Steering energy demand in the right direction: Journal Club with Katie Sumner

At this week’s Journal Club, Grantham Scholar Katie Sumner, led a discussion on whether low carbon technologies are really enough to curb climate change. In this blog post, she asks whether we need to reconsider how we think of energy in the first place.

This week’s paper

‘The dynamics of energy demand: Change, rhythm and synchronicity’ by G. Walker

Katie Sumner

When it comes to combatting climate change, we know that we need to switch to low carbon sources of energy, and that we need to do it fast. But implementing low carbon technologies is only one of reducing our energy use. Maybe we need to rethink how we use energy in the first place, as well as the technologies that provide it.

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, and therefore, there is a need to actively manage energy demand, 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, in a recent paper­­ – ‘The dynamics of energy demand: Change, rhythm and synchronicity’ – which was the topic of this week’s Journal Club, Professor Gordon Walker discussed an alternative ‘practice-based’ approach to managing energy demand, that centres on the idea that energy is an ‘ingredient’ for performing various social practices, which structure society.

This raised a fundamental question that is so often overlooked. Taking a step back from ‘energy’ in the physics sense, what do we actually use energy for?

This wasn’t as easy to answer as you might think. We all accepted that we use a lot of the stuff, for a lot of things, but pinpointing exactly where it went was a lot more difficult. Discussions included vague descriptions of social practices – “Well I’d say, it’s cooking, transport and communicating and things” – but we struggled to go into further detail. It became apparent that we are very readily using energy, without much idea for what.

A second key point that the paper raised was the way practices are synchronised across society: talk turned to the classic example of power surges caused by everybody boiling their kettle during the Coronation Street advert break.

Certain synchronisation was easy to explain. The nine-to-five working day for example, leads to an almost enforced degree of synchronisation amongst its members: with cooked meals, TV, dishwashers etc, all a part of the evening routine.

What was more puzzling, was why people who are not restricted to set working hours (for example the elderly or unemployed), still carry out these same social practices at the same time, conforming to what can be seen as the societal norm. Similar questions were raised about weekend synchronisation. For example: why is Sunday ‘laundry day’ for so many people?

Of course, we had no real answer to these questions – “It’s just the way it is” – but our discussion did raise one final, important set of questions. If we were making a genuine effort to shift our energy demand away from peak times, what practices could be more flexible? Which could not? And what would it take to make us shift our use? These are questions that need answering if we are to steer energy demand in the right direction.