Blog: Barriers to engagement and the energy disconnect

How can we change attitudes and culture?

13 February 2020

Harriet Sansom continues our series of blogs on the Powering Up! project

Our last blog described some of the ways we’ve tried to engage people in communities in becoming more active on energy – and explored the multiple reasons why it has proven so difficult. This blog looks more closely at what we call the 'energy disconnect’ – the lack of connection people feel between energy and the household choices they make, between energy and their community-level concerns, and between energy and their environmental concerns.

Many of the residents we’ve spoken to already know about the changes that they can make as a household to use energy efficiently. They tell us they have already made the changes they're actually able to, and in any case already limit their energy usage to keep the bills down. To achieve further noticeable financial savings they’d have to cut their home energy use in ways that would impact on their quality of life – such as heating the home less. For many, the only way to achieve bigger savings is through physical improvements to their home and its heating system. Social housing tenants in the communities we're working in told us they feel powerless to this, and point out that responsibility rests with their landlord.

Some social housing tenants also describe a disconnect because they live with pre-existing infrastructure, such as a pre-payment meter, which makes it harder for them to switch to a cheaper tariff.

Where residents aren’t aware of the household-level changes they can make to achieve small savings and improve their quality of life, we’ve trained local residents in basic energy awareness and linked them to existing support services. This training empowers them to make changes in their own homes, but we are also encouraging them to run community energy advice sessions themselves. (Look out for our next blog where there’ll be pen portraits of some of the people who have been engaged with our training sessions and other project activities).

Beyond the home is another energy disconnect – energy is ‘out of reach’. People find it hard to envisage how they can address community-level concerns or what positive action they could take. The idea of a community-owned energy generation scheme draws enthusiasm, but also bewilderment – it's considered very novel and beyond the means and reach of local people.

Where we've run simple hands-on community workshops, such as draughtproofing and slowcooker workshops, this has provided an opportunity to reconnect residents to energy in a community sphere and demonstrated that it’s something they can act on together. It has also helped people rethink their assumption that you need to be an expert to do these activities.

We’ve also identified a disconnect between concerns about the natural environment and how this relates to energy issues and climate change. So whilst residents have been motivated to undertake litter picking, tree planting and other activities to improve the quality of their local green space, they don’t make a connection between renewable energy and these other ‘pro-environmental’ behaviours, despite having a generally supportive view of renewables.

Over the past 18 months, there has been an upsurge in direct action on environmental issues, including school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion actions. Climate change has regained recognition in the public imagination and the political agenda. This gives us cause to reflect on whether now might be an easier time to try to make the connection with energy. However, it also remains unclear how far these actions, which tend to be concentrated in urban centres, have managed to connect with, for example, people living in peripheral social housing estates who are predominantly not engaged with town or city-wide activities.

We are now talking with other organisations active in working within low-income communities to help them 'make the energy-connect' as part of wider community-led action.

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