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Will low carbon innovation bring energy justice or further fuel poverty?

Vulnerable households may benefit or suffer further injustice from the switch to low carbon technology depending on whether risks are pre-empted and actively mitigated, according to new research by the University of Sussex and innovation hub Energy Systems Catapult.

Decarbonising our energy system to achieve 2050 emissions targets will require extensive innovation, which has the potential to benefit consumers and truly put them at the heart of the energy system, including vulnerable households.

Yet there is also a risk the transformation could create new injustices unless the risks are pre-empted and actively mitigated.

Sussex University Professor of Energy Policy Benjamin Sovacool, alongside Energy Systems Catapult’s Consumer Insight business Lead Dr Matt Lipson and Consumer Insight manager Dr Rose Chard have published a peer-reviewed study in Energy Policy exploring how emerging low-carbon innovations may complement, or indeed complicate, achieving energy justice outcomes for vulnerable households.

The study assessed three household innovations (energy services, solar photovoltaic panels and low carbon heating) and one transport innovation (electric vehicles).

Professor Sovacool said: “The study offers a sobering reminder that many of the things we want, such as more efficient homes, can still generate degrees of injustice throughout their diffusion.”

The study assessed each innovation across four areas: affordability, resource efficiency and environmental performance, equity of accessibility and fairness for vulnerable groups. It found that there could be positives and negatives for each of the innovations across these four assessment areas.

For example, tailored energy services could improve comfort, enhance control of costs and raise product performance for consumers; and enable service providers to attract and retain their consumers more easily. Conversely, energy services could cause problems for households if they are rolled out without considering the needs of everyone, for instance, households without internet access, or renters who are not allowed to install the necessary technology.

However, with some forethought energy services could offer policymakers new routes to deliver societal goals, like addressing vulnerability to fuel poverty. For instance, data could provide much more exact targeting of government support, such as improving the affordability of specific levels of energy service, rather than based on simpler measures such as monitoring the number of homes being insulated. Energy service providers would also have a commercial incentive for delivering energy services as efficiently as possible, encouraging them to find the best mixture of fabric and appliance efficiency in each home.

Dr Chard said: “If opportunities are harnessed, innovations could see more people be able to afford access to basic energy services and the benefits of innovation be available to vulnerable energy consumers.”

Ultimately, decarbonising our energy system can work hand in hand with alleviating the impact of existing vulnerabilities to fuel poverty and enhancing principles of justice, but it also threatens to push people into new forms of fuel poverty and exclusion unless risks are pre-empted and actively mitigated.

The study, entitled “Temporality, vulnerability, and energy justice in household low carbon innovations,” was published in May 2019 (Volume 128) of Energy Policy.

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