Discovering disabled consumers’ future energy needs - Rowanne Fleck

Comment by Rowanne Fleck, Lead User Researcher at Energy Systems Catapult.

To achieve a cleaner, more sustainable energy supply we will gradually rely more and more on electricity for heat and transport; electricity that will increasingly be supplied by renewable energy sources. This poses huge challenges for our electricity networks, which will have to work harder to match supply with increased demand.

To overcome such challenges, consumers may – in the future – be asked to pay for energy in different ways to today. Energy could, for example, be cheaper for people when there’s lots of renewable power available, or when the electricity network has lots of spare capacity.

Last year we published a report  on work we carried out in collaboration with the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC) to identify some of the key challenges that might arise for disabled consumers because of these changes, as well as some of the opportunities for the energy sector to overcome these hurdles. We highlighted that whilst we all need energy in our homes to keep warm, heat our hot water, to cook, and to communicate, these requirements can be more crucial for disabled people.

Many disabled people also need energy to power their life-critical medical equipment, and for mobility. Our research participants told us that they can’t adjust when they use this equipment to when energy is cheapest, owing to the inconvenience or risk it could cause. Many disabled consumers would have no choice but to use energy when they needed to, whatever the cost.

A key principle of the UK transition to Net Zero is to ensure we design a system that is inclusive and fair. So, this year we (again in collaboration with RiDC) set out to explore these risks further.

Whilst we did confirm some of the risks we had feared, we also identified the potential for the future energy system to benefit disabled consumers, offering them opportunities to have better control over their energy use and save money. As long as the system and future energy services and products are designed with and for them.

What we did

We conducted a survey of the UK population to find out how many people rely on energy for medical devices and mobility aids. We also asked 11 people to keep a diary for a week to document how they were using their medical devices and mobility aids, and nine of them monitored the energy used by such equipment via smart plugs. We spoke to them about how they use these devices, and how flexible they could be with when they use them. RiDC ran a similar piece of research in parallel – asking another nine disabled consumers to monitor the energy use of their assistive technology and speaking to them about their experience of doing so.

What we found

11% of people in the UK rely on energy for medical devices or mobility aids. 9% of the population require energy for medical devices, that amongst other things, help people to breathe and deliver medication or fluid to the body. The most common in UK households are air Ionizers, nebulizers, ventilators, CPAP machines, oxygen systems, infusion pumps and dialysis machines.

6% of the population rely on energy for mobility aids to help them move in and out of the home and maintain a comfortable position whilst resting or sleeping amongst other things. The most common of these in households are mobility scooters, stairlifts, wheelchairs, hospital style beds, electric doors, personal lift/hoists, and wheelchair lifts.

It’s hard to understand how much energy people need for their medical devices and mobility aids, because different devices and different makes of devices use different amounts of energy, and people use even the same devices differently. Table 1, which shows the data collected by participants during our diary and plug study illustrates this. It shows that whilst some equipment is not costing our participants much to run (the nebulizer only costs around £1 per year) other equipment, such as mobility equipment can be quite expensive. And we must remember that many disabled people have multiple pieces of equipment to run (one of RiDC’s participants had 27 individual pieces of assistive technology).

Table 1: Weekly energy consumption of diary study participants’ medical and mobility equipment

Table 1: Weekly energy consumption of diary study participants’ medical and mobility equipment

*Based on EST average UK electricity costs, standard rates – 27.35p per kWh (1 October 2023).

In their report, our colleagues at RiDC emphasised that whilst disabled people found monitoring the energy usage of their assistive technology easy and useful, the use of this equipment is not something they can cut back on.  And it is certainly not something we’d want them to cut back on, as alternatives often lead to higher costs for the NHS.  They suggest that right now, the focus needs to be on fair financial support provision, as well as looking to improve the regulation and energy efficiency of these technologies. Better information about the running costs of these technologies could also potentially provide disabled consumers with peace of mind about how much they are really costing them to run, and discourage those concerned about energy prices cutting back on using inexpensive equipment. Ultimately, the running of assistive technology is vital for health, wellbeing, and day-to-day basic human needs.

We also wanted to think about what might be needed to protect and support disabled consumers in the future. Whilst we don’t know for sure what the result of a renewable energy system will look like, it’s likely we’ll all need to be more flexible with how we use energy in the future.

One way we might be encouraged to do this (and to reflect the true cost of delivering energy at different times of day) is through varying the price we pay for energy throughout the day. Some people already do pay for energy like this, for example those on economy 7 and 10, overnight EV tariffs and even Agile tariffs (where prices vary every 30 mins and are set the day before). There might also be a move to services which control or help us manage when we use some of the equipment in our homes to allow for a better alignment of demand to real-time fluctuations in availability of energy (we’re already seeing this with car charging). As well as infrastructure or other solutions that might not put the burden of being flexible directly on the consumer. It’s our job in Consumer Insight at Energy Systems Catapult to explore the impact on consumers of different future possibilities and help design and develop solutions that work best for everyone. We use volunteers in our Living Lab to help us do this.

Whilst some of the disabled consumers in our Living Lab told us they are already shifting their energy use to save money on these Time of Use tariffs (e.g. charging their mobility scooters overnight), not everyone can be flexible in the way they consume energy.

When we asked them, many people told us how difficult it might sometimes be for them to shift when they used their equipment. And we also found that most medical and mobility equipment is currently mains supplied meaning they use power when the device is being used.

Our participant’s told us: 

“Yeah, I mean that’s [nebuliser] quite flexible…but there may be times where I would need it kind of there and then.”

“I have used the [CPAP] machine for over 30yrs and only missed one night which I never slept. I wouldn’t know what to do with a prolonged power cut.”

“But if I don’t plug it [mobility scooter] in, when I come off [work] and come into the house, it will be too cold, too dark, too far to walk in the dark and to go outside [to the charger] and plug it.”

To help us explore what it might be like for disabled consumers to run their medical devices and mobility aids in a future energy system, we put together a couple of case studies informed by our research findings. You can find out more about these case studies in this presentation I gave in a joint seminar with RiDC. We calculated what they’d pay now, what they might pay if they were on an agile time of use (ToU) tariff, and what they might pay if they were able to flexible in when they used energy. We chose an agile ToU tariff as a proxy for how we might pay for energy in the future. As we’ve noted above, this is not the only possible future scenario for how we might use and pay for energy in the future, but we wanted to understand what the impact on disabled consumers might be if this was what happened.

What we found was interesting. In one case study, we took a couple who have a very fixed routine in how they use their medical devices, which are all mains supplied. In a future where energy is more expensive to use at peak times, they’d have very little opportunity to do anything other than what they do now. But equally, their devices don’t use a lot of energy, and they don’t have to use them much at peak times. They’d be unlikely to have to pay more to run their medical devices in this future scenario than they would be paying the same price for energy throughout the day, the way most of us do now.

In the other case study, we described Gautam’s situation, and his use of a mobility scooter (see below). In his situation just switching to the ToU tariff would look to save Gautam money to charge his scooter without him having to do anything differently (mainly because the average price for a unit of electricity on the example ToU tariff we used is cheaper than the current average price for a unit of electricity in the UK today – this may not always be the case). But if it was possible for him to charge his mobility scooter overnight instead, he could make significant savings. Enabling this to happen could be achieved with little or no additional effort on Gautam’s part, as long as the solution was designed with him and his needs (and those of other users) in mind. For example, if his charger had an automatic delay/minimum charge feature to make sure he didn’t need to go back out of the house in the dark later to start charging, and ensuring the charger and any control applications were accessible.

Gautam’s experience

Gautam (56) lives on his own in a ground floor apartment in Chester. He qualifies for the Motability Scheme and uses his allowance to lease a mobility scooter.

He uses his scooter to make a daily trip to the shops and also to go into the town centre to visit the library and meet friends in the café there.

Gautam’s scooter has a rechargeable battery, and he usually recharges it at home in the early evening. However, he would be willing to recharge it overnight if this would reduce his electricity bill, which has risen a lot in the last year, provided he was guaranteed enough charge for his next day’s use. He is a little concerned though about going outside when it’s dark, as he is concerned about tripping/slipping.

Indicative energy costs today: £241.77 per year

Indicative energy costs in the future: £217.75 per year

Indicative energy costs in the future  – with flexibility: £126.25

Designing for a better future

Lots of people rely on energy for medical devices, mobility aids and other assistive technologies in their homes. This already has a cost implication for people, which is not fully understood. However, people must pay it because it’s essential. We hope that our work, alongside that of our colleagues at RiDC, will raise awareness of the extra costs incurred by disabled people. As recently recommended by the Marie Curie Trust for end-of-life care, we recommend grants and support for families who rely on assistive technology vital for their day to day living. Our colleagues at RiDC also advocate for gathering of better data to provide more information on running costs of assistive technology so people can make informed choices when purchasing, and efficiency standards can be set and improved.

However, in the future these costs might change, depending on what the future energy system looks like. We’ve noted a few cases where people could be worse off in scenarios where we have to pay more to use energy at certain times of day (where they have multiple assistive technologies, these technologies use a lot of energy, and they can’t be flexible with when they use them).

We need to ensure our future energy system, whatever it looks like, doesn’t leave some people worse off than they already are, so we need to identify where these risks are and design to avoid them. We’ve also shown that disabled people could be better off in some scenarios, and even save money. Testing current and future energy products and services through our Living Lab allows us to identify such opportunities, and design to exploit them. For example, we learned through this piece of work, that participants liked being able to monitor the energy their devices used, and some found being able to program and remotely switch on their equipment, without the need for a carer, valuable. We discussed some solutions suggested by disabled people in our Emerging Vulnerabilities report, published earlier this year.

If needs are properly understood and solutions properly designed, we could ensure we’re designing not just for an ok future, but a better future.

This research was part of a program to Enable Inclusive Innovation and Sustainable Choice, run by Energy Systems Catapult in partnership with the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC). The funding was part of £2.2m in grants awarded under the Energy Industry Voluntary Redress Scheme managed by Energy Savings Trust.

Further reading

Medical and mobility technology energy requirements in a future energy system

Presentation by Rowanne Fleck, 14th November 2023

See the presentation

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