Disrupting the rhythm: Insights for energy demand management

Grantham Scholar Katie Sumner researches energy use priorities using case studies to explore what disruptions to power use tell us about demand. 

The project

The daily pattern of energy use within the UK has two peaks – one in the morning and one in the evening – during which demand for energy is at its highest. The problem is, that unlike fossil fuels, many renewable technologies are somewhat intermittent; relying on natural conditions that are sadly, beyond our control. Because of this, there is uncertainty over whether renewables will be able to provide a reliable energy supply during periods of peak energy use. Therefore there is a need to create greater flexibility in the demand for energy, if renewables are to be successful.

Previous strategies for demand management have focused on increasing the efficiency of appliances, or providing pricing incentives to consumers to shift their usage to ‘off peak’. However, these strategies fail to address possibly the most fundamental question in energy demand management. Taking a step back from ‘energy’ in the physics sense, what do we actually use energy for? This also raises important questions about the synchronicity of energy use across society. What social practices are contributing to these peaks in demand and why?

Unravelling the specific uses for energy is by no means easy. It is rare for us to consider (or even comprehend) exactly when, where, why and for what purpose we are using energy; with its usage so often an unreflective outcome of people’s daily routines and habits. However, there are many occasions when everyday life, and thus normal rhythm and routine, is disrupted. For example, through blackouts, natural disasters, or smaller scale disruptions, such as traffic jams or worker strikes. During these ‘breaks in the flow of social time’ we often see a very different temporal pattern to social practices that reveals flexibility in practices and routines that in everyday situations, are seen as rigid and fixed.

Using the 2015 flooding (and subsequent power cuts) in Lancaster – in which over 55,000 houses were left without a stable power source for 3 days – as a case study, this project will use interviews and house tours to gain a better understanding of priorities in terms of energy use, as well as identifying the practices which are temporally flexible, and in doing so, reveal the most feasible areas for achieving flexibility in the demand for energy.

Katie Sumner’s outreach

Katie Sumner led a discussion on whether low carbon technologies are really enough to curb climate change. In this blog, she asks whether we need to reconsider how we think of energy in the first place. Read: Steering energy demand in the right direction.

In 2016 Katie helped organise a debate Clean Power for All as part of our Scholar outreach programme. You can watch this on our YouTube channel.

Grantham Scholars looked at using theories of practise to decarbonise transport in this week’s Journal Club. Katie Sumner reflects on their discussions. Read: Changing practices to decarbonise transport by Katie Sumner.

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Dr Matt Watson

Department of Geography


Dr Alastair Buckley

Department of Physics and Astronomy