ESRC: Festival of Social Science: Energy biographies reveal the challenges of changing our habits

Date: 4th November 2014
Time: 20.00 – 22.00hrs
Location: Cardiff

Asking people to tell their own energy use stories is providing more clues on how to reduce the UK’s energy demands, say researchers from Cardiff University.  Reducing demand for energy is a key – but hard to achieve – policy goal. Finding out how people use energy today, as well as how they used it in the past or imagine using it in the future, is crucial in understanding how energy demand reduction may be achieved according to Professor Karen Henwood of the Energy Biographies research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Today, when we are increasingly reliant on myriad energy-using appliances for work, leisure and just for staying in touch with each other, it’s getting ever easier to use more and more energy without even realising it. Interviewing people about the ways in which their energy use has changed during their lifetime, and how they expect it to change in the future, provides a novel way of making visible and tangible the many ways we have become dependent on easily-available power. To this end, the project has also invited interviewees to photograph the ways in which they use energy and created ‘photo-stories’ of their routines. “From this we can better understand the difficulties and challenges people face in making connections between their routine use of energy day to day and the larger energy picture,” Professor Henwood explains.

Drawing on the rich interview and visual materials produced by the research, the project team has worked with conceptual artists, animators and designers to develop interactive exhibits, which will be on show as part of a World Café-style discussion event held during the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

The key message of the ‘energy biographies’ study is how thoroughly our patterns of energy use are ‘locked in’ to our lifestyles and identities, researchers reveal.  People in the study, drawn from four separate sites including a large NHS hospital in London and an eco-hamlet in Wales, highlighted how far different ways of using energy are not just routine, but bound up with their desires, aspirations and emotional attachments. One participant in the study, for example, who had moved with their family to rural South Wales from London, whilst keen on energy efficiency, saw patio heaters as a ‘bad’ but essential luxury that allowed them to create a convivial and hospitable atmosphere for old friends visiting from London.

“It’s widely accepted that we need to find innovative ways to reduce our consumption of energy – whether in the home, workplace or transportation,” Professor Henwood points out. “But, we also know that achieving significant reductions in energy consumption by people is not easy, and as yet we do not have all the answers for how to encourage and achieve lifestyle change for lower energy use. But by understanding more about how and why people use energy over their lifetimes we aim to provide insights into the kinds of policy interventions that can help drive social change toward reduced energy usage across different communities and settings.”
For further information contact:

·         Professor Karen Henwood, Cardiff University


Telephone: 029 2087 4678

ESRC Press Office:

·         Aaron Boardley
Telephone: 01793 413122

·         Susie Watts
Telephone: 01793 413119

1.      Event: Encounters with Energy
Location: The Gate Arts Centre, Keppoch Street, Cardiff, CF24 3JW
Date: 4 November 2014, 20.00-22.00 (Café Bar open at 19.30)

2. This event draws on an ongoing ESRC funded research project ‘Energy Biographies: Understanding the Dynamics of Energy Use for Energy Demand Reduction’ based at the Cardiff University (grant reference RES-628-25-0028). For further information about this initiative visit:

3. The 12th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 1-8 November 2014 with over 200 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Festival provides an opportunity for anyone to meet with some of the country’s leading social scientists and discover, discuss and debate the role that research plays in everyday life. With a whole range of creative and engaging events there’s something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. A full programme is available at You can also join the discussion on Twitter using #esrcfestival.

4.      The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 the ESRC celebrates its 50th anniversary.