business energy

Energy savings at the base of the pyramid

Energy costs in Britain are rising, and so is the number of households struggling to keep up with their bills. I’ve written before about how energy efficiency could help, and how governments have repeatedly failed to raise the efficiency of homes.

The blind spots of government were well summarised in a briefing from the energy company Utilita recently. They point out that government action on sustainable energy is mainly targeted at transitioning to clean energy sources. It’s focused on business and utilities, infrastructure and generation. If households are involved at all, it’s through the option to switch their energy provider. The lower levels of the clean energy pyramid are generally ignored:

If we were to start at the other end, we would encourage people to do simple things that reduce their bills and that they could start doing now. So you might hang your laundry up on a line rather than run a dryer, or switch off devices that you’re not using. This is all about energy habits, which can make a significant difference. If you turn your thermostat up to 21 and then walk around in your shorts, you have no right to demand that the government do something to reduce your bills.

The next level up the pyramid is to make home improvements that embed the energy savings into your home. Insulation, draught-proofing, or energy efficient appliances will all save energy beyond the habits of householders. This is where big ideas like the Green New Deal or the Great Homes Upgrade want to make a difference, permanently upgrading British homes to that they waste less energy.

Why does government action underplay these more basic steps? I suspect that part of it is hesitancy over telling people what to do, but there are ways to do this well. The Energy Savings Trust exists to provide good advice on saving money. It’s budget was slashed by the Conservatives, and funding it to run more ambitious campaigns would be a step in the right direction.

More philosophically, another reason why the bottom of the pyramid gets ignored is that it doesn’t serve economic growth. People using less energy means less profit for energy companies, and lower GDP. The growth model of capitalism has no time for less of anything. There is money to be made in waste and excess, and less money in good stewardship of energy and resources. This isn’t a conspiracy of the greedy, it’s just that all the incentives are aligned towards greater energy use, whatever the consequences might be.

That’s where governments have an opportunity to create systems that reward energy saving, with tax and rebate schemes being one way to do it.

As a nation, Britain has made huge strides in clean electricity in the last decade, and almost no progress at all on insulating homes. We have to do both of course, but it’s time for more attention to the bottom of the pyramid.

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