Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Energy System Catapult’s Living Lab has continued to operate energy innovation trials for the home energy market. The Living Lab is a growing network of over 200 connected homes spread throughout the country, allowing innovators and policymakers to gather data and evidence to support the commercialisation of low carbon consumer innovations and design the future energy system.
As the Living Lab uses the internet to recruit participants and has connected devices in homes to collect data, disruption from the pandemic has been minimal. We have continued to run trials over the past 15 months when other consumer energy projects have had to pause.
During the pandemic we did not stand still and have completely remodelled the Living Lab, expanding it from being primarily focused on the heating system into a whole system facility. We can help innovators and policymakers to study the home energy market of the future and investigate topics like electric vehicle smart charging and consumer flexibility. This redevelopment has created two bespoke digital platforms, one for collecting data and controlling devices in homes, and the other for managing participants. We have also grown the number and diversity of homes and now have coverage all across Great Britain.
During this period, we have also taken time to study the impact of the pandemic on consumer energy consumption. As we all know, the onset of the global COVID pandemic in March 2020, and the rolling lockdowns, resulted in many more people being at home. We saw more people working remotely from home, and a significant portion of the working population furloughed. As a result, we wanted to understand how this impacted on the households in our Living Lab, their routines and energy usage. So we set about exploring their energy data and asking them questions through surveys.
We now have a solid baseline of historical data from the Living Lab for comparison, having monitored energy consumption and heating use in many of the homes since 2016, using smart meters connected to the Data Communications Company database. One feature we noticed during the very first lockdown last year was a 26% average increase in electricity consumption when comparing energy used in April to July 2020 against the same period in 2019.
Figure 1: Electricity use v Gas use in 2020 compared to the years prior.
Many of the participants also told us they were heating their home more than normal during that first lockdown. However, we actually saw a 9% average decline in gas consumption, which demonstrates that what people say and what they do, are not always aligned. Although this may well be attributed to mild weather during April through to July 2020.
We were also able to combine quantitative data received from Living Lab homes with qualitative insight gathered from surveys and interviews. From a participant survey conducted in November 2020, we learnt that due to the COVID lockdown, people had spent more time at home over these months in 2020 than they had prior to lockdown. This was for several reasons including being furloughed, children at home due to school closures, shielding requirements, being at home during evenings and weekends due to closures of retail, leisure, and hospitality, and working from home. We also learnt that due to participants spending more time at home, lights were on more, computers and monitors were being used for longer periods, there was increased cooking at home and more boiling the kettle to brew tea. This could provide an explanation of why electricity usage went up.
Survey respondents told us that most households now have their heating on for longer periods during the day and in rooms that were not previously heated. This was widely attached to working from home and having to heat a study or temporary office space. We received comments such as “I am now working from home, my office is in the spare room which I would normally not heat much and now have to” and “I have been heating my spare bedrooms all day which I never normally do”.
Whilst the heating is on in more spaces of the home, few respondents decided to set lower temperatures, and many choose to set higher temperatures than usual. Also, participants adjusted their heating schedules to find the optimal solution given the amount of time they now found themselves at home. For example, one participant said: “I have been trying to monitor how much I have used. Trying different heating schedules. Such as lower temperature but for longer, then having to use a burst of heat because it’s cold”.
Figure 2: Survey on impacts of COVID-19.
At the time of the survey in November last year, around 30% of respondents told us that they had seen an increase in energy bills. No participants were struggling to pay their energy bills, although some were concerned about their bills increasing.
Very few were aware of the measures the government had introduced to help people manage their energy bills during the pandemic. About half have tried to contact their gas supplier since the start of the pandemic but found waiting times to be longer and customer service poorer. However, COVID-19 has not stopped the survey respondents from switching energy suppliers as often as they would usually.
We have frequently been told by consumers, that it can be hard to know how much energy costs for heating. Many only realise that their energy bills have increased when the direct debit changes. The Living Lab’s pioneering work on heat-as-a-service has devised a method for enabling consumers to visualise the cost of their heating as a level of comfort in the form of warm hours. This is an area we intend to explore further with collaborators.
The Living Lab has continued to operate during the pandemic with several new trials starting. At the centre of the Living Lab is a growing network of over 200 trial-ready homes across England, Scotland and Wales with a variety of tenures, property types and demographics. Recruitment and consent of trial participants are managed via our bespoke web portal at livinglab.energy and our dedicated operations team. We are usually able to rapidly recruit for trials from our Living Lab homes and can respond to specific trial requirements to recruit additional participants if necessary.
Why do we need a Living Lab?
To transform the UK energy system to meet Net Zero carbon reduction targets, while ensuring we capture the opportunities of clean growth, it is crucial that the UK energy sector overcomes systemic barriers and open new markets to deliver the innovative products, services and value chains required. Read more