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A visit to TU Delft – learning about Dutch renewable energy

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the research group OTB Managing the Built Environment at TU Delft in the Netherlands. This was especially useful in learning about Dutch energy and housing policies, as these are generally written in Dutch and I’ve had a harder time ‘making sense’ of the Dutch context for our ‘Smarter Homes?’ project. TU Delft is a much more technical and applied University than the University of St Andrews (it’s in the name after all and it seems nearly every unit has ‘engineering’ next to it). In the huge ‘BK City’ building I was based in it was interesting to be surrounded architectural models of housing units, to sit alongside researchers that seek to improve energy performance modelling and students that undertake post-occupancy evaluation surveys. It was a joy to present to this group and really nice to spend a week with others interested in my research experience and projects! However, my conversations about energy policy, renewables and climate change were in many ways discouraging, so in this brief blog post I will also include more positive reflection on the value of visiting other Universities and the benefits (or not) of choosing not to fly in ‘doing’ sustainable development research.

delft presentation

Presenting at TU Delft on my framework of home comfort


NL & UK 3rd/4th lowest renewable energy producers in the EU

Trying to get my head around key policies and the energy context I asked most of the researcher unit what they knew about renewables in NL.

Insights from being a visiting scholar

It was nice to see how another research group operated, there was a lot of efforts to make everyone feel part of a community. Henk was always prompt at noon to suggest everyone stop for lunch (PhDs, masters students and staff)  which made it easy to get to know everyone. There were also two things they asked of PhD students that I really liked and again made it feel like everyone was working together and raised their profile within the building.

  • 10 ‘opposable and defendable’ propositions, a sheet at the front of the printed thesis (which are beautifully printed and current PhD students commonly had copies of previous students dissertations that they referred to). This was such a nice way to get an overview immediately of the document and was more informative than flipping through to find the thesis abstract (see pictures for some examples, I want to recommend this to students/write a list for my thesis)

opposable and defendable

  • A3 poster of each PhD student, personal picture and project (including a note when their viva is). These posters were a really nice way to know who was in the research unit, I would also love to see this in the future, it was nice visibility for students and helpful for me as a visitor to know who is who.

phd up


Finally, I thought I’d point out that I had thought quite a bit about sustainable forms of travel to go to Delft in the name of sustainability research. Flying always seems like a contradiction for a sustainable development researcher (see Yolanda, 2014 another visiting scholar reflecting on the internationalisation of academia, albeit she visited the UK from Australia) because there is a sense that for research to ‘count’ and develop, it must be taken to an international audience and acknowledged internationally and yet travelling to another country is generally quite resource-intensive. I was lucky to have Louise supportive of taking the ferry (she also did and has only flown once since I’ve known her!) – which is more expensive than flying. The ferry leaves about 5pm and arrives at 9am both ways, so it is a comfortable way to travel, get a nice rest and potentially do some work. But it is much longer than the 90 minute flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam. I also thought it would be interesting to experience the Dutch cycling culture and brought my bike over on the ferry. I cycled everywhere, I did not get on a train or in a car the entire time I was in NL. While it was incredible infrastructure – they have segregated cycle lanes and nearly everywhere pedestrians and cars give you priority (including at roundabouts!) – cycling also took a really long time in comparison to taking a train or driving a car. Cycling from the ferry terminal to Delft and back took 6 hours (nearly a full working day!) and I am not sure I could justify spending that much time to travel if I were to do it again. I certainly learned a lot about Dutch housing and energy policy just from being in NL and speaking to researchers there, and there is often arguments pointing out the desirability of more cross-cultural comparisons in energy research (Ozaki, 2002; Sovacool, 2014; Wilhite et al., 1996), but it also raises issues of how we go about conducting this research and collaborating internationally. This was a benefit Louise and I saw in the online diary because you could collect data from householders in different countries at the same time without anyone having to leave their home. All and all, the ferry and cycling were an interesting experiment but I do not seem myself overcoming this dilemma between making contacts, exchanging ideas and encountering new ways of thinking that come from being a visiting scholar (or going to conferences) and the environmental impact of travelling yet!

Now to get back to writing a paper from all of UK and NL renewable heating policy and householders experience of living with these new technologies!




Ozaki, R. (2002). Housing as a reflection of culture: Privatised living and privacy in England and Japan,
Housing Studies, 17(2), 209-227.

Sovacool, B. (2014). What are we doing here? Analyzing fifteen years of energy scholarship and proposing a social science research agenda, Energy Res Soc Sci, 1, 1–29.

Wilhite, H., Nakagami, H., Masuda, T., Yamaga, Y. and Haneda, H. (1996). A cross-cultural analysis of
household energy use behaviour in Japan and Norway, Energy Policy, 24(9), 795-803.

Reflections from this year’s Scottish Renewables Conference

[All figures are from the draft Energy Strategy, all quotes are comments made at the conference]

scottish energy strategyThe Scottish Government has set out ambitious targets in their draft Climate Change Plan and Energy Strategy (now under consultation), aiming for 50% renewable energy by 2030. This is in line with the Paris Agreement and is the type of commitment necessary to avoid ‘risky climate change’. This certainly makes it an interesting time and place to be doing research in the field of energy prosumption and renewables!

Last week I attended the Scottish Renewables Annual Conference and was given a window into current debates and concern facing this industry. This 2-day conference of approximately 180 attendees was primarily attended by industry (energy and renewable companies) with government, NGOs and a few researchers feeding into discussion. This blog is a short reflection on reoccurring themes from the conference presentations and conversations I encountered at this event.

1. General approval: a linked up strategy 

First and foremost, there was a resounding approval of the Climate Change Plan and Energy Strategy. Of course there are concerns and scepticism on its delivery, but following Chris Stark’s (Director of Energy and Climate Change, Scottish Government) presentation of this proposal both a panellist discussion and poll of the audience applauded the Scottish Government for setting such ambitious targets. It was also noted that these documents have been backed by the Conservative party in Scotland as well, so it is a cross-party commitment to addressing climate change.

key energy factsThese were seen quite optimistically as providing the first joined up strategy for energy policy, which generally silos energy for heat, power and transport. However, later discussions mentioned opportunities to link up further with key policy areas such as Planning policy (reformed last year, ‘low carbon place’ is one of three key outcomes) and Transport strategy (refreshed last year, ‘greener’  is one of five strategic outcomes). Specific examples of these non-energy policies hampering the renewable agenda arose. For instance, Glasgow city centre no longer offers free parking for Electric Vehicles (EVs) and this has resulted in markedly less EVs in carparks as a result. Chris Stark was (somewhat worryingly) not aware of different local policies on EV. Negotiating a linked up local and national policy was another common theme as the draft Climate Change Plan places a great deal of responsibility on local authorities, despite other policies removing resources to do this (e.g. austerity). Furthermore, this reminded me of some interesting research by Emily Cox, Sarah Royston and Jan Selby (2016) on the impacts of non-energy policies on the energy system – it is definitely an area for further exploration. Overall this new plan and strategy were received as a step in the right direction and when approved will hopefully provide the necessary national strategy to drive local policies and practices.

2. No clear answer for how to decarbonise heat 

energy demand in ScotlandYet of course there were issues and many unanswered questions. For me, and many others, the elephant in the room was an absence of discussion or detail on decarbonisation of heat – which is 53% of overall energy demand in Scotland and the main demand for energy in every county. This is not an issue specific to Scotland, but reflective of discussions around renewables globally (Ellsworth-Krebs and Reid, 2016). The first day, renewable energy was essentially used as a synonym for renewable power. While renewable power becoming ‘mainstream’ is certainly something to celebrate, power only accounts for 22% of Scotland’s overall energy demand and was referred to by Chris Stark as the ‘easy bit’ of decarbonisation. In fact, this was another common theme across sessions, an emphasis that renewable power is no longer niche but well-established with onshore wind and PV being cost competitive and often cheaper than any other form of production.

Household energy demand in Scotland

The second day, heat did get more mention. One speaker commented that “it is good to see heat getting the attention that it was starved in the past”, nonetheless there was no sense of any clear plan or direction for how to decarbonise heat – and Chris Stark forwardly admitted this. In many of my discussions at ‘networking’ parts of the event we considered the complexity of this challenge and the many questions it raised.

To what extent can we ‘electricify’ heat? And if we did, can we even expect to produce enough renewable electricity to heat homes and power EVs as well as ‘keep the lights on’ (the Energy stategy proposes a 30% increase in electricity demand as a result)?

If 80% of Scotland is on the gas mains is it really feasible to decarbonise this with hydrogen? No one seemed to think that there was evidence of the possibility to shift the gas mains to 100% hydrogen – although this is being trialed in the H21 Leeds City Gate Project. gas mains 80%

What role can district heating play? And what percentage can this actually be expected to contribute to overall heat consumption? Currently half of the district heating schemes in Scotland are from renewable energy sources but others referred to a study suggesting only 7% of Scotland’s heat could be met with district heating by 2025- due largely to the high costs of laying infrastructure for this (i.e. pipes to connect to houses or business) as well as concerns of air pollution from biomass in urban areas. Interestingly, Denmark was frequently referenced as an exemplar because 60% of their heating is from district heating. Stephanie Clark (Scottish Renewables, Sector Strategy and Development) noted the Danes had a different culture and air pollution has not been a public concern in relation to biomass in urban areas.

scotland best resource for CCS in EU

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), referred to by Chris Start as the ‘unicorn policy’ because it has the potential to offer negative emissions when paired with renewables, featured heavily in the draft Energy strategy. But how developed is this technology and considering over the last 2 years the UK Government has removed £1 billion investment in CCS it raises many concerns about the political will necessary to drive this agenda.The RHI was hardly mentioned at all – the first of its kind in the world, operating like a Feed in Tarrif (FiTs) hugely successful in supporting renewable power technologies and paying householders for the unit of heat they produce. The domestic RHI depends on individual installations so it is quite a small scale response.

Efficiency received perhaps the most attention in discussion of the heat sector. Yet this came across as an excuse for not offering clearer plans for decarbonising heat because this could be tackled at a later point when the housing stock is more efficient across the board. Based on a 15 year target for half the energy in Scotland coming this really cannot wait.

The variation in heat demand is far greater than for electricity (seasonal as opposed to daily rhythms) and meeting peaks is key to planning. Energy storage and a responsive energy system is key and there are no easy, whole-system solutions as yet. How to deliver renewable heat is a real challenge and at least it is being raised as a priority.

3. Who pays for this vision? 

Another common topic interwoven in presentations and informal chats came back to funding:  corporate Power Purchase Agreements  (PPAs), upgrading the grid and the Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Programme (LCITP), carbon pricing, full-system analysis, international pension funds, FiTs. While the Energy strategy offers a vision for decarbonisation, it is tricky to see who will pay for upgrading the grid or making the changes to infrastructure to support district heating for instance. There have been considerable cuts in government subsidies for renewable energy and there was discussion of more reliance on corporations for funding – with a mixed reception. Oil and gas companies attended, emphasising their commitment and investment in renewable energy and applying their knowledge and skills to this sector. For example, Statoil’s Hywind project off the coast of Aberdeenshire – the world’s first floating wind farm.

Overall, my take away from this conference was a realisation that Scotland is a good place to be doing research on renewable heat. There is a focus on being the ‘first’, indeed many presenters mentioned this and seemed invited on this basis. Scotland has taken the lead on renewables and has been ahead of the game on climate change for quite some time:

  • Orkney, the UK’s first smart grid
  • Renweable Heat Incentive, first of its kind in the world to support renewable heating technologies the same as the Feed in Tariff did for power
  • Hywind, the world’s largest floating wind farm
  • MeyGen, the world’s first utility scale tidal array
  • Climate Change Act (2009) 80% reduction in 1990 level emissions by 2050.

Why wouldn’t Scotland be the ‘first’ on pushing decarbonisation of heat too?

To conclude I bring this back to how this all relates to our Smarter Homes project. Notice that my summary of the conference has not mentioned the end users. These topic did come up, there was interest in the  ‘topography’ of energy demand changing, but most of this fell back to typical ‘economic rationalisation’ framing of individuals’ behaviours. There is definitely scope then for starting new conversations about transforming everyday life and how a decarbonised energy system fits with this.

scotland figures

Reflecting on data collection

It has now been a month since we finished our main phase of data collection (using visionslive discussion board) which involved asking people, in some detail, about their home life and experiences of living with renewable heating technology. We had 30 participants from two countries simultaneously using an online platform over the period of 7 days – quite a logistical feat! Luckily we didn’t develop the software, only the content, and likewise we got some help with the recruitment, however, it is only now as we recover and reflect, that we are able to write up this experience in a coherent way. Fortunately we kept field diaries, and have a [very!] long chain of email exchanges between ourselves about changes we’d made to the content or questions we were asking, and approaches we took when responding. For our own benefit, and perhaps some of you may be interested given the novelty of our approach, we decided to try and blog about our data collection reflections, so here goes….

First of all, we want to talk about our participants. All social scientists quite rightly give credit to their participants and we are no different. The detail they provided us with was simply astonishing, and the time and effort that they gave to their contributions was often overwhelming. We were amazed by the diversity of experience and the openness of our participants. The richness and quality of the data that we got was better than we expected which in part we attribute to the nature of collection (more about this below) and the fact that perhaps participants felt relatively anonymous. In fact, on average participants responded to 97% of questions, many of which were quite sensitive (e.g. household income, sensitive household activities) [we have statistics on completion rates thanks to the software]. Of course, we recruited participants who had technology installed [purposive sampling] and hence would be prepared to talk about it, but we were still often taken aback by the level of detail they provided and the willingness to upload and share photos. That we didn’t take on all of the recruitment ourselves was a significant advantage particularly since we had a very specific sampling framework, and because we were working across two countries. It was also very helpful in the context of getting participants who would all contribute in the same 7 days.

The nature of the data we received did vary according to the type of question and when it was asked. For instance, we found that participants were much more comfortable and able to give detail about their everyday life and routines than the technology they had (although some did give a lot of information about their technology). This surprised us slightly as we thought participants may wonder why we were so interested in their life and routines when the study was about renewable energy. So it may be that these topics were just easier for them to talk about, or it may have been because the questions about technology were later in the week and they were suffering slightly from question fatigue. Of course, what people don’t say can be just as interesting as what they do say! Despite this, on the whole we were pleased with the amount and extent of answers we got, especially for those that required the participants to do some ‘homework’ (e.g. look up their EPC rating or find out other information about their homes/technologies).

Compared to other ways of collecting data that we’ve used in the past (e.g. primarily interviews and house tours) this format allowed participants to engage at moments in the day/week which suited them, and also allowed them to return to points over the course of the week. So the method offered greater flexibility for participants than traditional offline methods, not least because they could use a smartphone app (26% of responses were from a smartphone). We were also able to provide prompts and ask for further information when required (during the 7 days we prompted/posted 328 times, (Louise 258, Katherine 70)). Indeed, we found the work of prompting much less natural and instinctive to begin with, and did struggle to keep on top of this towards the end of the week when we had lots of data and when so many participants were actively contributing to the board at the same time. Sometimes these prompts were fairly generic and we used the same one for a number of participants (e.g. please explain why you think this is), or more often they were specific to that individual and post. What we also found was that when we thanked participants for their contributions after posting (and particularly if it was a photograph, video or a link), they were much more likely to make additional and fuller contributions or add another photograph. Moreover, the software allowed us to either view responses to a particular question, or more interestingly, to look at the all entries by participant. The flexibility that this offered was great as it allowed us to grasp the consensus view (if there was one), see what other participants had said and use this in our prompting. It also ensured that by looking at a single participant’s entries we could better understand each person’s answer in the context of their own personal story, which also made it easier to make connections between their different answers and ask more probing questions.

Managing the contributions, and responding to participants when they added new material was challenging and more work than we perhaps expected. Although we had anticipated it being a busy week, and adjusted our diaries accordingly, we were probably a bit naive about the time and effort it would take to stay on top of things. Having additional moderators would certainly have helped here, because it felt that as we were reading and responding to comments the number left to read just kept growing. For instance, we could log on at 8pm to over 500 responses and even after 2 hours of reading and responding to participants, upon exiting the feedback page we would still have over 300 new posts – including follow-ups to our recent prompts. Indeed, we were very aware that we had to make the most of the 7 day period and so spent a lot of time going over previous entries and following up points with participants.  As we were doing this, we were also taking time to revise, reword or change the following days questions according to the feedback we were getting (sections of the board were released a day at a time so not to overwhelm participants). Although it was a lot of work, it was enjoyably addictive too. We both found ourselves spending hours online checking entries and interacting with participants.

The other reflection on the software was the extent to which the answers were visible by all participants. We did experiment with having some answers open to everyone so that all participants could see the answers and comment on them, hoping that participants would interact with each other and initiate conversations we perhaps wouldn’t think of. However, the reality was that this made people more hesitant to respond, or they would just say ‘same as above’ and not add further detail. This was quite disappointing and as a result we didn’t use this function as much as we thought we would.

Despite piloting our boards, knowing what we know now means there are things we would do differently in the future. Instead of having all participants together on one board we would probably split participants up according to the type of technology they had. We would also have taken more care to understand exactly what information the recruiter gave participants (although we did provide detailed guidance) and give the recruiter more information to help distinguish between participants (e.g. there was some confusion about the difference between solar thermal and solar PV as well as biomass boilers and wood-burning stoves). Also, we made some mistakes and left out some fairly fundamental questions presuming that the recruiter would capture this information, although thankfully we were able to get this during the 7 day period.

Overall, and even though we’ve yet to really immerse ourselves in the data analysis, we are pleased with how it went and feel we have some excellent data. The ability to prompt and interact with participants, both immediately if we were online – but also having the time to consider what we wanted the prompt to be – was incredibly useful and we would certainly use this method again.

Next stop….analysis.

Recommended Readings from our Digital/Virtual/Online Methods Workshop

For those who are also interested in using online methods in research of domestic energy practices we thought you may be interested in the reading list participants put together from the October workshop.


Boyd, D et al. (2016) Supporting ethical data research: an exploratory study of emerging issues in Big Data and technical research. Data & Society Research Institute Working paper, available at

Cosar-Jorda, P., Buswell, R.A. and Mitchell, V., (2015). Identifying the opportunities for ICT based energy demand reduction in family homes. EEDAL: Energy Efficiency in Domestic Appliances and Lighting, Lucerne-Horw, Switzerland, 26-28 August 2015.

Demand Around the Clock: Time Use and Data Demand of Mobile Devices in Everyday Life – paper currently under review (available on request from Kelly).

Eden, S. 2015. Blurring the boundaries: Prosumption, circularity and online sustainable consumption through Freecycle, Journal of Consumer Culture, 1-21.

Marres, N. & Weltevrede, E. (2013) Scraping the Social? Issues in live social science research Journal of Cultural Economy Vol 6(3): 313-335.

Mitchell, Val et al. (2015) “Situating Digital Interventions: Mixed Methods for HCI Research in the Home.” Interacting with Computers 27 (1): 3-12. doi:10.1093/iwc/iwu034.

Morrow, O., Hawkins, R. and Kern, L., 2015. Feminist research in online spaces. Gender, Place & Culture22(4), 526-543.

Murray Goulden, Christian Greiffenhagen, Jon Crowcroft, Derek McAuley, Richard Mortier, Milena Radenkovic & Arjuna Sathiaseelan (2016): “Wild interdisciplinarity: ethnography and computer science”, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, DOI: 10.1080/13645579.2016.1152022.

Rogers, R. 2015. Digital Methods, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Royson, S. 2014. Dragon-breath and snow-melt: know-how, experience and heat flows in the home, Energy Research and Social Science, 2:148-158.

Pink, S. (2012) Situating Everyday Life (London: Sage).

Veen, M., Gremmen, B., te Molder, H. and van Woerkum, C. (2011). Emergent technologies against the background of everyday life: Discursive psychology as a technology assessment tool. Public Understanding of Science20(6), 810-825.


It’s astounding… time is fleeting… our workshop has come and gone!

Last week Katherine and I hosted a workshop on digital methods and household (energy) sustainability. Our aim was to create a space in which people from different disciplinary traditions could explore concepts such as digital/online/virtual methods, discuss how they had used them in their own work, and how they would like to use them in the future. We were delighted to welcome folk from across the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands to our lovely St Andrews.

The two day event was highly participatory, all participants presented briefly on their own research and interests in online/digital/virtual methods and we identified methods or tools that were mentioned that they’d like to hear more about so that we could run some demos later in the workshop.  Joe Crawford, a research fellow working with Katherine and I, was the discussant for the presentation sessions, encouraging us to critically reflect on the false dichotomy between theory and method and to be mindful of the theoretical context our methods or tools arise from and contribute to. This was an issue we returned to throughout the workshop.

We were excited to be able to show off our beautiful town so we scheduled in a walk to the Old Course, along the Scores, past the Castle to the Cathedral, and back down North Street into town. It was great to have Katherine leading this. As a graduate of the University, and having lived in the town for some 8 years, she provided an insightful commentary on local and university traditions to our walk.

img_3805   img_3803   img_3806

We spent a further two hours hearing about the Device Analyser in the context of time use and energy demand of mobile devices by Kelly and had a demo about using twitter and trend analysis in relation to green movements by Shane and Kristen. Tjerk also did an excellent job of introducing us to many freely available and accessible tools for data gathering, analysis and visualisation. Please get in touch if you would like some tips/links for these!

Through a variety of mapping exercises we identified a number of topics we would like to explore further:

  • Homes as leaky containers
  • Poverty and device use norms
  • Where data goes and who data are used by
  • Systems of provision on which digimethods rest
  • The extent to which there are minimum energy needs and how that changes for different households or practices (and how we research this)
  • The relationship between pen and paper and online diaries

Importantly, and throughout discussions we kept coming back to a belief that digimethods, though incredibly useful given how ubiquitous the internet is, are best used as an addition to ‘conventional’ qualitative methods rather than instead of, and that they require careful consideration to maintain the quality of approach we would expect of traditional social science methods.

We left the meeting with a commitment to continue our discussions through the development of short papers (in the range of 2,000-3,000 words) with a view to using these as a means through which we might encourage broader debate and discussion in this area. We look forward to presenting what we’ve written early next year!!

Abstracts of upcoming papers:

Louise Reid and Tjerk Timan: ‘Mapping the terrain of digital/online/visual method concepts’

In this project we want to explore the way in which the concepts of ‘virtual methods’, ‘digital methods’ and ‘online methods’ have developed over time and map their evolution. In some fields, these concepts are regarded as complementary whilst in others they are viewed as distinctive. Hence, we would like to identify the boundaries of these concepts and explore the extent to which each concept is related to distinctive and specific instruments/tools/methods. We will do this through the use of tools such as Ngram viewer and Open Calais to firstly detect changes in the mentions of these concepts in books and academic articles, then look at the relationship between these concepts and the instruments/tools/methods.

Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs, Matilda Marshall, Mike Hazas: ‘Online methods for exploring sustainable practices’

Social sciences are increasingly utilising accounts online to capture aspects of everyday life, as a means of understanding possible trajectories of practice.  However, online methods have been largely overlooked in research on the home and sustainability. In this post, we define online methods to be those which involve accounts transmitted via the Internet.  Examples include blog posts, forums, Amazon product reviews, as well as any app that captures qualitative data and feeds it back to a researcher.  We will first collect uses of online methods within the fields of digital sociology, digital humanities, and human-computer interaction; limiting the search to papers that involve the home and sustainability.  Thereby, identifying synergies and gaps across these domains, to highlight where online methods may be going and how they might better contribute to studies of sustainable practices.

Shane Drennan and Kirsten Meyer: ‘Using trend analysis to track the green movement’

In this paper we identify differences in vernacular between movement makers and movement participants involved in revolutionary events versus evolutionary change movements. We analyze the rhetoric and temporally corresponding actions surrounding the July 2016 Turkish coup and the green movement in Norway to ascertain whether there is a difference in the imperative lexicon surrounding these two very different, but similarly impassioned movements. Analyzing movement makers rhetoric temporally around these events can provide insight as to how certain emotionally loaded words might be used in an attempt to trigger action from movement participants. This research does not attempt to correlate frame processes or identity work to action. Rather, this study explores what modes of language movements use in an attempt to affect change that C. C. W. Taylor would describe as a ‘goal directed behavior.’ This paper crosspollinates the framing and frame resonance approach from social movement theory with the Circumplex Model of Affect to extract key language used to nudge or drive individuals to act. Using these sociology and psychology theories as a framework for our research, we use digital information scraping and discourse analysis methods to identify whether movement makers and movements in general use different imperatives and emotive language surrounding revolutionary events versus evolutionary processes.

Helen Stockton, Kelly Widdicks, Jamie-Leigh Ruse: ‘Energy needs?’

In current discourse, the ability or inability to meet energy need is often defined by the presence or absence of fuel poverty; this doesn’t account for how all energy practices, social norms and expectations in everyday life contribute to energy need. So what are energy needs of practices, how are these shaped by social norms, and how do they vary by consumer groups e.g. vulnerability, income or life stage? Aims of a project concerning this area of investigation could examine everyday practices and energy needs through multiple methods, combining both digital and non-digital ways of data collection and analysis. Methods would be designed based on the characteristics of different consumer groups, but should include quantitative logging of energy appliances for practices, digital forum scraping and qualitative methods.

This investigation of different consumer groups, their practices and the norms which drive them, would provide the evidence required to: 1) meet the policy objectives for fuel poverty and multiple energy needs of vulnerable consumers, and 2) provide insights for the design of energy saving technology interventions for different consumer groups. Our work for the next few months will concern a preliminary literature review and scope potential methods around this project idea.


It’s time to focus on renewables for heat

A remarkable year for renewable energy

2015 signalled a promising shift in investment and production towards renewable energy. This was the first year that the majority of new electricity generation under construction was from renewables; that a new record for renewable investment was set; and that the leading source of electricity in the EU was from clean sources. Companies are pledging to be 100% renewable and a solar power plant has been developed that can run overnight.


The Paris Agreement was undoubtedly a catalyst, as evidenced by the investments announced during the COP21 talks. To name a few, this included the International Agency for Solar Technologies, a project led by India representing 120 countries pledged to invest $20 billion in solar by 2020; theBreakthrough Energy coalition, indicating more than 20 billionaires including Gates and Zuckerberg also committing $20 billion to clean energy technologies by 2020; and Dubai’s $27 billion to make solar panels mandatory on all their rooftops by 2030.


These are indeed exciting achievements that demonstrate that renewable technologies are now proven to be good investments and competitive with fossil fuel generation. Missing from these triumphs though is a distinction between types of energy and all these examples highlight that electricity is the priority.

Similarly, of the $329 billion invested in global clean energy in 2015, 56 per cent went to solar technologies and 38 per cent to wind. Even though it is exciting that 173 countries have set renewable energy targets, only 45 have targets for renewable heating.

Renewable electricity is not the whole story

It is becoming widely recognised that clean energy has a ‘bright future’. You may be pleasantly surprised to hear that about a fifth of energy consumption worldwide was from renewable sources in 2014. But almost half of this was from traditional biomass, which generally refers to the burning of wood or animal dung on open fires and low-efficiency stoves. While 40 per cent of the world’s population still relies on this biomass, this is not seen as a sustainable, nor desirable, form of heating or cooking, because it has severe implications for health as a result of indoor air pollution and is an indicator of social inequality.

Setting this unsustainable form of biomass aside leaves roughly a tenth of global energy consumption from modern renewable sources.

By energy type, renewables make up 25 per cent of electricity generation and 8 per cent of heating worldwide. But considering that heating is the majority of consumption, this actually means that about 5 per cent of all energy consumption is from renewable electricity sources and 4 per cent is from modern renewable heating.


Since heating is the main reason for consumption in almost every country, the shift towards renewables in this sector has a major impact and it cannot continue to be overlooked in decarbonisation strategies. Heating accounts forover half of energy consumption and a third of carbon emissions worldwide. In the UK, we may be obsessed with ‘keeping the lights on’ and think access to the Internet is necessary for a basic standard of living, but having a warm and dry shelter has been a fundamental concern for much longer and still is for much of the globe’s population.

Admittedly, the heating sector offers particular challenges for policy makers.


Heat is much less amenable to measurement and regulation since it is produced in millions of separate installations at widely varying sizes, from several different fuels, and at different temperatures. Heat metering thus is uncommon, making the development of renewable heating policies, as well as the assessment of their effectiveness, much more complex and difficult.


Energy-efficient houses have a considerably lower demand for space heating that can be met by smaller-scale, low-temperature heat installations. This creates opportunities for renewable energy sources such as heat pumps, but also means that emphasise on renewable heating technologies may be set aside in order to first improve efficiency of buildings.


Finally, the potential for electrification of heat and transport is often justification for the focus on renewable electricity. However, it is hard to imagine an entirely decarbonised electricity supply, so this should not distract from investing in renewable heating technologies as well.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that although this has been a remarkable year for renewables, heat is deserving of greater policy attention as it still makes up the majority of energy consumption. Our single-minded focus on electricity, an important step though insufficient on its own, illustrates the increasing potential for renewable technologies to surpass and replace the use of fossil fuels. Let’s use this evidence of the advances of renewable technologies to address a more worthy challenge: decarbonising our heating supply.

Mining Mumsnet on Solar Thermal

Recently, Katherine and I have been exploring Mumsnet as a means through which we might explore domestic energy prosumption. Specifically, we’ve been looking at discussions related to solar thermal prosumption, partly because they are a relatively mature and well-established technology, having been installed in 70 million homes worldwide (approximately 11% of these are for swimming pools, predominantly in the USA) (Muneer et al. 2015), but more importantly because they produce hot water, the consumption of which represents approximately 20% of household energy demand in the UK (and despite advances in efficiency, this has remained stable over the past forty years (DECC 2013a)). But really, we wanted to play around with unsolicited online data and figure out how we might use/analyse it, particularly because we view these online discussions as an extension of casual conversations revealing householder’s own areas of interest and concern (Veen et al. 2011). Despite this, and in spite of online and virtual methods (Hine 2013, Pink 2016), digital methods (Rogers 2015) and netnography (Kozinets 2010) being popular neologisms, they are seldom used in domestic energy or microgeneration research.

We developed an approach to systematically search and then analyse 7 discussion boards (we discarded 200 odd for being off topic or about PV, not solar thermal). In doing so, we learnt many things, not least about issues of ‘(n)etiquette’ (Eden 2015), and ‘netspeak’ (e.g. ‘DD’ means ‘darling daughter’) but we had to grapple (in a paper we have just submitted) with how to reference quotes taken from Mumsnet [if anyone knows of a good convention for such referencing, then please let us know!]. Without wishing to give too much away, since we hope to publish this work soon, we’ve been able to reflect on many aspects of microgeneration installation – from the role of advice, to the impact that the accompanying material configurations (e.g. larger water pipes) has on overall demand – and reveal limitations in the majority of literature on microgeneration technologies (Balcombe et al. 2013, Claudy et al. 2011, Michelsen & Madlener 2016, Sopha et al. 2011) which emphasize financial and environmental considerations as the key determinants of uptake. So, in this work looking at Mumsnet discussions, we’ve sought to demonstrate the complexity and messiness of energy demand (Shove et al., 2012), and show how technical improvements cannot be understood in isolation from everyday domestic life (Ellsworth-Krebs et al. 2015). In fact, Mumsnetter’s mention of solar thermal panels primarily arose as part of wider discussions about delivering expectations related to hot water (e.g. plentiful, powerful, hot) through renovation, which is difficult to appreciate if one is only interested in undertaking a ‘rational’ approach (e.g. money-driven) towards understanding solar panel uptake and use.

There are clearly many implications of such work, not least the type of data and (its analysis) that we as researchers are prepared to use. So we are left wondering about other ways in which unsolicited online data may be used to provide greater insights into the messiness of everyday energy demand. Next week we will be welcoming some visitors to St Andrews to participate in our Digimethods seminar. Discussions about which data to use, why, and how will be central to our work. More info on this to follow, but if you’d like to join our network/discussion on household sustainability and online methods please get in touch as will be planning future events.