Speaker Interview:

Dr. Rose Chard, Consumer Insight Manager, Energy Systems Catapult

“If we don’t create a low carbon energy system that works for the full range of consumers types and consumer needs, people will not only be unwilling to pay for it but we could make problems, such as fuel poverty, worse than they are now.”

(SF) You’re the Consumer Insight Manager and Fair Futures Lead at Energy Systems Catapult, how did you get into the role?

(RC) When I arrived at Energy Systems Catapult, the organisation wanted to understand how their work might consider a broad range of consumers, including those that might be in vulnerable circumstances or less able to afford to be part of the energy transition. Given the breadth of teams, skills and projects, that was no easy feat but it became clear very quickly that there was value to the sector in specific work to look at how these households could be included in the design of a low carbon future energy system. At this time (mid 2016), conversations about low carbon innovation were centred on technologies and presumed consumers would be able to access these innovations in the same way. But in the last 3 years, there’s been an amazing rise in the number and breadth of discussions about how different consumers may be able to access low carbon innovation, how vulnerability might change over the next few decades and the impacts of new energy markets for consumers in vulnerable situations. It’s incredible to see the change in what’s being discussed in such a short space of time.   

(SF) What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on at the moment?

(RC) Innovation can sometimes feel very detached from the everyday experiences of consumers, and those people in vulnerable circumstances. So a current project is tackling a very exciting and tangible problem that has long been discussed in the sector but not tested with real consumers.

We are prototyping and testing a new service where consumers with health conditions, made worse by the cold, are delivered a warm home over the winter. Participants will have smart controls installed, that give them greater control over heating their home to warm, healthy temperatures. We are trailing this with a small number of homes in the West Midlands this winter.

Perhaps surprisingly, the energy sector often struggles to identify those households that need support. Conversely, the health sector can identify the people that have cold-related health conditions but have very few measures to provide that adequately to tackle the problem. If the energy and health sectors work together, there is a unique opportunity to improve health conditions made worse by cold housing and fuel poverty.

(SF) Is it difficult to stay innovative?

(RC) Not really! The Energy Sector is finally starting to tackle the fact that it has long been among the least innovative sectors in the UK economy, so there is so much to do in this space and every week there is another organisation, a new project, a new method being applied to try and understand how we can see real progress on decarbonisation for consumers. All that activity keeps my curiosity fed with new insights and enthusiasm – innovation for me means trying to do new things or trying new methods of doing ‘old’ things – either way, curiosity and questioning long standing assumptions is the key to staying innovative.

(SF) What are the next stages in the low carbon technologies rollout?

(RC) Identifying how we ensure that low carbon technologies go with the grain of consumer behaviour – not against it –  is such a crucial next step if we are to achieve the UK’s net zero commitment. We need to design and trial new products and services with real consumers in real households. To achieve the level of change that we need on a substantial scale, we need to make sure that innovation delivers consumer experiences, such as having a warm and comfortable home, that are as good as or better than current experiences. That is why, test and demonstration environments, such as the Catapult’s Living Lab, are so crucial for the energy sector to take meaningful, substantial steps towards net zero. If we don’t create a low carbon energy system that works for the full range of consumers types and consumer needs, people will not only be unwilling to pay for it but we could make problems, such as fuel poverty, worse than they are now.    

(SF) How important will smart home technology be?

(RC) Smart home technology and digitalisation are central to transforming the energy system, enabling innovators to design and most importantly, deliver the personalised low carbon experiences that consumers want. Smart homes will exist in ways we haven’t yet envisaged but with them they will bring the opportunity to learn precisely what consumers want, personalise the services on offer for different consumer types and provide the evidence that services are being delivered to those households most in need. For too long we have treated consumers as if they all want the same experience. “Vulnerable consumers” especially are often treated as one homogeneous group but the factors that cause people to be vulnerable can be incredibly different – from those that are financially vulnerable, to those that are restricted in their physical ability to access and utilise the energy they need.  Smart home technologies have the potential to provide robust insights about consumers, so new services and products can provide everyone with the outcomes that they want and need depending on their circumstances.

(SF) What are the risks of the energy transition?

(RC) There is a risk that as new market arrangements emerge and new actors enter and shape the energy system that the consumer protections that we’ve had in place previously will not be sufficient. The best way to overcome this is to build in the ability to mitigate the risks where possible and create processes that allow the sector to monitor the risks and react quickly if new risks appear. One of the biggest challenges to do this will be to encourage and have courage to do innovation whilst maintaining principles that make that innovation inclusive and positive for a range of consumer types. I think the energy sector is up to the challenge though – the sector has often been criticised for being slow to react and taking a reactive approach but things are changing and I hope we’ll continue to see an increase in the quality of service for consumers, even as offerings become more diverse.

(SF) What are you most looking forward to at Future of Utilities Summit 2020?

(RC) There is a lot to be learnt from other innovators in the same sector but also across the utilities so I’m looking forward to spotting the things that we can learn from others and apply to the current steps we’re trying to make for a consumer-centred low carbon energy system.

Seb Fox

Sector Manager – Utilities

Seb Fox is the sector manager for our Future of Utilities portfolio. He keeps an eye on industry developments, hot topics, and puts together our conference agendas. He’s been with the company since 2017, having graduated from Mansfield College, University of Oxford.

Follow him on Twitter here: @Futureofutils