Energy innovation must work for all – including vulnerable customers

Published: 13 September 2017

The transition to a clean, intelligent energy system must work for all UK consumers – including vulnerable people and households in fuel poverty – according to researchers at the Energy Systems Catapult (ESC).

With over 2 million fuel-poor households in England alone, ESC’s ‘Fair Futures’ programme has been awarded funding from Innovate UK to better understand how innovators working towards a clean, intelligent energy system can better design technology and services for consumers struggling with low household income and the high cost of energy.

Dr Rose Chard, Consumer Insight Specialist at the Energy Systems Catapult, said: “There is no one type of vulnerable energy consumer or one single cause of fuel poverty.

“Contributing factors can include long-term illness, job insecurity or simply having young children in the house. We need to explore how energy is needed to support people’s lives, to build up a complete picture of the different groups of householders and their individual situations.

“Across the energy sector there are technological innovations and new business models being tested and trialled, so a robust understanding of the needs of all end-users, especially vulnerable households, can help to ensure the design and development of innovations take them into account.

“With 5 million adults never having used the internet and an estimated 1.6 million customers self-disconnecting from energy at least once a year by not topping up their prepayment meters[1], consumers’ vulnerabilities are not something we can ignore.

“And vulnerability doesn’t just apply to heating. Take electric vehicles for example, how are we going to ensure that those people without access to off-road parking at home can charge their car, or that those people that cannot afford a new car are not disproportionately disadvantaged.

“So we need a whole-systems approach to applying these learnings – to ensure everything from technological innovation to local area planning and new energy supply models take account of these consumer needs.

“We don’t want vulnerable people to be negatively affected by technological innovation in the energy sector transition but equally we want technological innovation to actively make life better for people living in fuel poverty.”

This winter the ESC ‘Fair Futures’ programme is running an ‘Innovation Bootcamp’ funded by Innovate UK to explore how the experience of vulnerable energy consumers can inform how we think and design a future low carbon energy system.

They want to bring together a mix of energy industry executives, an innovative new energy supplier, user design specialists, consumer advocates, researchers with a strong understanding of the every day/lived experience of fuel poverty.

Dr Chard continued: “The Energy Systems Catapult believes innovation can deliver clean, intelligent energy system – with the consumers at the heart. We have extensive consumer insight expertise to help understand the energy needs of different people and we are well-positioned to provide nationally relevant in-depth research with the purpose of designing better products and services for vulnerable households through innovation across the energy system.

“We are currently looking for partners to collaborate in this unique opportunity that harnesses a cross-sector consortium to better understand problems from the householders’ perspective and ensure we harness innovation to better take account of how vulnerable consumers can interact with a clean, intelligent energy system to positive social, environmental and economic benefit.”

If you are interested in hearing more about the programme or discussing how your organisation may be involved, please contact