A wide variety of services now offer energy advice to members of the public, from energy suppliers to social housing providers. Improving domestic energy efficiency and reducing fuel poverty are core objectives of such provision, but in order to assess whether this advice is having a positive impact on households it is important that such initiatives should be subjected to robust evaluation. Such appraisals are also valuable for identifying examples of good practice, which can be promoted across the sector.
Key research Question
In the first instance, the study conducted a search to identify the proportion of energy advice schemes that had been evaluated and to collate examples. These were reviewed to find evidence of whether such schemes were effective in improving energy efficiency and reducing fuel poverty, particularly among low-income households, and what approaches appeared to have been most successful. The research also considered what evaluation methods are most useful for advice services to adopt in order to successfully measure their impact.
Summary of activity
From the review of secondary data, the research team collected 15 evaluations. Qualitative interviews were conducted with over 30 advice providers who stated that they undertook some form of measurement of the impact of their advice.
Very few energy advice schemes carry out formal evaluations, but most gather data as part of customer satisfaction processes. Among those who do, there is little consistency, which hinders comparative assessments. Finance is a major constraint that prevents more organisations from conducting evaluations. The ‘effectiveness’ of advice can be measured across a range of indicators, not just the amount of energy saved, including health improvements, debt reduction, increased access to grants and increased comfort. Some of the current modelling of savings is based on questionable assumptions about behaviour change and the purchase of new appliances.
Low-income households are best served by advice that is personally tailored and involves direct contact in the home with an advisor, which enables them to deal with issues and enquiries there and then and demonstrate equipment. Advice should either be targeted at an opportune time such as a house move or the installation of a new heating system or involve client-led contact. Both approaches can produce fuel savings of 10%, and face-to-face advice is at least as effective as that from Energy Efficiency Advice Centres. Unsolicited advice is less effective. Advisors must have good technical knowledge and good awareness of other local services to enable referrals and be able to communicate information effectively – building trust is crucial.
Programmes aimed at low-income households should focus on ‘no-cost’ behaviour change initiatives or utilise available grants, and should focus on issues such as fuel payment, debt and condensation issues, not just energy savings. Particularly effective techniques for raising awareness about energy include providing clients with relevant feedback – for example, discussing energy use after householders are asked to read their meters. However, services should be aware that household income may well have an impact on success. In the first instance, households may be unable to afford improvements, and energy savings may also be taken back in the form of a decrease in comfort.
More testing of techniques for raising awareness is needed, and further research is needed on the optimum advice and supporting context for providing feedback. Research is also required on the impact of behaviour change over time, which will allow the development of better evaluation tools.
The sector should have an agreed evidence-based calculator of energy savings and publish average savings attainable by low-income households, and these figures should be seen as indicative and not guaranteed.
The report recommends that the UK regulator should back research into the option of adopting a ‘Norwegian’-style model of providing bills that are calculated from actual meter readings and show consumption patterns over time. This has been shown to deliver savings through increased awareness and consumer-led education.