What we learnt from the West Oxford Energy Challenge – top picks from Dr Phil Grunewald’s ‘Joys (and sorrows) of energy use’

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Dr Philipp Grunewald talks joys and sorrows of energy use

On Monday night, whilst exciting things were afoot in Oxford Town Hall with the Oxford City Council vote to unanimously support a declaration of climate emergency, a good gang of West Oxforders came together to hear the ECI’s Dr Phil Grunewald talk about the joys and sorrows of energy use.  Phil is a knowledgeable, quirky, warm and entertaining speaker, and he didn’t disappoint.  I suspect that if we had not stopped him after an hour to celebrate the climate emergency declaration, we could have all carried on with questions and discussion for a good few hours more (fuelled by vegan wine).

The talk, which went into the background of Phil’s research interest in looking simultaneously at personal energy use and time use in the home, also explored some of the results from the West Oxford Energy Challenge, in which 74 West Oxford residents on 4 streets participated last summer.

So, here are a few top picks from Phil’s talk:

 

HELPING  INDIVIDUALS UNDERSTAND HOW THEY CAN REDUCE THEIR DEMAND MOST EFFECTIVELY

If you ask a room full of undergraduate students how much UK electricity is used to power mobiles, they will vastly overestimate.  In reality, we’re talking less than 0.1% of UK energy use, but due to our constant use of mobile phones, our perception is distorted. So… you might think you are making a big impact by switching off your phone charger (and it is still worth doing) but actually the impact on your overall consumption is tiny if you stop there.

Phil wanted to explore how to feed back to people about the really big ticket items, which could have real impact in demand reduction.  Historically there has been very little research into the question of ‘what do we do with electricity?’; this is probably because to date it has been very easy for us to meet our nation’s needs with our responsive power stations… but this is changing as we shift to renewables.

The UK is the world leader in time use research.  Phil’s research is connecting this data with energy use.

Phil’s research project, METER http://energy-use.org/ (of which the West Oxford Energy Challenge was a sub-category), involves giving individuals an electricity recorder which clips on under their household meter, and a pared-down mobile phone with an app for recording activity.

 

TOGETHER OR SOLO?

The app has been developed especially for the project, and at any time you can record a specific activity, by select the right option from six in response to a series of questions.  As well as recording the type of activity (e.g. using the washing machine; making a cup of tea; watching TV are all examples), the app asks participants to say who they are doing it with (alone, with one other, with more etc).  This has revealed some interesting trends – for example, historically, the TV was something for which families used to come together.  Nowadays, Phil’s results suggest the opposite is true, with people withdrawing to their own private spaces to watch on whatever screen.  Interestingly, being able to pause things we are watching has created an opportunity for the resurrection of the family meal, so it is swings and roundabouts.

 

Add in ENJOYMENT and 3’s a crowd

The other really interesting question included on the app is one to give an idea of levels of enjoyment – ‘how much are you enjoying activity x?’, with 6 possible answers on a scale.  From this, participants seem to experience the highest enjoyment levels with one other (no more, no less).

Results suggest a positive correlation between using a lot of electricity for an activity and enjoyment levels.  Electricity on the whole does help us in our daily lives, and there is a positive trend overall.  However, there is an interesting kink: the 3 activities we enjoy MOST of all use LESS energy!  And what are these?

Reading (though note, reading often occurs when other machines have been put on e.g. washing machine, dishwasher…)

Socialising and

Sleeping

As Phil points out, 3 things Western society is probably a bit short of, and perhaps if encouraged, could result in a reduction in energy use.  A ‘sleep more, read more, socialise more’ energy demand reduction policy anyone?!

 

IT’S ALL ABOUT AVOIDING BLACKOUTS

The moment policymakers are most concerned about is the moment of ‘peak demand’, which takes place early evening every winter, just as people are leaving the office and returning home to switch on the heating, TV and cook.  To date, with our current energy system, we have been able to up energy production quickly by switching on a range of back-up power stations to meet that demand.  However, this is not possible in the same way with renewables.   So if we want to bin the heavy-polluter fossil fuel back-up stations, we need to figure out how to reduce that peak demand moment, to avoid potentially devastating blackouts.

Ofgem is currently focused on the technique of using higher prices at peak demand time, to motivate behaviour change.

As part of the West Oxford Energy Challenge, Phil asked participants to adjust their electricity use in the second half of the study (2 days out of 4), to see how successful this might be.  The stakes were high – the street with the biggest shift would win glory and prizes.

What did Phil and his team discover?

Washing machines are easily delayed – there was a dramatic change in their use when participants were asked to avoid certain times.

Meal preparation is a BIG PART of peak demand.  There was a hot meal shift during the intervention. But eating a hot meal appears to correlate with enjoyment, so this was an obvious point where desire for enjoyment clashed with desire to reduce demand.

So what changed with the shift away from hot meals?

 

KEEP CALM AND MAKE A CUP OF TEA

Snacking increased.

Drinks increased. Tea after 5pm went through the roof, almost trebling in frequency between 5-7pm.

And tea is one of the most enjoyable activities according to participants, so in fact, overall enjoyment didn’t go down.

Overall, participants managed to reduce electricity use by around 15%, more than in tests using the economical model of charging more for peak energy.  Interesting for policy!

Interestingly, tea also plays a role with working from home.  In contrast to what you might expect, thermostats were generally not changed by individuals on days they worked for home.  They simply gradually got cold through the day and then, you guessed it, drank more tea!

 

So there we have it.  Some very interesting results, and a fun evening had by all.  Thank you to Phil for coming along to share the findings of his research in West Oxford, and to everyone who participated.  And for those of you keen to participate in future, and understand more about your own use, watch this space – more West Oxford based research is in the pipeline!

 


Vegan wine and local apple juice

Thanks to The Princess and the Pinot for her Vegan wine recommendations – yum!

 

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