Understanding the importance of socio-cultural drivers in energy choices
ENABLE.EU is an EU-funded project gathering researchers in 11 European countries to identify what drives energy choices in daily life. We investigate energy-related behaviours and practices to identify the best ways to move towards behaviours that are sustainable and consistent with the energy transition and a clean energy future. To do so, we lead comparable case studies in 11 countries to identify European challenges and national differences — may they be cultural, economic or regulatory.
Since November 2016, we have been researching specific dimensions of energy behaviours — e.g. the role of feedback and direct billing on electricity consumption, the various drivers of our heating practices, the potential of electric car-sharing and the role gender can play in the decision to become a prosumer. All our research is available on the ENABLE.EU website.
In the second phase of the project, we had the opportunity to bring citizens and experts together. We brainstormed on the energy future and ways to get there, including changing our practices. While participants showed a willingness to change, they highlighted numerous improvements that are required to put theory into practice. In terms of mobility, many citizens would like to stop using their cars, but bike paths and public transport are either not efficient or inexistent on many roads. Change thus needs to occur at all levels.
Our behaviours are essential but their change needs to be accompanied by adapted infrastructure (e.g. bike paths), economic incentives, regulation and technologies (e.g. thermostats) that help people adopt sustainable behaviours.
One illustration of this intertwined nature of drivers of energy choices is the impact that gender relations have on the adoption of rooftop solar panels.
The role of gender relations in the decision to produce energy at home
To achieve an energy transition favouring renewable energy generation, many countries introduced economic incentives to promote the adoption of home solar systems. Citizens thus can become ‘prosumers’, producing electricity for their own consumption and sell excess produced electricity to the central grid supply. In doing so, they can both reduce their energy consumption from central grid supply, but also add to the stock of renewable energy nationally. Despite an increase in economic incentives and information provision, energy production at home has not become mainstream. Being a prosumer today requires financial means to invest in a solar system, the availability of suppliers and ownership or agency to have rooftop PV panels installed on your house/apartment. How can policy-makers contribute to making prosuming attractive and accessible for all people (across ages, class, gender) on time to reach the EU’s renewable energy targets?
The ENABLE.EU project has conducted a case study on prosumers in Italy, Norway, Serbia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom to explore what motivates people to become prosumers and the potential that prosuming has for more sustainable energy practices at the household level, such as shifting time for energy-consuming activities to daytime when the sun is shining and producing solar energy. We interviewed men and women from 66 prosumer households, covering a diversity of urban/rural areas, age groups and occupations. The obtained sample of prosumers was, however, all middle-class couples who were self-tenants in detached or semi-detached houses. Most of them also had higher education.
This study puts the emphasis on implicit socio-cultural factors and gender relations in the decision of becoming prosumers and changing energy practices in the household. From the case study, we highlighted three main findings that are guiding people to become prosumers and important gender differences that may inhibit women from becoming prosumers.
Firstly, across all case study countries, the motivation to become prosumers is centred on the environmental and financial benefits of producing their own renewable energy. In the UK, Italy and Ukraine, where feed-in tariffs have been put in place, financial motives were rated higher than in Norway and Serbia where there are less economic incentives to make such an investment. In Ukraine, for instance, investing in PV systems for energy production at home was compared to savings in the bank.
The above-mentioned motivations were shared by all interviewees. However, another important motivation was the interest in new technology, mostly stated by men. Indeed, several of the interviewed prosumers were working in the energy sector or in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professions or had a strong technological interest. Norway was particularly illustrative, where 6 men and 2 women of the prosumers interviewed worked in the energy sector (constituting more than half the households), while the majority of men interviewed had a technological interest as an important motivation. In the UK, 7 out of the 14 men interviewed had a technological interest as motivation, while in Ukraine, 3 men and 2 women stated technology innovation as a motivation. In comparison, several women in the UK and Norway expressed disinterest or reluctance towards adopting new energy technology such as household PV systems.
Secondly, in all five countries, it was mostly men who took initiative for and drove the process of becoming prosumers. This involved contact with vendors, utility companies, permits etc. A notable exception to this rule were three women working in the energy sector. When describing a ‘typical prosumer’ most of the interviewed prosumers also described a man with high to middle income, environmental awareness and technical or economic interests.
Thirdly, the division of interest and responsibilities concerning becoming a prosumer was also reflected in how men and women interacted with energy in the household. We asked all the interviewed prosumers to note down the frequency of checking their electricity production (on the inverter, computer or Apps) and energy-related domestic work over a week. Several women stated that household energy and solar technology was ‘his thing’ as is reflected in who in the household monitored the energy production of the household PV systems. Men, in general, monitored electricity production more frequently than women (in Italy this information was not obtained).
However, though many of the women interviewed expressed the PV system (and technology in general) as a ‘male domain’, women performed most of the energy-related domestic work such as cooking and laundry, as shown in the tables below:
Several women felt committed to change their practices by checking weather forecasts and doing laundry or other energy-related domestic work such as vacuuming on sunny days so they could make the most of the energy they produced themselves. Taken the gendered divisions of labour in the household, women then bear higher costs of changing energy behaviours.
The ENABLE.EU study shows that there are significant thresholds that may hamper prosumers’ attractiveness and feasibility.
If prosuming is socially perceived as limited to ‘techno-savvy’ middle-class men with a sound financial background, it poses problems for social justice as well as speeding up a needed energy transition.
In order to address this issue, policymakers should include measures ensuring that economic incentives and regulations allow for a diversity of residential prosumers across socio-economic situation and type of housing (apartment buildings, rental). Providing credit schemes combined with other incentives may be a way to decrease the economic threshold. Furthermore, skills, awareness and knowledge related to energy should be raised in society. Issues of gender, ethnicity and class are as important as skills and education is not equally distributed. Promoting ‘energy literacy’ to the next generations will be a good start to make everyone comfortable in taking new energy technologies into use.
Karina Standal, Tanja Winther, Katrine Danielsen, 2018. Energy Politics and Gender, in Oxford Handbook of Energy Politics
Tanja Winther, Hege Westskog, Hanne Sæle, 2018 Like having an electric car on the roof: Domesticating PV solar panels in Norway, in Energy for Sustainable Development
ENABLE.EU, “Synthesis report on the “from consumer to prosumer” case study”, September 2018
ENABLE.EU, “Comprehensive literature review setting the scene for the ENABLE.EU study”, June 2017
ENABLE.EU, “Transition practice framework workshop report”, March 2019
About the Authors
Karina Standal is a senior researcher at CICERO — Center for Climate Research in Oslo, Norway. Her main research interests are within the fields of political and development geography, with a specific focus on the adoption of decentralized renewable energy systems, electrification, sustainable energy consumption and gender relations.
Emilie Magdalinski is a research fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris. Her research focuses on EU policies related to energy transition and clean mobility. She works on the Horizon 2020 ENABLE.EU project that aims at better understanding the drivers of energy choices to formulate policy recommendations for future European energy policy.
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