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Energy Biographies: Understanding the Dynamics of Energy Use for Energy Demand Reduction

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2011-2014 (led by Professor Karen Henwood, with Professor Nick Pidgeon, Dr Catherine Butler, Dr Karen Parkhill and Dr Fiona Shirani, Cardiff University) ESRC/EPSRC Energy and Communities Joint Venture

Concerns regarding climate change and the security of energy supplies mean that the transition to a secure, affordable and low carbon energy system has become a key objective of UK energy policy.  It is now widely accepted that to achieve this aim we need to focus not only on low carbon forms of energy production (e.g. through renewable technologies), but also innovative ways to reduce our consumption of energy - whether in the home, workplace or transportation.

We know that achieving significant reductions in energy consumption by people is not easy, and strategies to reduce energy demand need to be informed by systematic research evidence showing how and why people develop and maintain particular energy intensive lifestyles, practices and behaviours. The proposed project takes an innovative biographical approach to this question, by investigating people's current energy use in terms of their own understandings of energy against the backdrop of their particular individual life-course trajectories. We term this novel methodological approach 'energy biographies'.

The project brings together an interdisciplinary team with expertise in social psychology, geography and sociology based in two leading academic Schools within Cardiff University. It is being conducted in collaboration with government, institutional and grassroots organisation partners in three different social and community case locations: specifically, a major city, a large public sector hospital, and a winner of a recent UK government local community energy demand reduction competition.

The project is structured around two main empirical phases of fieldwork, to be conducted at each of the separate research locations.

Firstly, we are using individual interviews to access peoples' narratives and stories regarding their use of energy and energy practices, and how this relates to the different communities with which they identify. The interviews encourage participants to revisit key moments of their life histories (e.g. transition to adulthood) and aspects of their everyday life (e.g. established routines) to prompt an awareness of their personal investments in energy use. They focus on the life-course transitions that serve to intensify people's energy use in the past, as well as potential routes for change in the future. The interviews will also encourage participants to discuss their own evaluations of existing energy reduction interventions in their own particular location.

Secondly, are selecting a subset of our participants in each case location to engage in an extended period of more in-depth qualitative longitudinal research incorporating repeat interviews after a further 5 and 10 months. This will allow us to create more complex and realistic understandings of how and why individual's energy biographies develop as they do, as well as the unintended and intended consequences of energy demand reduction interventions. These repeat interviews will be supplemented by use of other methods, in particular cameras where participants will photograph their own ongoing engagement with and understandings of their everyday use of energy within the domains of home, leisure, work and transport.

The project will break new research ground by looking closely for the first time at how our use of energy is related to our understandings of our biographical past, as well as our hopes for the future. It is also novel in seeking to develop qualitative longitudinal methods of investigation in the area of energy demand and use. In addition to academic publications, an important practical outcome will be the insight which can be delivered for our collaborating partners at the three case sites regarding their varied current energy demand reduction schemes and the impacts these are having upon our research participants.