Fuel poverty in a smart energy world

Published: 16 July 2020

Smart heating controls, while not yet commonplace, are growing in popularity in UK homes. While many households currently put up with a below par heating experiences because they find traditional heating controls confusing and hard to use, smart heating can give households room-by-room control of comfort and cost. 

By coupling digital systems with data analytics, smart heating can reveal varied details of consumer preferences and building requirements, enabling better outcomes not only for households but for the wider energy system. This includes greater system flexibility, better management of peaks in the power sector and cost-effective decarbonisation. 

As a result, emerging Smart Local Energy Systems, such as those being developed around the UK as part of the Prospering from the Energy Revolution Challenge are beginning to propose the use smart heating controls to maximise the use of local energy, whilst providing flexibility services to the local electricity network to reduce the costs and energy losses created by transmitting electricity across the network. By passing on a fair proportion of the resulting network savings, smart local energy systems could help vulnerable households afford the energy they need to be safe, healthy and comfortable. 

Yet there is also a risk that smart heating may fail to deliver consumer benefits, or may change energy consumption in unpredictable ways. So the best way to make sure they deliver positive changes is to design and test the technology with households. Some studies have explored how consumers use smart heating controls. However, those studies did not include vulnerable households [1] 

This research fills that gap – conducted for the Energy Revolution Integration Service to inform Smart Local Energy System innovation projects. It explores how vulnerable households use smart heating controls and how they could benefit from future smart energy services (e.g. room-by-room control and advanced information about the cost of different ways of heating their home).   

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Energy Systems Catapult created the Energy Revolution Integration Service – to provide expert guidance and support to around 25 Smart Local Energy System projects, across the UK, as part of the £100 million Innovate UK funded Prospering from the Energy Revolution programme.

Key points

Fuel poverty in a smart energy world: How vulnerable energy consumers could benefit from smarter heating controls is the first time a smart energy innovation trial was carried out directly with fuel poor households, including families that struggle with either: low incomes, energy affordability, energy debt or vulnerabilities to the cold.

Each home in the study had smart heating controls and sensors installed, providing room-by-room temperature control and millions of data points about behaviour and buildings.

The research found:

  • Vulnerable households are not all the same. We may use one term to describe them, but their behaviours, needs and attitudes vary as much as those of other consumers.
  • They may struggle to afford the cost of energy, but they have the same fundamental needs as everyone else. We found that they wanted the same things from heating as everyone elseto protect their home, to enrich their relationships and to enhance their health.
  • Vulnerable households may be less able to afford their energy bill, but they did not want to minimise what they spent. Instead they wanted to manage how much they spend whilst getting the heat they wanted.
  • They enjoyed using smart heating controls to manage their heating. They had previously found managing their heating difficult, time consuming and complex.  
  • Most people thought it would be useful to understand the cost of their heating. We found that people wanted peace of mind that they could afford to heat their home in future.  

The research recommended:  

  • You can support vulnerable households by designing your smart local energy system to enable them to choose how to use the energy they buy in ways that are important to them (e.g. to stay healthy). 
  • Vulnerable households could find information about the cost of heating helpful but they will want to be able to use it to decide how much to spend (e.g. getting warm and healthy).  
  • You can maximise the benefits your smart local energy system will deliver to vulnerable households by involving them in the design of innovations. 
  • New energy innovations that are based on incorrect assumptions about what consumers want to use energy for could accidentally harm consumers. This manual can help you test any assumptions you are making about vulnerable households.

[1] Vulnerable households refers to those who have a low household income and relatively high energy costs. This is the definition used to refer to those at risk of fuel poverty in energy policy in England, by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial strategy within the Energy Company Obligation.