Issue: January 2019, The social side of the energy transition

In Focus

“What we need is an Energy Demand Ministry”

Interview with Professor Elizabeth Shove

Energy-efficient technologies and energy-conscious behaviour influence how much energy we use – but strategies like these do not challenge the social foundations of energy demand. Professor Elizabeth Shove believes that deeper and more comprehensive strategies are needed to engage with the many areas of public policy that impact indirectly on energy demand. Non-energy policies that matter for energy demand are, for instance, embedded in employment, health and education agendas. In this interview with eco@work, the sociologist from Lancaster University (UK) and Co-Director of the DEMAND Centre (Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand) talks about the paradigm shift needed in energy policy and new challenges for research.

Professor Shove, can you give us some examples of non-energy policies which impact on our energy demand?

There are so many examples, at international and at national, regional and local level – of course, with varying degrees of impact. Take the building sector: if a large number of out-of-town shopping centres are approved and constructed, energy demand for transport increases. Or education: the introduction of tuition fees seems to have changed the services provided for students – libraries are open around the clock, for example, and they consume energy. Or employment: if working time models change or people are increasingly working from home, this has an impact on energy demand. If broadband internet is installed across the board as part of a digitalisation strategy, this will have an effect on energy demand as well.

Are politicians aware of these linkages?

There is an awareness, but it’s not often followed by action. In policy fields such as health or defence, reducing energy demand is rarely a priority. There’s also little emphasis on cross-cutting thinking and action. The focus is very much on technical innovation in areas like those of energy efficiency or changing individual consumer behaviour. And in research, too, we tend to think in terms of separate disciplines and generally focus on in-depth analyses of energy supply rather than looking at energy demand.

Why is that, do you think?

Well, firstly, this is such a large and complex area that the question of where to start and how to proceed is very difficult to answer. It is much easier to talk about energy-efficient lighting than about sweeping social and organisational reform. In politics, goals and processes are not usually developed with reference to climate change, even though fresh ideas are urgently needed to deal with it.

What might a solution look like?

Energy demand needs to be mainstreamed, as has happened with the issues of gender equality and diversity. These two issues are now embedded in every field of politics and business. But to achieve that, various departments need to talk to one another and work together. At the moment, there is no clear sense of ownership for this process. That’s why one solution might be an Energy Demand Ministry to bring together all the various strands and set things in motion.

And what are the starting points for related research?

The first critical step is to look at what energy is used for in society, and how energy demanding practices develop and change over time according to circumstances. We need to know how energy is used – and how patterns for instance of heating, of leisure, or health care are changing and with what consequences for energy demand. Only then can we develop forms of intervention that focus on changing practices, and the consumption associated with them.

Thank you for talking to eco@work.

The interviewer was Christiane Weihe.

Further information about the article

Professor Elizabeth Shove
Department: Sociology

Department of Sociology
Bowland North
Lancaster University
United Kingdom

Tel.: +44 1524 510013


Professor Elizabeth Lancaster joined the Sociology Department at Lancaster University (UK) in 2000. Her current research interests concern the relationship between consumption, everyday practice and ordinary technology. She is Co-Director of the DEMAND Centre (Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand), which looks at energy in relation to social practices at home, at work and in moving around.

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