Creating a fairer future for those in fuel poverty – by Rose Chard

Published: 19 February 2018

Conventional approaches to ‘protecting’ the fuel poor have focussed on the needs of the energy system, not those of the consumer. They have been rooted in regulation and policy, and have not exploited technology or services most readily available/accessed by users.

By Dr Rose Chard

We want to better understand what people need and want from energy in their homes; this will then help us to look at how we might design and deliver services to consumers who are directly facing difficulties with low household incomes, further exaggerated by the high cost of adequate energy in their homes.

Energy Systems Catapult (ESC) is partnering with organisations from various sectors on a programme – Fair Futures – to better understand the issues faced by vulnerable energy consumers and identify the areas where commercial, governmental, community and household needs and motivations could be aligned to provide more effective policies, products and services.

Fuel poverty is no single organisation’s responsibility, so the response is often fragmented and ineffective. Poised between government, industry and academia, ESC is uniquely placed and motivated to facilitate conversations as an impartial, independent convener with knowledge of the energy sector and vulnerable energy consumers. Nothing has ever been delivered on this scale, and involving so many different parties before, whilst we see collaborative working in this space as a possible catalyst for change.

For the Fair Futures programme to be a success, it is essential that ESC promotes it throughout the sector and enables conversations to be had by numerous different sectors and organisations.  Our Fair Energy Futures boot camp, supported by Innovate UK, was the first of its kind to be held in Britain, aimed to harness the powers of collaborative working and creativity to look at what might be achieved.

We’ve included a summary of the event and the key findings, below.

The Challenge

Taking inspiration from some of the great hackathon examples we’ve seen by social start-ups and entrepreneurs, the Consumer Insight team at the Catapult organised a rapid explore, design, build and test event that took place across two days in January.

The focus of the event was to give organisations the stimulus to innovate and connect with those that are trying to better understand vulnerable consumers, inspiring them to be creative but also informed in how they approach such projects.

Embracing ‘fast to fail’ methodologies, the key aim of the two days was to create a prototype tool through which we could start to understand how innovation can have a real impact on fuel poverty in the UK.

Attendees came from a mixture of backgrounds, sectors, disciplines and roles but were all working in some way within the energy sector, and are open to thinking about how the future for fuel poor households might be different.

As we are seeking to move away from the usual thinking about fuel poverty as just an ‘energy issue’, participants brought knowledge and experience in social housing, new entrant energy suppliers, consumer advocacy work, policy lobbying/campaigning, national support schemes, innovation and sustainability consultancy and academic work to help shape the conversation. A keynote address was delivered by Laura Sandys, previous chair of the European Movement UK and MP, who is now a business entrepreneur and policy innovator within the energy sector.

The Outcomes and Opportunities

Having a variety of representatives in the room encouraged a lively, impassioned debate about what fuel poverty really means and how we can begin to address it.

There was a shared recognition for the need to create and work together around a common agenda, and a clear understanding of the important role that innovation must play in addressing fuel poverty.

Using user-centred design methods, we created the first novel concept scoring tool of its kind to look at the potential impact of innovations on fuel poverty. Attendees will now use the tool to stress-test innovations within their own settings and organisations, providing us with real-world analysis of its successes and limitations.

Laura Sandys delivered an engaging talk that excited the group with questions about how we think about fuel poverty within the whole system and what steps we can take to see positive progress. What is the state of new homes? What levers should be pulled to address the causes at the heart of fuel poverty? How do we open up the dialogue on tackling fuel poverty differently?

As a group, we discussed the fact that so little, if any, of the effort in trying to alleviate fuel poverty is spent trying to learn how to tackle it more effectively. This is in stark contrast to most other areas of public spending, where some proportion of effort is devoted to continuous improvement. There was agreement across the board that this is holding back progress with further discussions planned for how to best tackle this.

Next steps

The UK has a great opportunity to lead the world in developing innovative, empowering ways of tackling fuel poverty, whilst delivering the UK’s decarbonisation mission.

The Fair Futures boot camp provided a great platform upon which new collaborations, projects and partnerships can develop, whilst delivering key insights into what innovations, ideas and interests exist, and can therefore be built upon.