Sussex Energy Group

How to reduce energy use for a successful transition to net-zero.

Research from the Sussex Energy Group (SEG) is tackling key questions about how to reduce society’s demand for, and use of, energy.

Using less energy is not only important to households concerned about rapidly rising bills. It’s also vital for a fair, affordable and healthy transition to net-zero. By cutting the overall size of the energy system, we can limit the risks and costs of some proposed supply-side solutions such as carbon dioxide removal. Lower energy use would also increase the UK’s energy security, create jobs and wealth in local economies, and improve public health as a result of warmer homes, cleaner air, and more active lifestyles.

Seventeen members of the Sussex Energy Group (SEG) – one of the research centres based in the Business School – are involved in two large research projects focussed on reducing energy demand in the UK: the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) and an exciting new research centre that’s still in its early stages.

Unusually for an energy policy research group, SEG leans strongly towards the social sciences – making it ideally suited to answering questions about the complex connections between energy and society.

The CREDS project

Established in 2018, CREDS is a collaboration between more than 100 researchers at 26 institutions (including the University of Sussex Business School), working together to research how, and to what extent, the UK can reduce its energy demand.

Members of SEG are currently contributing to several CREDS-funded projects.

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Fuel and transport poverty in the UK's energy transition (FAIR)

Mari Martiskainen, SEG Co-Director and Professor of Energy and Society in SPRU, leads the CREDS FAIR project, which looks at fuel and transport poverty. Her team includes SPRU colleagues Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Dr MarieClaire Brisbois and Dr Gerardo A. Torres, as well as researchers from the Energy Saving Trust, Cambridge Econometrics and universities including Oxford, Edinburgh and Manchester.

A problem with deep roots and wide-ranging impact

The FAIR research found that vulnerability to energy and transport poverty is deep-rooted in the structure of societies, extending beyond the energy and transport domains. Causes include not just low incomes but also poor housing quality, use of expensive technology such as prepayment meters, a lack of public transport, and ‘forced’ ownership of personal cars. The impact of fuel and transport poverty on people’s lives is also far-reaching, with detrimental effects on health, education and life opportunities.

Policies to address fuel and transport poverty

he researchers concluded that well-designed and delivered net-zero policies can boost the economy while also reducing vulnerability to fuel and transport poverty, although there may be winners and losers. “Low-carbon technology adoption is likely to cluster in more affluent households unless there is sufficient government support,” explains Professor Martiskainen. “It’s therefore important for policymakers to take into account equity and redistribution.”

Research participants identified the following priorities for policies to improve energy poverty:

• Regulations requiring landlords to improve the energy efficiency of homes

• Increasing the level of support under the Warm Homes Discount scheme

• Ensuring new homes are much more energy-efficient

Priorities to reduce transport poverty were:

• Making bus and train fares and ticketing simpler and cheaper

• Restoring bus services post-COVID-19

• Resourcing local authorities so that they can install electric vehicle charging

Digital society: the need for policy interventions to ensure energy saving

The Digital Society theme within CREDS is led by SPRU Professors Tim Foxon and Steven Sorrell, supported by the following Business School staff and students: Kanika Balani, Dr Noam Bergman, Dr Bernado Caldarola, Yushi Chen, Dr Ralitsa Hiteva, Dr Max Lacey-Barnacle, Dr Kat Lovell, Professor Mari Martiskainen, Dr Giulia Mininni, Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Devon Wemyss and Dr Laurence Williams.

The theme consists of 15 projects. Together, the projects have identified three core ways that digital technologies can enable substantial energy savings:

• By using digitalisation to optimise energy control

• By substituting information and digital services for material goods and services

• By enabling sharing of material goods, for example car-sharing, ride-sharing or food-pairing apps

However, the use of digital technologies will not automatically reduce energy use. For example, there is no strong evidence that substituting physical goods with digital services (such as e-books) delivers significant energy savings. While energy savings can occur under certain conditions (if user devices are energy efficient, long-lived and intensively used), savings are highly sensitive to user behaviour, socio-economic context and other variables.

While digital technologies have made a positive contribution to economic growth and provide benefits to consumers, there are also negative effects for users (for example, the security implications of smart devices) and society (for example, the generation of e-waste). These trade-offs need to be anticipated and managed.

The research also found that improvements in the energy efficiency of digital technologies, coupled with improvements in performance and utility, can encourage large rebound effects. Evidence from a number of applications (for example, teleworking, video streaming) suggests that these effects may lead to a net increase in energy consumption.

A key finding is that specific policy and market mechanisms are needed to ensure that digital solutions deliver energy savings.

New UK Energy Demand Research Champion in the Business School

As the CREDS project draws to a close, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has funded two new Energy Demand Research Champions to lead the next phase of energy demand research in the UK. The new champions are Professor Mari Martiskainen from the University of Sussex Business School and Professor Sara Walker from Newcastle University.

An exciting research centre in the works

The two champions are developing a new cross-cutting multi-disciplinary research centre that will build on the knowledge developed in CREDS. Key research themes of this (as yet unnamed) centre will include equity, flexibility, governance and place. Each of these themes will combine engineering and physical sciences with social science approaches, concepts, tools and methods.

“We need a stronger focus on how we can reduce energy demand and reduce bills while also tackling climate change,” explains Professor Martiskainen. “We understand the urgency of this work and look forward to collaborating with experts in different sectors to help the transition to an energy system that is affordable, reliable and sustainable.”

About the researcher Prof Mari Martiskainen RR

Prof Mari Martiskainen is Professor of Energy and Society at the Science Policy Research Unit