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Q&A with Dr Sarah Darby

The New Statesman speaks to Dr Sarah Darby, deputy programme leader of the Environmental Change Inst

The New Statesman speaks to Dr Sarah Darby, deputy programme leader of the Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University, about the future of consumer energy demand.

Do most energy customers still need to be persuaded that cutting energy consumption is worth all the bother?
They don't on the whole think in terms of cutting energy consumption, they think in terms of the way they live their lives. And if their bills are getting really high - and they are, of course, for a lot of people - then that's a worrying thing. They will start to be motivated when they begin trying to get those bills down.

So the real motivation is when people realise they want to save money?
For a lot of people it is. For other people, they may just be thinking about the way they live their lives and the impact they have on the environment. Motivations differ, but what is often missing is how those two link up.

Perhaps we should simply encourage people to turn the lights off when they leave the room?
Well, it certainly helps . . . but behaviour doesn't happen in a vacuum; behaviour happens in particular buildings in particular places.From a transport point of view, for example, you can walk across the road to your village shop, or you may have to drive ten miles into the nearest town once that shop closes. If you are in a building that is set up in a certain way, you will be able to do some things with the heating system and there will be some things you can't do. So investing in buildings, appliances and infrastructure can make a big difference to the amount of fuel we use.

Do smart meters work? A study by the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA found there was an initial burst of enthusiasm and then inertia set in. Do you share that scepticism?
This was a study of energy displays. Making energy use visible is extremely important but the East Anglia study shows that it's more complicated than that. There were mixed responses from different households. For example, if your energy display is just showing you bad news all the time and you don't know what to do about that, then it's a real turn-off.

How do we turn it from that passive bit of information to something that motivates you to do something different?
Partly through the design of the displays. Partly through the level of energy advice and support that's available with them. If you can have some help interpreting what the display is telling you and you can start applying that to your own situation, that's good.

Then, of course, there is the question: "How much of a position are you in to do something about it?" People who are owner-occupiers are in a much better position to do something than those renting. So you have to take it down to the level at which people can make the connections between what the gizmo is telling them, what their situation is, how much money they've got to invest in energy efficiency and what scope they have for changing their behaviour patterns.

There was an experiment in the US where you got to see your neighbours' energy usage. Is that taking it to a ridiculous level?
It wasn't quite like that. You got a statement from a third party which used your billing data, but it wasn't a bill. It said this is what you used last month and this is what around 100 people in houses comparable to yours used last month and this is what the five lowest consumers used, so you could see how you compared. It certainly wasn't about naming and shaming, but it gave you an idea of how you fitted in.

And is that an effective thing to do?
Yes, it's a very low-tech, simple, nicely designed approach, and it's giving savings . . . in the order of 2 to 3 per cent that actually hold up over time. It's an average across people who care a lot about this and across people who couldn't care less, so it's not that bad.

Where does responsibility for cutting carbon emissions lie? Is it with the consumer, business or government?
All three, but primarily with government - it has to be a strategic business.

And what should governments be doing?
Right now, paying maximum possible attention to what is going on in the demand side, because so much policy tends to be focused around supply-side priorities.

Should we be more worried about not having enough energy in the future, or about having the right kind of energy?
The important thing is to have the energy services you need in the place you need them at the time you need them, so I would say the latter.

In your time in the field, have you ever had a scientific theory proved wrong, or have you had to revise your opinion?
I revise my opinion continuously as new information comes in.

Are we all doomed?
I don't do fatalism. In any situation there is always a better thing or a worse thing that you can do.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein.