Building Resilience in Low-Income Communities

By Ellie Stevens of The Centre for Sustainable Energy.

‘What happens to low-income households whose energy bills suddenly increase – for example because prices rise dramatically or they experience a change in circumstances such as an elderly relative living at home. And how can such households and their neighbourhoods be supported to become more ‘energy resilient’?

These are questions we at the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) are exploring through Powering Up!, a 3-year project funded by the Friends Provident Foundation. We’re working in three low-income communities – Druffyn in Newport, Penhill in Swindon and Hamp in Bridgwater. The project started with a six-month ethnographic study undertaken by Bradon Smith in partnership with Bath University, which involved in-depth interviews and a workshop with three residents in each community.

So what did we learn during the research?

Firstly, that energy reduction is not a priority for most people we spoke to even though energy bills are a significant household expense. This isn’t because people don’t know how to reduce their energy use – they mostly do. It’s because many low-income households are already careful consumers of gas and electricity, and using even less would be detrimental to their quality of life. This reminds us that it’s not all about money or climate; comfort – e.g. draught proofing and damp reduction – should be a priority.

Secondly, that energy literacy in these communities is better than anticipated. When we asked participants to collectively draw a map of our energy system, it revealed that there was more intrinsic knowledge of – and interest in – how the system works than first impressions might suggest. There are opportunities to engage people in conversations about energy issues but persistence and using interactive and fun ways to explore energy is critical!

Thirdly that people are very aware of renewable sources of electricity, to the extent that wind and solar power were more prominent in people’s descriptions of how the energy system works than coal, oil and gas. Although people knew renewables were positive and called them ‘eco’ and ‘green’, they did not, interestingly, make the connection to CO2 or climate change.

Finally, and significantly, there was considerable scepticism about the fairness of the energy system, and householders expressed a strong sense of disempowerment and disengagement from it; their only sense of control was seen as the option to switch supplier. Community energy generation, for example, was considered as desirable but not affordable, resonating with our experience that community energy activity is far more common in affluent areas.  

The full report is up on our website here if you’d like to read more about the research.

Since January 2018 we’ve been carrying out community engagement in the three communities, trying to get to know community members, find out about existing activity and build our local networks.

Ideas we’ve tested include:

Slow cooker workshop: While people waited for their free hot meal, we had plenty of time to talk about energy. The informal nature of the event and the setting, in a local community café, meant people were happy to chat in groups. Dispersed amongst the tables, local residents talked about getting to grips with smart meters,  shared their tips for thrifty energy use and their gripes about single glazing.

Draught-proofing workshop: This had a great turnout. Everyone enjoyed our crafty activity of making your own draught excluder, and were intrigued by some of the more novel low-cost ways to make your home warmer – “chimney sheep” anyone? We made a real effort to promote the workshop – and sent round an extra reminder to come along on the day. And it worked: they  came, they talked about energy and they left enthused.

Household thermal-imaging surveys: These proved to have a narrower appeal, mainly to local energy experts and professionals. Two residents had their homes surveyed. They found the visual results from the surveys empowering  – one showed the results to the council (her landlord) and got them to do some improvement works to her home. But the outputs proved too technical as a means to build wider engagement in the community. The activity requires  thermal imaging kit and some specialist knowledge so it felt harder for local residents to take it on as an activity to do themselves.

By contrast, the slow cooker and the draught proofing kit are low cost, the activities easy to run, and the outputs offer immediate satisfaction, which made them more appealing to local volunteers.

In Penhill, we’ve met council officers working in the area, attended tenant engagement meetings and been to John Moulton Hall for weekly community cafes which are run by the street reps. We’ve met some very active residents in Penhill and there’s a real focus on environmental issues throughout existing projects such as the community orchard regular and litter picks.

A draughty window seen through the thermal imaging camera.
Staff from CSE make draught excluders with residents in Duffryn.
Megan discusses energy efficiency at home with residents at the slow cooker workshop in Hamp.

Recently, we’ve trained residents in Penhill to offer energy advice and to run their own social media campaigns. They’re planning to use their newly found skills to set up an energy project of their own, popping up at local events to help others get to grips with energy efficiency, bills and meters. Follow progress on our Facebook page.’

Updates on how the Powering Up! project is progressing will be published on CSE’s website.

* Ellie Stevens is a Project Officer in the Centre for Sustainable Energy’s communities team. She delivers a range of projects which support communities, local authorities and young people to engage with sustainable energy projects and low carbon policies, with a particular focus on working in low-income areas.