Energy, demand reduction, and who is going to get me some pretty lightbulbs?

Green energy types in the UK didn’t have a comfortable summer with unpleasant surprises like cuts in Government support for solar.

The new direction from Government is (I think) to help people reduce their domestic energy costs, and maybe carbon, without costing the Government any money, and at the same time keeping businesses and other key stakeholders on board, and winning public acceptance. Enough of a challenge then? Energy efficiency as a strategy to resolve that cluster of problems is therefore, in policy land, cool.

I heard two great policy ideas recently to help people consume energy more efficiently. They came from Simon Roberts OBE at the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Dustin Benton from the Green Alliance. I heard them pitch at a ‘Dragon’s Den’ event at the Policy Exchange thinktank in London. Both pitches stood the idea of supply and demand on its head. This blog looks at the idea from the Centre for Sustainable Energy.

Simon proposed a ‘Demand Reduction Obligation’ to be put onto energy suppliers, i.e. the Government would set targets for energy suppliers to reduce the demand from their customer base. The idea has the beauty of being both simple and radical. It is simple because it sets a desired outcome without being prescriptive about the means. It leaves businesses free to build new types of service, new types of customer relationship, new types of management system, that grow organically out of their existing business and are suitable to the local conditions they serve. It could free up technical innovation in energy efficient products, social innovation (social marketing of energy efficiency) or most excitingly, business model innovation. That’s why it stands the idea of supply on its head, because it is mandating businesses to sell less of their product – with the implication that they need to find something else to sell. I accept that most businesses will not welcome an obligation to sell less of their product. But a few business leaders may see it as an opportunity to turn their business into something that will have a greater shelf life, perhaps looking to circular economy principles or product as service. And the implications for consumers become interesting. If you are a low energy user, you could find yourself courted with great deals as energy companies seek to entice you over to keep their portfolio balanced. There might need to be some smart profiling – for example, private rented housing is likely to be much less energy efficient than owner occupied or social housing, but the data is there to create fair DROs for suppliers. And you would need to make sure there were no dwellings that nobody would serve. Perhaps companies that supply more renewables get more lenient DRO targets. But the idea should be really exciting for sustainability leaders in the energy supply business, and for some consumers.

When asked what energy suppliers should do if not supply energy, Simon Roberts proposed that one shift would be to develop businesses such as ‘LED lightbulbs as service’. I would love that – I went on a rant on Twitter recently about the fact that if you want to go low-energy on lightbulbs you can’t have the pretty ones. I wanted the vintage-looking ones for my hall that you see in hipster cafes that look like someone’s been waving a sparkler up and down inside a lightbulb, but they are F rated. The plain, functional, virtuous LED ones are A+ rated. I can’t really square it with myself to get the dirty F ones.

If I could get a great range of pretty lightbulbs as service, maybe with a winter special of warm-glow lightbulbs swapped with cool bluer bulbs in summer, I’d love it.  That’s the sort of thing that could make energy efficiency attractive and exciting to people as home-dwellers, not as bill-payers.  As people at the event kept saying ‘people are not spreadsheets’ and yet that’s how energy efficiency is marketed. I like spreadsheets, I use them all the time at work. So at home, I refresh my mind by going onto Pinterest and looking at pretty things.  Making life more beautiful can go hand in hand with living more sustainably, and good design could change our energy culture.

A rare example of a pretty LED lightbulb, by Edison. Still somewhat dim.

My other big thought on energy culture was – where were the women? At this event, there were four men on the panel being ‘dragons’, four men pitching ideas to the dragons, and all the questions from the audience were from men. I didn’t feel particularly oppressed myself because I had nothing sensible to say, but it made me worry for the energy sector. When there is a lack of diversity, then group-think beckons, bringing missed opportunities, tin-eared communications and an inability to read risks. It would be really good to see more women getting excited about energy, and more men making the conscious effort to put women on panels too.

Another thought on energy culture at the event came from a conversation with a chap whose business helps people switch to more renewable choices. It occurred to me that Good Energy probably occupy the cultural space in my head that the Cooperative Bank did before its disgrace. It seems like the no-brainer choice for the ethical consumer. I don’t know if that’s just good marketing or something more deeply cultural about how we express ethical values through consumer choices, but my contact agreed that that was the ‘smart play’ for Good Energy.