Fuel poverty is a pressing issue, one likely to be magnified by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Many households will increase their energy use through spending more time at home at the same time as incomes may be reduced. Smart technology has been positioned by developers and government as potentially able to alleviate fuel poverty, yet there has been little consideration of how it is perceived and experienced by those who are susceptible to fuel poverty (or ‘energy vulnerable’). It is important that the everyday experiences of people who are energy vulnerable inform policy measures designed to target these households. In our ongoing research we are taking a qualitative longitudinal approach (where we interview the same people on several occasions at different time points) to explore some of these issues in more detail. . Our research case site is an ex-mining community in the South Wales Valleys that scores highly on a number of measures of deprivation. The case site is also the location of a planned geothermal district heating scheme, due to be constructed in 2021, which has the potential to change local relationships to energy. Participants are local residents aged between their early 20s and late 70s.
Why is this a family and relationships issue?
There have been calls for research concerning families and relationships to be more attentive to broadly environmental issues, including sustainability and climate change. We know that in order to meet government decarbonisation goals and climate change targets there will need to be changes to the way we use energy. Therefore, to inform these changes, it is important to understand people’s current relationships to energy in their everyday lives. Drawing on our background of work that highlights the importance of ‘linked lives’, our current research advocates a relational approach to understanding energy use and vulnerability. Central to this is the role of energy in expressing care for others, often focussed on prioritising the needs of children. Our research showed how participants often restricted their energy use due to concerns about cost but that some level of energy use was regarded as essential, particularly where young children were concerned. This was evident across households and not just where children were permanent residents (for example, grandparents saving use of central heating for when their grandchildren visited). This highlights the importance of an approach that accounts for wider relationships and expectations of care in understanding energy vulnerability, which a families and relationships lens can offer.
The notion of enhanced user control of technology (including remote control) is described as an important feature of smart technology. Whilst this may offer benefits for particular consumers – particularly those with limited mobility – it also raises important issues in terms of control dynamics within households as in-home display units depicting energy use give rise to increased opportunities for monitoring. This was often raised in jovial terms by our participants who described smart technology as enabling partners to ‘check up’ on them. However, the potential for surveillance of different household members’ energy use raises important questions regarding the broader issue of control as relational.
Our research shows how people’s experiences with smart meters appear to have led many to be somewhat sceptical about the benefits of installing new smart technologies in households. Whilst some participants found their smart meters helpful, many found that it did not impact on their everyday routines and energy use. This was largely because participants appeared to be very conscious of their energy use as they could not afford to be otherwise given their limited incomes. Assertions that energy providers could use technology to tell participants something that they did not already know were met with scepticism or even deemed offensive. Some participants described the meter as a token gesture, doing nothing to tackle the causes of their energy vulnerability and several participants were resistant to having smart meters installed.[i]t’s not going to help somebody that can’t afford to buy it in the first place. If you haven’t got ten pound to buy your electric, a smart meter’s neither here nor there. (‘Carole’, 60s, Interview 3)
By interviewing people on multiple occasions, we have been able to elucidate how people’s relationships to smart technologies change over time. Several of our participants had smart meters or other technologies installed during the course of our research. Whilst this was often initially met with enthusiasm, we were able to see how this waned over time as participants described how ‘the novelty wore off’. Our research has also indicated concerns about how feelings of confidence and competence in using smart technology have the potential to exacerbate existing generational divides. Such concerns highlight the possible isolation of older consumers as an important issue that needs to be addressed to avoid worsening circumstances for vulnerable groups. These findings raise challenges for the perceived inevitability of the smart energy transition, particularly the planned national rollout of smart meters and schemes targeting vulnerable consumers.
We are continuing to undertake annual interviews in this community case site to consider if and how relationships to energy change alongside developments in technology (such as the planned geothermal heating scheme) as well as personal life course changes. Interviews will also provide an opportunity to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on participants’ everyday lives and energy use. Our work in this area has already been drawn on in a policy context and we aim for further insights from these ongoing detailed accounts concerning the lived experiences of vulnerable consumers to continue to inform policy development. Our research illustrates the relevance of a families and relationships perspective for energy research.
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