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Mining Mumsnet on Solar Thermal

by on October 11, 2016

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.

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