Local authorities in the UK have been primary actors in targeting households with messages about energy efficiency and coordinating schemes designed to improve domestic energy performance. At the same time, they have often led on implementing programmes to alleviate fuel poverty in their areas. One concern is whether there is a risk that these agendas may work against each other – for example, if households save money on energy bills they may redirect those savings towards activities that consume as much or more energy. If true, this would be problematic for local government, which has statutory responsibilities to achieve progress in both arenas. However, there are insufficient data on the behaviour of households after measures have been implemented to know whether or not this is an issue requiring attention.
Key research Question
Whether the fuel poverty alleviation measures implemented by a local authority led to any identifiable increase in the carbon footprints of the participating private sector households; if this could be attributed to cost savings achieved by the homeowners being redirected to other energy uses; and how these footprints compared to the UK average. The implications for policy in both areas are also considered.
Summary of activity
The UK government’s ‘Act On CO2’ calculator was used to assess the emissions savings made as a result of measures that were installed. Modelling of savings was also carried out, as data for energy use prior to involvement in the scheme were not available for all households. Comparisons were made with households of similar compositions within the interview group, their local authority average, national averages and a control group who had used the Act On CO2 calculator or a similar tool.
Data were generated through a survey of 31 households in the east of England that had participated in local authority programmes designed to alleviate fuel poverty; in parallel, data were gathered from a control group in a separate local authority in the west of England. In addition, qualitative data were collected via interviews with five of the households to explore their energy use after participation.
Data indicated that the households that had participated in the scheme had a median carbon footprint that was approximately equal to or below the average for that local authority and slightly lower than (but not significantly different from) that of the control group. However, without the measures the footprint would have been higher.
Fewer households were deemed to be in fuel poverty after participating – nonetheless, many continued to limit their energy use, and rising energy prices may increase the risk of fuel poverty. There were no identified behaviour changes among participating households, which suggests that concerns that savings might be spent on other energy-consuming activities may have been unfounded. The carbon savings recorded for this sample were equal to or greater than those documented for higher income groups, suggesting that a better return on investment was achieved by targeting fuel poor households.
Further research is needed to discover if these findings are replicated across different types of households (including ‘hard-to-treat’ homes). Such studies must monitor ‘before and after’ data. The conclusions would enable local authorities to target resources at housing improvement, fuel poverty eradication or climate change mitigation more effectively.
The problems experienced using the Act On CO2 tool and the fact that measurements obtained using other calculators were different indicate the need for a reliable standard.
Policy and practice should focus on promoting ‘what works’ for households and not simply rely on assumptions that insulation on its own will bring benefits.