the quote at the beginning of this section suggests, our energy context is situated in time and place. The way we use energy at home is influenced by political context, global markets, national infrastructures, architecture, fashion, product design and technology, amongst other things. The energy context is a multifaceted and complex one, and measures to address the ways in which we use energy should recognise and work with this complexity, not against it.