On the afternoon of the 26th of May, a team with partners from University of Liverpool, Good Things Foundation, National Energy Action, the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, and the Supergen Energy Networks Hub, hosted an event on digital inclusion in the energy market. The event was split across two sessions: the first featuring reflections from Good Things Foundation’s community partner organisations about their experiences of supporting digitally excluded consumers with the energy market, and the second showcasing new and ongoing research undertaken by Citizens Advice, the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers, and Good Things Foundation. This was followed by a panel discussion, joined by representatives from the Supergen Energy Networks Hub and the EU-wide energy consumer advocacy organisation, Next Energy Consumer.
Reflecting back on the event, one of the most important messages that stands out is just how pervasively digital exclusion intersects with other vulnerabilities and other forms of exclusion to limit fair and affordable access to energy. For instance, Fareeha Usman, the found of the charity Being Woman, discussed how rural areas of Northumberland face complex challenges not just in accessing the internet, but electricity itself. Hayley Nelson, the Director of Learn For Life, also relayed the multiple challenges and exclusions faced by refugees in accessing the core energy and digital services they need shortly after their arrival in the UK. They cannot access their bills online, search for deals, or embrace smart technology, and Good Things Foundation’s partner organisations returned time and time again to how they have to interpret information for people and help them to understand and access essential services.
Of course, we also know that exclusions are not primarily a result of personal characteristics, but of the way the energy market is designed. In different ways, almost all of the speakers discussed the ways that energy systems and infrastructures are often seemingly designed to make things harder and more complicated for those who do not have the digital skills or connection to take full advantage of them. Caroline Jacobs, Head of Development at the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers, touched on the inaccessibility of EV charging infrastructures for disabled consumers, and other speakers criticised the lack of non-digital means of switching energy supplier, and the exclusivity of the best deals to online switching sites.
Inclusive Design Principles
These conversations underlined that it is becoming ever clearer that we need inclusive design principles and ‘users’ of all kinds to be more centrally involved in how these infrastructures are conceived and built. This was conveyed strongly by Arun Rao, Senior Policy Advisor at Citizens Advice, who emphasised the need for suppliers to improve the accessibility of information as well as the importance of maintaining multiple channels of communication for customers, so they can get in touch in the way that is most suited to their preferences and needs.
This however begs the question, how can changes like this be achieved? At one point, an audience member mused whether there was anyone from energy regulators, or from government, in attendance. If not, why not? they continued. A short time later, two responses appeared in the chat from attendees based in two of the UK’s regulators, essentially saying ‘yes, here I am’, and providing assurances that the issues being discussed would be fed back to colleagues. he need to work together across the third-sector, industry, government, and energy regulators to amplify the issues and work collaboratively towards more inclusive solutions was spoken about, implicitly and explicitly, by all of our presenters – including across borders, as Marine Cornelis, founder of the EU wide consumer organisation Next Energy Consumer, aptly reminded us.
As the decarbonisation and digitalisation of the energy system gathers pace, we need to continue these conversations and take forward efforts to tackle the twin inequalities of digital exclusion and access to affordable energy services. There is always more to do, but as one of Good Things Foundation’s community organisations put it after the event, it was energising (if you’ll pardon the pun) to see so many members of the energy sector in attendance listening to their experiences and wanting to do more to support digitally excluded customers. As the government takes forward plans to coordinate the digitalisation of the energy system, carving spaces for articulating these experiences and trying to embed them in policymaking remains an urgent and important task.
About the Author
For further information please contact Matthew Scott (National Energy Action).