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Encounters with Energy

23 October 2014

Asking people to tell their own energy use stories is providing more clues on how to reduce the UK's energy demands, according to Cardiff University researchers.

Energy Biographies, an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded project led by Karen Henwood, Professor at the School of Social Sciences, aims to understand how energy demand reduction may be achieved by finding out how people's lifestyles and identities affect how they use energy.

Professor Henwood said: "Today, when we are increasingly reliant on myriad energy-using appliances for work, leisure and just for staying in touch with each other, it's getting ever easier to use more and more energy without even realising it.

"Interviewing people about the ways in which their energy use has changed during their lifetime, and how they expect it to change in the future, provides a novel way of making visible and tangible the many ways we have become dependent on easily-available power.

"To this end, the project has also invited interviewees to photograph the ways in which they use energy to create 'photo-stories' of their routines. From this we can better understand the difficulties and challenges people face in making connections between their routine use of energy day to day and the larger energy picture."

Drawing on the rich interview and visual materials produced by the research, the project team has worked with conceptual artists, animators and designers to develop interactive exhibits, which will be on show as part of a world Café-style discussion event held during the upcoming ESRC Festival of Social Science.

The key message of the study is how thoroughly patterns of energy use are 'locked in' to people's lifestyles and identities. People in the study, drawn from four separate sites including a large NHS hospital in London and an eco-hamlet in Wales, highlighted how far different ways of using energy are not just routine, but bound up with their desires, aspirations and emotional attachments. One participant in the study, for example, who had moved with their family to rural South Wales from London, whilst keen on energy efficiency, saw patio heaters as a 'bad' but essential luxury that allowed them to create a convivial and hospitable atmosphere for old friends visiting from London.

"It's widely accepted that we need to find innovative ways to reduce our consumption of energy – whether in the home, workplace or transportation. But we also know that achieving significant reductions in energy consumption by people is not easy, and as yet we do not have all the answers for how to encourage and achieve lifestyle change for lower energy use.

"By understanding more about how and why people use energy over their lifetimes we aim to provide insights into the kinds of policy interventions that can help drive social change toward reduced energy usage across different communities and settings," Professor Henwood added.

Encounters with Energy takes place at The Gate Arts Centre, Keppoch Street, Cardiff, CF24 3JW on 4 November 2014, 20.00-22.00 (Café Bar opens at 19.30)

The 12th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 1-8 November 2014 with over 200 free events nationwide. The Festival provides an opportunity for anyone to meet with some of the country's leading social scientists and discover, discuss and debate the role that research plays in everyday life. A full programme is available at You can also join the discussion on Twitter using #esrcfestival

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