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Home-ing in on Domestic Energy Research

Originally published on Critical Urbanist Blog

Business-as-usual and the Techno-fix

With increasing urbanisation, people now spend more time interacting with the built environment. Several sourcessuggest that Americans and Europeans spend on average 85-90% of their time indoors; this has implications for consumption and strategies for reducing demand.

I started my PhD with the intention of challenging the idea of a ‘techno-fix’ for environmental problems, particularly in relation to the energy we use in our homes. A techno-centric approach is usually justification for some form of ‘business-as-usual’ because technological innovation will ‘save us.’ We can make heating systems and transport more efficient, so there is no need to alter Western lifestyles or temper increasingly demanding expectations. Thus, as individuals we don’t need to make radical changes to our lifestyles, businesses don’t need to shift from their pursuit of profit, and governments can continue with behaviour change programmes deferring their responsibilities onto their citizens. Generally, critique of mainstream ‘techno-economic thinking’ argues that improvements in efficiency, design or technological innovations do not address or engage with why demand is created. While efficiency means we can do ‘more with less,’ overall demand continues to rise as lifestyle expectations also shift with technological advances.

What about social interventions?

There are several ways one could go about trying to provide evidence of the misjudgement of relying on the techno-fix. For instance, many researchers have bolstered widespread acceptance of the ‘rebound effect’ providing numerous studies with evidence of modelled or predicted savings from improvements in efficiency not being realised. While this line of research has advanced concerns around techno-economic thinking, a mismatch between predicted and actual demand is partly related to quantitative modelling and assumptions of these methods. Certainly, actual savings can also be greater than predicted; for example, some research has highlighted a prebound effect suggesting that technical calculations generally overestimate the energy demand in older energy-inefficient homes because inhabitants generally accept lower temperatures in these properties.

Another criticism of the techno-fix is underpinned by a more fundamental acknowledgement of the interrelatedness of social and technical aspects of society. Morley and Shove (2014) offer a relatively accessible illustration of the need to consider technology in relation to social customs by linking Christmas, oven size and energy demand. With oven-baked pizzas on the rise, and Sunday dinners in decline, it would be more efficient to produce an oven optimised for ‘normal use’. Instead, year round energy demand is inseparable from the classic Christmas tradition of roasting a turkey because this peak demand determines a larger oven size. Morley and Shove argue that “if turkey was not the classic meal and if roasting was not the norm […] ovens would not be sized and designed as they are today.” A focus on technological innovation ignores and overlooks these sorts of alternative intervention strategies, which emerge from a greater consideration of how social conventions determine demand.

Energy demand, house and home

This starting point, of not accepting a techno-fix and recognising the need for a socio-technical perspective, has implications for how research is done and resulting policy recommendations. I explore what this means in the context of domestic energy. Sure enough, the mainstream research and policy focus is on improving the physical building, our houses, without paying attention to social expectations we have for our homes. Yet our homes are not just physical place, they are also linked to ideas of comfort and companionship. While home is not always positive for all people, all the time, it is a place that is widely recognised to be both a social and physical locus. Take wood-burning stoves for example, which are recommended as a low-carbon and energy-saving home improvement. The popularity of wood-burning stoves is not simply explained by their energy-saving properties; indeed, similar savings may be achieved by investing in a new boiler or insulation. The appeal of the stove may be better explained by social considerations; fire is a pleasant, cheery, and cosy form of heating that cannot simply be replicated or replaced. Whereas, modern central heating systems have become more efficient and more automated; householders do not have to regularly remove and clean away ash and can expect their homes to be warm when they get in from work because of programmable thermostats. Yet there is appeal in having a wood-burning stove that is not easily understood or explained by a techno-economic discourse. Drawing attention to the more intangible appeal of living with a wood-burning stove attempts to highlight that focusing on the physical features of the house is not sufficient to understand important social considerations that also shape demand.

Engineers, building scientists and designers recognise that different householders living in the exact same house will use a different amount of energy; yet explaining this variation is seen as someone else’s problem. I suggest that engineers and building scientists are targeting and researching the ‘house,’ while we should be thinking more holistically about the ‘home.’ Energy demand is partly the result of social conventions, such as expectations of comfort, following norms for being a good host, and everyday activities like cooking (which can be impacted by less routine social conventions like Christmas). The dominance of targeting the house overlooks the opportunity to address social customs that also shape demand. This is why we need to home-in on domestic energy research; re-evaluating how occupant satisfaction is defined and opening up a wider avenue for intervention by moving away from targeting the house and technological fixes. While I have focused on domestic environments, it is arguably an appropriate characterisation of how the wider built environment is perceived in mainstream policy and research: belief in the techno-fix also rules in our urban environments. In conclusion, a move beyond the ‘house’ would have to go hand in hand with policy that is more ambitious – seeking advice on economic, societal, and political questions from a wider genre of social scientists than those offering big data, techno-economic inspired strategies.

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