Distrust of the energy industry could slow the rollout of all-electric households

Focus group research shows many people don't trust private companies with vested profit interests when it comes to energy technology and electrification. But they trust other householders on the same energy transition journey.

A lot of hope is held out for new energy technology that can help us fully electrify our homes and businesses.

Much of this technology is referred to as 'smart' – smart meters, smart inverters, smart battery systems, smart cars, smart home energy management systems, smart controls, even a smart electricity grid.

But not everyone is convinced smart technology will be embraced in a way that enables the electrification transition to be rolled out at scale.

“I think we can waste a lot of time in techno hype and techno optimism, when there just isn't the empirical evidence to show that it actually works,” Dr Hedda Ransan-Cooper, a social science researcher and a Senior Research Fellow at the Battery Storage and GridIntegration Program at ANU, told the SwitchedOn podcast.

Ransan-Cooper researches attitudes and experiences of domestic energy products and services to find out what people actually want and need. She says there is already a lot of social science evidence that can help us with the electrification rollout.

“We [should not] ignore really good research that's already there about how people want to engage in the energy system.”

“We've been distracted a bit by shiny new technology," Ransan-Cooper says. "The thing to remember is that, when it's designed, it's designed to think about responding to price signals and responding to what the system needs.”

And the needs of the energy system, or the people that run it, are not necessarily in line with householder needs.

People want simple tech

Trials into smart devices like home energy management systems, for instance, show that “a lot of people never get around to downloading the app. Or it might even increase their energy use, or there's all this digital housekeeping that's required to maintain it.”

When Ransan-Cooper has done focus group research with people on how these technologies fit into their homes, many say it’s just too complicated, and prefer to revert back to, for instance, simple timers that fit easily into their routines.

"Somebody who is busy working and caregiving, does not necessarily have the time to get their head around the technical specifications of an induction stove," says Ransan-Cooper.

“There's a few characteristics around the way people want to engage in energy that are really enduring across time and space. And that's things like comfort, things like convenience, care, and control.”

“Anything that takes away control and agency and flexibility is just something that's not going to work … [that includes] any technology that takes away people's control over everyday routines.”

Ransan-Cooper says that when people are looking at these technologies, they're not just thinking about it in an energy sense. For instance, concerns about data breaches or surveillance that have impacted other industries will influence decisions about energy technology. 

And all of these broader experiences can potentially foster distrust in new energy technology.

Smart home energy management systems can be operated by phone apps (Image: cyano66, istock)

People distrust vested interests

Ransan-Cooper identifies a fundamental distrust of the energy industry, which she says has resulted from the privatisation of the energy industry. Her research suggests people are sceptical of the profit motive and vested interests of the private companies that make up the energy industry.

“[Private companies are] not necessarily incentivised to help householders reduce their energy bills. They want people to keep consuming energy.”

The energy market is also complicated, and opaque – many consumers find it hard to even understand their electricity bills.

“Even people inside the system struggle to understand all the dimensions to it, let alone people that are not energy insiders,” says Ransan-Cooper. “When people don't understand something, then that's a really fertile ground for distrust.”

“The problem is that the energy system promised all of these things, and it hasn't kept up to date with changing expectations around the existential crisis that we face with climate change.”

Ranson-Cooper is concerned that this distrust of the energy industry will impact what happens now with the electrification roll out.

“We're going to see that distrust play out with technologies like virtual power plants, where we're asking householders to sell their battery energy into the energy market via an aggregator. People are going to really struggle with that one.”

The question then is, who do people trust to inform them about electrification? Ransan-Cooper says people who don't have a vested interest in the outcome.

“People intuitively trust other consumers and other householders who are going on the same journey that they're on …. everyday people whose credentials are that I've tried this, and it's worked for me, or I've tried this, and it hasn't worked for me.”

People trust My Efficient Electric Home

Which is why she thinks the My Efficient Electric Home (MEEH) facebook group is so successful and now has over 100,000 members.

MEEH members exchange information about electrification and energy upgrades. They help each other make decisions about what products and services will work best for particular situations. And they inspire each other by showcasing what is possible.

People might join the group seeking information about insulation or heat pumps, but while they’re there, start to see how other people have fully electrified, or how they’ve changed from a gas stove to an induction one, for instance.

Ransan-Cooper says these types of forums were invaluable in Finland when the country embraced heat pump technology.

“We saw one of the fastest transitions towards heat pump technology because of internet forums. They had to adapt heat pump technology for cold weather climates and people's experiences and feedback [were vital to that process].”

Ransan-Cooper says that in the context of a big energy transition like we’re going through our current system is not fit for purpose.

The interviews and focus groups she conducts suggests there's a real appetite within many communities to do things differently, and there’s a big gap between what people need to make the electrification of their homes possible, and what government and the energy industry are delivering.

Whilst governments have finally started to take more of a leadership role in the decarbonisation of the grid, Ransan-Cooper says we haven't seen the same level of engagement with the electrification of the home.

“It's going to take a change in imagination and a change of orthodoxy to realise that there's a role there. The public is already there wanting to see them step up.”

“My hope is that governments can respond to people's concerns and people's expectations and start to reimagine a different role for themselves in the transition.”

You can hear the full interview with Dr Hedda Ransan-Cooper on the SwitchedOn podcast here.

Anne Delaney
SwitchedOn Editor
May 26, 2024
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