Energy Demand

A Growing Influence

Industrialised economies face three major energy challenges: climate change, energy affordability and security of supply. Over 40% of the UK’s energy demand, and carbon emissions, is associated with buildings, yet there is much we can do to improve our built stock and how we interact with it.

Energy demand research has assumed a whole new importance in the last decade, as the scale of the impending transformation of energy demand and supply has become clear. More is now known about the factors that have an impact on energy consumption, such as elements of the design and planning of buildings, and the way we react as humans to differing environmental situations. And the more we understand these factors, the more intertwined our field of study becomes with subjects such as psychology, sociology, politics and economics.

For most of the last 40 years, energy demand research has been narrowly focused and developed incrementally. As a result, its impact has been limited. Supposedly low-energy houses consume more energy than expected, refurbishments of buildings rarely reduce their carbon footprints and embedded renewable energy systems such as photovoltaic panels often fail to deliver the expected performance. Also, despite energy awareness and labelling campaigns, the energy consumption of households has steadily risen. The UK housing stock may be 30% more energy-efficient than in 1970, but consumption of fossil fuels in our homes has also gone up by 30%.

To pinpoint why new systems fail to deliver the reductions we are promised, we have to look not just at technology but also, more deeply, at how people interact with that technology.

A Multi-dimensional Complex Issue

Energy demand and buildings is a complex socio-technical problem and must be understood better if we are to deliver UK targets. However, the sector faces a skills shortage: we need more highly qualified graduates to work in government, industry, NGOs and academia.

Energy demand has many human and social dimensions that researchers need to understand, not least because they are likely to multiply in the years ahead. For example, our ageing population may need more in the way of heating and other energy-dependent services. Rising fuel prices could plunge more people into fuel poverty. And climate change could cause more buildings to overheat, leading to a greater uptake of power-hungry air conditioning.

On top of the human and social factors, there is the changing shape of the energy network to consider. The line between energy supply and demand will blur as more buildings that can generate energy as well as consume it come on-stream, and more energy suppliers look for ways to remotely control energy consumption.

Energy demand researchers have a lot to think about. But the more the subject branches out and connects with other disciplines, the greater its impact is likely to be.

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