On Thursday 11th November I was invited by YouGov to attend an event they were holding in Westminster on the topic, Sustainable Communities – Building the Big Society. It attracted a mix of local government, regeneration, housing, development and environmental professionals. The Director General of Housing from the Department of Communities and Local Government, Richard McCarthy, did his best to enthuse us about the meaning and practice of a Big Society and illustrating its operation in the government’s plans for localism; whilst the Shadow Minister for Civil Society, Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP tried to distinguish her party’s approach to civil society.
Whichever brand of state-society (dis-)engagement you prefer, there was not a great deal of evidence of community engagement in the presentation of government plans for their Green Deal on energy efficiency in homes. Phil Wynn Owen from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) presented the thinking thus far, and which will be consulted on soon, before legislation, then implementation from Autumn 2012. Phil explained the basic model, which reclaims the installation costs of various household energy efficiency measures from the savings at the energy meter, effectively displacing the investment costs to the householder that initiates the installation. Phil explained that a number of banks and energy utilities were in discussion with government about participating; different packages for were being developed. DECC foresaw a ‘thriving, competitive market’, where energy advisors and efficiency installers would compete to provide their services.
A long-standing and growing body of research and experience indicates that efficiency measures that deliver deep reductions in energy consumption (needed if we are to meet international targets) require quite complex and long-term engagements with households. Trusted, timely and tailored advice can require an ongoing dialogue, in which the positions of those giving and receiving advice are important (e.g. independent advice, product marketing, social class). As Philip Selwood, Chief Executive of the Energy Savings Trust, put it in his presentation to the event, ‘the household is the most important partner’. Otherwise rebound effects can reduce the impact of the efficiency measure.
Household energy practices are also shaped by the way people respond to the technologies installed, the skills they develop for using these technologies, and the meanings this has for them. Low energy practices do not just mean installing cavity wall insulation, say, but also that people realise what this can mean for their home, and that it is the thermostat that can be turned down, rather than opening the windows. Insulation used in a way that means less thermal energy is needed for a given level of comfort for the householder, could open up other opportunities, such as alternative heat supplies viable at lower rates of consumption; or even flow into discussions and commitment to greener practices across the board.
The challenge for the supply-driven approach to Green Deal is to ensure it is household energy practices that change, and not simply the installation of kit. Target- and bonus-driven installers working in highly competitive markets will need to ensure not just joined up household energy efficiency measures, but that these are internalised into household practices in ways that cut deep into energy consumption levels. The Green Deal might be very effective at the mass diffusion of certain energy efficiency technologies, but meeting the requirements of the financiers rather than the households might mean a rather shallow technological impact. Careful programme design means this need not be the case; and no matter how inappropriately used, mass diffusion might nevertheless deliver more limited energy savings that add up to something quite significant on a mass scale.
At the same time, however, a longer-standing and better-funded form of marketing to households comes from producers of a growing variety of electronic consumer products and devices, with their own impacts on aggregate carbon emissions. Various governments have sought to regulate the energy performance of these products. Once again, these technological standards only become absolute reductions in energy through the way the devices are used. Perhaps the engagements initiated by the Green Deal could complement government standards programmes by working across a wider variety of energy practices in households?
Considered in this way, some of the area-based, locally-interlinked and flexible features of community-initiated and community-based approaches might prove attractive for developing these longer-standing relations that seek deeper-seated shifts in energy practices. Community energy groups bidding for Green Deal contracts might argue these local multiplier effects as their unique selling point. Examples of community-based initiatives already exist thanks to programmes where grant-funding can be competed for and used to deliver energy advice and support in innovative ways. Whether claims for their strengths (and weaknesses) are valid or not is the subject of ongoing research, for example through collaboration between the Economic and Social Research Council and DECC’s Low Carbon Communities Programme. But as Sir Stewart Etherington, Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, argued at the Sustainable Communities event, there can be a tension sometimes between flexible, adaptable, solutions specific to local scales and diverse households compared to large-scale, standardised measures pitched at mass markets.
It will be interesting to see how the different approaches to energy efficiency, experimented with over many years now, vie with one another as the details of the Green Deal move from proposal to programmes next year. Certainly, there is no shortage of experience of home energy measures and programmes, some targeted to demand and locally adapted, others rolled out on a mass scale. It is important that the Green Deal consultation draws upon this experience and associated research.