Domestic Energy Efficiency: What Can Policy Development Learn From Geography?

The amount of energy used in European homes for heating, cooling, and to power electrical appliances makes up a substantial part of energy consumption, accounting for over a quarter of energy demand in the European Union in 2015.

Much of the stock of existing homes was built in the second half of the 20th century to varying design standards. During this expansion of home building, energy efficiency was not viewed as a top priority. Because of this, we have a legacy of houses which are difficult to keep at a desired temperature and which require excessive amounts of energy to operate.

In an effort to improve the thermal comfort and energy efficiency of homes, governments have introduced various strategies to retrofit the existing housing stock. These retrofits include introducing loft and cavity wall insulation, replacement of windows, as well as the installation of new boilers and energy-efficient light bulbs. In the United Kingdom, the Green Deal was introduced in 2012 to motivate these retrofits through a market mechanism that allowed households to invest in energy efficiency improvements to their homes while paying back this investment from the savings made to their energy bills.

When evaluating such policies, governments tend to concentrate on how quickly the retrofits occur and their cumulative impacts. One issue, which is often overlooked, is in what areas do these policies take hold. Understanding the geographical spread of such policies offers a number of benefits such as locating the areas that are and are not benefitting from the strategy as well as identifying local barriers and motivators for adoption. To provide guidance on these issues, our research investigates the spatial diffusion of the Green Deal by examining the uptake of energy efficiency assessments by householders.

Image courtesy Craig Morton

The figure above charts the spread of the policy quarterly across the government constituencies of the United Kingdom. It’s clear to see that certain regions of the United Kingdom have witnessed higher rates of Green Deal activity than others. A clear question to ask is what is motivating this geographical disparity in uptake. Our research considers this issues by examining the associations that exist between Green Deal activity and demographic characteristics of the population, attributes of the housing stock, and whether local supporting initiatives are present.

The results of the analysis indicate that energy efficiency assessments tend to be more popular in areas that have high rates of university educated residents, detached homes, and young families. A series of factors are also linked to lower rates of assessment, such as the rate of self-employed residents and the rate of property market activity (i.e. the buying and selling of homes). In addition, the analysis found that providing local governments with funding to enable them to promote the policy is linked to higher rates of assessments.

With this type of intelligence, governments can identify areas that are more likely to be receptive to the policy so that they can target deployment more effectively. Such an approach may assist the policy in gaining the momentum required to become self-sustaining. This could be coupled with the allocation of start-up funding to local governments in potentially receptive areas to enable them to accelerate policy diffusion. As the need to improve the energy efficiency of the existing housing stock become more pressing, governments will find it even more useful to make use of the perspectives that geographical analysis can offer to help steer policy development, deployment, and appraisal.

These findings are described in the article entitled The diffusion of domestic energy efficiency policies: A spatial perspective, recently published in the journal Energy Policy. This work was conducted by Craig Morton from Loughborough University, Charlie Wilson from the University of East Anglia, and Jillian Anable from the University of Leeds.