Public Understanding Of Energy As A Need And Basic Right In Great Britain

The United Kingdom (UK) faces dramatic changes in the energy system in order to address a variety of challenges, ranging from mitigating climate change, renewing the energy infrastructure, to ensuring a reliable and affordable supply. This energy transition will involve shifts in how energy is produced, distributed, and consumed and requires some engagement and support from members of the public because they use energy, vote, and may oppose energy policies or technologies.

To help understand how members of the public evaluate proposed changes to the whole energy system, this research project examined the ways in which the public understand energy and its uses. This is based on the notion that there is not one socially-shared understanding of energy, but that different groups may attach different meanings to the notion of “energy” and the role it plays in our societies. For example, viewing energy as a need and basic right has different implications for national energy policy compared to framing energy merely as a commodity (more on that later).

To gain a better understanding of how members of the general public conceptualize and attach meaning to energy, we conducted workshops and focus groups to ask participants about various current and future energy issues including energy technologies, energy bills, what energy is used for, etc. These discussions showed that people often considered energy as a need and basic right, comparing it to the likes of food, water, and shelter – things that are necessary for survival and living a decent life: “It’s a basic human right, and you need that to survive and live.”

While people felt that energy was something that is necessary across society (e.g. everybody needs to heat their home), the idea of energy being a need was especially heightened in the context of vulnerable groups (e.g. disabled or elderly) potentially not having access to energy. Energy inaccessibility was something that a large majority of our participants felt was unacceptable.

Participants also discussed individual and societal dependence on energy, further highlighting that energy is integral to all aspects of life in the UK. While people in the UK only experience power cuts on very rare occasions, participants did feel these served to highlight the essential role of energy in modern day life, including for heating, cooking, washing, communication, and entertainment. As one participant put it: “[A power cut would] shut the country down.”

Of course, this does not mean that people thought unlimited amounts of energy are necessary. Some forms of energy use were considered wasteful and a luxury. However, it was difficult for participants to draw a clear line between when energy was a need and at what point it was instead part of a provision of luxury services. This also varied according to different participants’ standards. Participants did, however, agree that the notions of luxury have changed over time. For example, while it may have been acceptable to ask people to reuse hot bathwater in the past, this was no longer something people should be expected to do: “[W]e all don’t want to jump into somebody else’s bathwater. That’s what you had to do years ago. […] I mean, 30, 40 years ago, it was absolutely brilliant to have hot water coming out of a tap. […] You know, but I think we have moved on.”

Overall, it was clear that people thought energy was a need and basic right, at least to some extent. The energy as a need framing stands in contrast to a commodity framing of energy, which primarily treats energy in terms of its economic value and object of trade – the predominant framing of energy that the government uses in policy. This is relevant because it means that the way government approaches energy and the coming changes to the energy system (e.g. why we need different technologies and ways of living) does not resonate with members of the public.

Participants were also aware of the energy as a commodity framing, but to some extent, this framing was resisted because it only emphasizes the monetary value and neglects other values such as justice and fairness. For example, one participant questioned the usefulness of the commodity framing for regulating energy use, because higher costs do not reduce people’s need for energy: “You’ve still got to use it in the same way. It’s just that it’s going to cost you this much here, and it’s going to cost you this much here. So, when you’re using, you’re not thinking about the costs and that’s what my family wouldn’t be thinking about the cost, they’d just, ‘I need it, I’ll do it’.”

There has been an increasing recognition in research of the need to examine the services energy provides and not to treat it merely as a commercial unit of fuel or electricity. Energy justice literature promotes the idea that using energy services is essential for meeting basic needs, such as heating, which is aligned with the public understanding of energy as a need as found in this research. However, current energy policy, particularly with increasing marketization of energy, often focuses on meeting climate change targets, energy security, and cost-effectiveness, while it might not take sufficient account of energy justice concerns regarding for example affordability, fairness, and autonomy. We find that people want and expect the government to take these types of issues into account, and considering energy as a need, rather than primarily as an object of trade, might be better able to do so.

These findings are described in the article entitled Acceptance of energy transitions and policies: Public conceptualisations of energy as a need and basic right in the United Kingdom, recently published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science.