Household energy use and sustainability

Approaching home as a site for reversing climate change draws attention to palpable home precarities, undermining the idea of home as a haven from the world’s hazards. The home is one of the main entry points for the implementation of all environmentally friendly policies. However, any modifications made by individual households are inadequate unless linked to wider scale measures. For example, without major changes in water access through current supply networks, decreases in household consumption of water are unlikely to make substantial long-term improvements (Lawrence and McManus 2008). By approaching the household in terms of ‘site and scale’, the household is recognised as an interconnection of individual judgements and choices about consumption and waste disposal, concerning communal decisions and activities and concerning bad practice and the wider movement and consumption of energy and material goods (Hawkins 2006: 70). An obstacle facing debates and policy formation on greening the ‘home’ is that homes are individualistic and not collective. Assessing the delicate routines and householders’ uses of domestic devices that might lower carbon dioxide emissions is complicated. Moreover, variation in household size, from single person to large family households, multiple occupancies and co-housing pose challenges about home boundaries and the kinds of sustainability arrangements required. In turn, these challenges raise questions about how to conceptualise the agency of a household.

Taking Europe as a complex cross-national regional example, buildings in the European Union are responsible for 40% of the total amount of energy needed. This percentage is expected to rise with an increase in future building construction. Accepting the need for meso-level (household) initiatives, the challenges involved in the transformation of household and domestic practices, as major players in energy transitions, are enormous. European nations have signed the 2015 Paris Agreement to combat climate change and accelerate the actions and investments needed for decarbonisation. The challenges entail policy and planning to initiate efficient technologies in the home or transformative changes such as cooperative modes of renewable energy production. Governing frameworks and policies relating to energy use must take account of housing tenure, location, and building stocks followed by climatic and energy cost considerations. The average of equivalent tonnes of CO2 emissions per capita in the European Union is 8.7 (Naef et al. 2019; European Environmental Agency 2016).

Although energy efficiency forms part of all European national policies, there are significant national differences in their implementation, with variable levels of effectiveness. Demonstrating fragmented energy approaches across the Union, key differences exist in energy production and management with some countries choosing to phase out nuclear fuel and some expanding their nuclear capacity. In response to the 1970s oil crises, energy policies in Denmark have led to the implementation of district heating based on combined heat and power with high uses of wind power for electricity and biomass (Jensen and Quitzau 2019). However, the involvement of households has been somewhat scattered, with transformations focused mainly on the supply side. Hungarian policy emphasises the need to improve energy efficiency with a focus on the household sector, yet the policy support has been uneven (Vadovics 2019). Likewise, in Finland the rhetoric supporting energy efficiency has not been matched by actions until recently (Heiskanen et al. 2019). Across Europe, the retrofitting of older buildings is widespread as a method for improving energy efficiency, but the type of renewables and results are varied, depending on local conditions (Naef et al. 2019).

To lower European Union dependency on energy imports and decarbonise the economy, the European Union Energy Policy is being developed across five domains: (i) security of supply; (ii) sustainability; (iii) greenhouse gas emissions; (iv) the role of renewable energy in energy supply and use; and (v) competitiveness of the EU in the energy sector (Genus and Iskandarova 2018: 11). The normalisation of various forms of energy-greedy consumption such as constant Internet connectivity, and the use of washing machines and refrigerators, are part of deliberations concerning sufficiency that prompt more fundamental and societal questions including the kinds of services that should be allowed and in what contexts. A definition of ‘sufficiency’ by Sahakian et al. (2018) supports absolute reductions in resource use while also contesting social conventions on household energy use and fixing upper and lower limits to consumption, drawing on findings from the H2020 ENERGISE 1 project. This is based on the principle that sufficiency should be a first step towards efficiency for energy transitions.

Issues of age, gender and social class are significant factors for understanding the link between a household’s economic resource, the type of building they live in and their energy habits in relation to current and potential energy-related practices (Gram-Hanssen and Georg 2017). Economic differences between wealthy and poor households involve contrasting patterns of consumption and therefore contrasting technological acquisition and different habitat conditions (Sahakian 2018). Education level is a form of social capital that can influence environmental awareness concerning energy issues. Many scholars therefore agree that thermal conditions should correspond with the type of occupants and type of building (Kunkel et al. 2015; Nicol and Wilson 2011; Bopp 2007; Boerstra et al. 2015). The tenure of the home also influences householders’ options for lowering energy demand. Obvious challenges include the lack of incentives on the part of landlords to pay for energy renovations that would help tenants save energy (Laakso and Heiskanen 2017: 12). The type and age of the home also determines energy use with regard to the costs of increasing levels of energy efficiency. Renovation needs are greater in countries with older building stock such as the UK and Bulgaria. Old buildings, and poorly maintained dwellings have very different energy saving needs compared to new and highly automated buildings. In the UK, the housing stock is amongst the oldest in Europe. Houses built before 1918 represented 16% of the housing stock in 2014. The large proportion dating from the Victorian era have poor insulation, indicating additional energy consumption to maintain a certain level of comfort. And in Bulgaria, only 5% of homes were built after 2000 (Naef et al. 2019: 144). Energy use is also determined by the size and type of the dwelling with larger dwellings consuming more energy but multiple rooms allowing rooms to be closed oft' to regulate temperature.

Variations in the stages of development of smart systems and technologies between countries in Europe show that certain northern countries are more advanced than others. For example, smart energy systems have been advanced in Finland and Denmark with investment in smart grid and smart energy research. Finland has developed smart products for export such as the Internet of Things, building automation and smart controls. Finland also hosts several cities that are piloting smart technologies. An additional factor that affects household energy usage is whether the energy suppliers are private, or state owned. State regulations of energy distribution commonly aim to safeguard consumers’ interests, affecting the energy bill. For instance, systems that offer low renewable energy electricity prices can influence household energy use. Meanwhile, fuel subsidies can lower the cost of energy to support people in need. However, growing interest in smart citieshas led to calls for a less technology-oriented and more citizen-centric approach (Joss et al. 2017). Citizen-led approaches are discussed below.

Considered together, the range of household energy schemes in Europe highlight the importance of EU funding and related national funding programmes to support innovative initiatives tor lower energy use. They also indicate the value of working with multiple stakeholders to encourage community engagement, an approach regarded as more effective than nation-led, ‘top-down’ schemes. As Patrick Naef and colleagues state:

In this vein, there seems to be increasing interest - in policy discourse if not in action - on the need to move away from the ‘passive consumer’ to the ‘active citizen’ when it comes to framing the role of households in energy transitions. (Naef et al. 2019: 150)

Although most energy schemes seem to emphasise individual and technological transformation, some encouraging instances of good practice indicate how wider forms of change could be practised effectively. The need to ‘embed energy demand in socio-material systems’ by addressing questions related to cultural context such as ‘car culture’ in the case of Germany is also foregrounded by Naef et al. (2019).

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