Generation Rent: when will they learn?
It’s tempting to wonder with a sense disappointment at why young bill payers just aren’t learning to save energy so they can lower their bills. Last year, we found that only seven per cent of under-35s fully understand their bill and that nearly 40 per cent were unable to identify that electricity is measured in Kilowatt hours. Now, looking back at this research, it's important to consider to what extent they are in control of their homes: do they pay the energy bills where they live? Can they choose to turn things off? And do they know they are allowed to switch supplier?
And in that regard we need talk about Generation Rent.
This acknowledgement about housing is a useful starting point because for many older people it's still a source of some surprise just how much the housing market has changed for them in the last twenty years and, equally, how it’s become a different story for their younger relatives who live in shared accommodation and are without direct financial responsibility for the place in which they live. And though they are viewed as ‘youngsters’ it’s important to understand they aren’t irresponsible teenagers or students (and that being young doesn’t make you irresponsible); in many cases they are professionals, mums or dads, and people quickly gathering new accountabilities who need the security of a home they can call their own.
Our research found that as many as one in three young people live in shared accommodation, some still at home with their parents, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that the young people who do live independently are unlikely to have bought a home or plan to buy one soon. Just one in five people aged under-35 own their own home and the remainder who don't are renters, mostly in the privately rented sector, who depend on a landlord to make all decisions about the place in which they live. Apart from replacing lightbulbs, this includes any improvement that affects how a property is heated, insulated, ventilated, and protected from all manner of electrical and fire hazards. In shared accommodation, where a decision to replace the lightbulbs is divested to a group, you can begin to see why some tenants might take little interest in their energy use.
Locked-out of energy saving
While almost half (44 per cent) of owner occupiers, who are over 50, live in insulated homes that are warmer, more comfortable and cheaper to heat, the privately rented sector contains the highest proportion of cold and hard to insulate properties, which means that tenants are more likely to live in a home that is expensive to heat and suffers from damp and mould.
The UK housing crisis is an appropriate soundboard then for discussions about how we engage with energy in our homes because, ultimately, it’s our individual circumstances that shape how we can make efforts to lower our energy bills. The material and behavioural ways people can save energy depend on the rights of possession. You can’t insulate a home you don’t own in the same way you can’t programme your heating if you don’t have any boiler or room thermostatic controls.
Do any natural factors influence how we save energy? For instance, does it matter who you are? We asked a cross-representation of the public in our latest research and found this isn’t the case. We asked precisely about what interest people had in saving energy and found this interest is consistent no matter age, class or gender, but that an interest can’t always lead to an action, especially if you’re one of Generation Rent.
It’s true, there isn’t a single energy saving action that is equally straightforward for people of different ages to undertake. When we looked at some of the most basic no-cost actions, like not overfilling the kettle or washing at a low temperature, we discovered that older people consistently reported taking more of these behaviours than under-35s. Yet again, home ownership was the preclusive factor in how people took steps to save energy in their homes.
People who engage with their bills and check their meter are more likely to say they save energy. Does it matter if people don’t know what a Kilowatt hour is? No, not really, and there was a marked difference between age groups, with younger people less likely know what this metric actually means. Just a small percentage of people (around 15 per cent) say they fully understand their energy bill and you’re more than twice as likely to say you fully understand your bill if you’re over 55, but checking a meter is always going to be more interesting to someone aged 44 than someone aged 24.
‘Smart’ technologies – a way forward?
One ray of hope in all this is the emergence of ‘smart’ technology. In our research, younger people were found to be more interested in ‘smart’ thermostats and new technologies than older people, who prefer to save energy by traditional means, like programming the heating to suit the times you’re at home.
The novelty of these new technologies – the opportunity to understand how it works and play with it – is much more attractive to younger people. But where does that leave us in terms of the potential for these technologies to be installed in younger people’s homes?
It’s widely recognised that ‘smart’ technologies will certainly help younger people to make savings and take control of their energy use – particularly, if we admit that they only have limited or partial control of energy in their homes. But the fact remains, many of them don’t own their own homes, so if they are going to have access to these technologies it will because a landlord or a parent has granted them this access.
Over the last decade, improvements in product efficiency at the design stage – thanks to EU directives – have also reduced the size of saving through better control of domestic appliances, but ‘smart’ technologies will help younger people to understand the potentially huge savings from switching to a cheaper tariff, or heating their home more efficiently.
Smart technologies and big retrofit measures
It’s the energy efficient retrofit measures where people can achieve the big savings: draught-proofing, insulation, heating systems and small-scale renewable energy. Smart technologies can help identify where these are needed in a home and enable action to improve the energy infrastructure of our properties, too.
As an example, we have developed our own system that is linked to smart meter data for the Scottish Government to help householders in Scotland understand the savings to be had from these retrofit measures. This pilot technology links to a national advice service for householders so that people calling the advice service can find out how insulation, a new heating system or renewables could help to reduce the costs of energy use.
Smart technology and tenants
However, for the 80 per cent of young people who don't own their own home these retrofit measures are out of reach so one of the most important challenges for the smart energy movement is Generation Rent.
We hope the industry will work to encourage a better dialogue between landlords and tenants about energy. Research from across the energy sector tells us that communication is not effective and details of how and when landlords will be encouraged to take direct responsibility for improving their properties is still undecided, but we have three recommendations.
- To open up grant funding linked to real energy savings achieved by tenants
- To enable tenants to make a better case to landlords for action on their home
- And to enable landlords to track energy use (with the consent of tenants) across their portfolio
At a time when we need to achieve large reductions in the energy we use in our homes and make large-scale changes to our housing stock we need these ‘smart’ technologies to empower better ways of living. But the current situation, where we have a whole generation of disengaged bill payers, severely limits us from helping them to learn about how to save energy.