Measuring vulnerability for distribution network operators

Helping DNOs to understand and support their vulnerable customers

Project duration: September 2016 to May 2017

Since 2012, CSE has worked with some of the UK's distribution network operators (the large companies who operate the gas and electricity networks) in order to help them understand better who their customers are and which may be considered vulnerable to power cuts, fuel poverty, isolation etc.

In that year, in a project for Western Power Distribution (WPD) called Who's On Our Wires, we researched different segments of their customer base in order to understand how different demgraphics use energy.

In 2016 we were commissioned by WPD to update our original analysis in relation to a number of changes including incorporating new data and an improved understanding of how different circumstances can cause people to be vulnerable. The updated dataset will assist WPD in supporting people that have been negatively affected by cuts to benefits and public services since 2012 that have had wide-ranging impacts on vulnerable households.

We also carried out this type of vulnerability mapping for Scottish Power Energy Networks (SPEN), and Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) and have produced a web app for SSEN that allows staff to utilise the data in different ways.

These DNOs have used this data in order to:

  • Understand locations of particular types of vulnerable situations across their network and how people are affected by these situations.
  • Ensure those areas identified as most vulnerable are prioritised.
  • Locate gaps in PSR coverage and plan where to focus recruitment initiatives.
  • Assess how resilient different areas are (in relation to power outages, storms, floods and power cuts).

In 2017 we built an interactive 'vulnerability map' of this data which - in an innovative and pioneering step - was published by WPD "in order to help other organisations and agencies working in [WPD's] region to support the most vulnerable in our society".

You can see the Social Indicator Map here.

Our original project for WPD - Who's On Our Wires

WPD distribute electricity to 7.8m customers across an area of 55,300 km2 in the Midlands, South Wales and the South West. In 2012 we created a database for WPD which combined data from our Housing Assessment Model with Experian Mosaic socio-demographic and economic data to forecast future changes to electricity use and predict which substations these would affect.

The database also showed WPD how many of its customers were registered on the Priority Services Register (PSR) in relation to average uptake, and the location of customers who might be at risk in a power cut, (e.g. because they are ill, elderly, disabled or dependent on electricity for medical equipment) or who may be struggling to keep their home warm.

The research resulted in a number of targeted services to support these households including the Power Up Advice Hubs, a free energy advice service run in partnership with CSE, Citizens Advice and the Energy Saving Trust and the Affordable Warmth Local Action Fund (administered by CSE), which distributes grants to groups supporting vulnerable households to reduce their energy costs.

Understanding vulnerability

Vulnerable customers are defined by Ofgem as those who are significantly less able to represent their interests in the energy market, or those who are significantly more likely to suffer detriment than the average energy consumer. In practice, 'vulnerability' manifests itself in many ways and those who are identified as 'vulnerable' may be experiencing multiple and overlapping difficulties associated with health, disability, age, financial capability or other issues. Since 2012 Ofgem has developed its understanding of the social obligations of DNOs like WPD and it now places clear obligations on them to deliver a range of services aimed at helping vulnerable customers.

An important part of the ability to support these customers is having a clear understanding of the issues and situations that affect vulnerable people. For example, numbers of people registered on the PSR is not, in itself, sufficient to understand how customers are affected by power cuts. Therefore, databases such as the one we created for WPD help to give DNOs a more accurate understanding of how changing situations create different sorts of vulnerability (and what they can do to deal with these).

This is an example of how the data mapping works. This one shows publicly available data on income levels in an easily accessible visual format.


CC image courtesy of Andrew Coombes via Flickr.

For further information contact:

Dr Toby Bridgeman | 0117 934 1435

Stay up to date with our work - sign up for our fortnightly newsletter