Can a government campaign persuade Britain to use less energy? | Energy efficiency

Government officials deliberating on whether to launch a public campaign to reduce energy usage this winter may want to avert their eyes from the reaction to last week’s heatwave advice. As temperatures soared, government and health agencies advised Britons how to remain safe in the heat. Twitter users’ response? A wave of terse comments. “The nanny state has spoken,” read one. “Most normal adults already know this,” snarked another.

While the country battles extreme heat, the debate in Westminster surrounds how to keep people warm this winter. The twin issues of soaring energy bills, which could top £3,000 by October, and the prospect of supply shortages caused by the invasion of Ukraine underpin the discussion. Industry watchers have called for government intervention, including more financial support after Rishi Sunak’s £15bn package laid out in May and official advice for consumers this winter.

However, the government appears far from certain the latter will happen. Asked about potential messaging to consumers this winter, one senior official at an energy industry conference told executives this month that the issue was being discussed in Westminster. But she argued that “people are fatigued with being told what to do. With Partygate it was clear that we were saying one thing and doing another and that feeling is still there”.

On Thursday, National Grid is expected to release its initial outlook, which will detail its expectations for energy supply and demand this winter.

The reality of Europe’s winter energy outlook lies in the hands of Vladimir Putin, who may decide to strangle economies by cutting off gas supplies. Although Britain is not reliant on Russian gas, any shutoff could push energy prices even higher or divert supplies planned for Britain elsewhere. The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, has sought to shore up coal and gas supplies for the winter, while Shell boss, Ben van Beurden, has warned gas rationing may lie ahead.

The government may decide to put its behavioural insights team – known as the “nudge unit” – into action. Established by David Cameron’s government, the unit looks to apply behavioural science to public policy. The government sold a one-third stake in it for £15.4m last year to Nesta, the UK innovation foundation.

speed limit signs in Frankfurt
Speed limits may be imposed on autobahns in Germany. Photograph: Michael Probst/AP

In Germany, the authorities are already mobilising. Drivers have been warned speed limits may be imposed on the autobahn to reduce fuel usage and hot water rationed.

Influencing public behaviour on energy usage is a delicate task. Suppliers’ websites are awash with practical tips to save energy including reducing room heating to a consistent 21C, filling your dishwasher and washing machine and putting them on at night to use cheaper energy; unplugging appliances you are not using and draining your radiators. However, these efforts can backfire. Last year a series of misjudged tips backfired on the supplier Ovo. It was forced to apologise after advising customers to cuddle pets, eat porridge and do star jumps to keep warm.

Suppliers have also been urged not to use strong-arm tactics to push consumers who can’t afford direct debits on to prepayment meters, which are more expensive. The British Gas Energy Trust, which is funded by Centrica and offers fuel debt advice, ran a campaign named Stop the Silence to raise awareness on the help available with the rapper Professor Green earlier this year.

Angela Terry, an environmental scientist and founder of the climate change action group One Home, argues any widespread campaign must focus on insulation. She says: “Old and vulnerable people are going to be freezing in their homes because they can’t afford heating. They need to be literally insulated from these extraordinary price rises.

“Telling people to fill their kettle properly might save them £20, but proper insulation will save thousands within months. Urging the public to love their loft to save money and get rid of Putin’s gas would be a great campaign.” The UK has the worst insulated housing stock in Europe and only 58% of Britain’s homes meet the insulation standards of the 1970s.

Woman under a blanket with hot-water bottle eating porridge
Advice to keep warm by eating porridge backfired on energy firm Ovo. Photograph: Islandstock/Alamy

The International Energy Agency urged consumers to turn down their thermostats by 1C to reduce need for Russian gas.

Stew Horne, head of policy at the Energy Saving Trust, says advice needs to be impartial and tailored. “There is a lot interest in how you retrofit your home to make it more efficient and a lot of government support out there – but people don’t know where to start. To trigger behavioural change the help needs to be personalised,” he says.

Horne cites schemes in Bristol and Scotland offering free advice on how to make homes more efficient. The boiler upgrade scheme offers consumers £5,000 to have air source heat pumps installed while the home upgrade grant is aimed at supporting low income households to improve their home energy efficiency.

A government service, Simple Energy Advice, offers free help on home energy performance and low carbon heating.

Sarah Baumann is managing director of advertising agency VaynerMedia and has worked on numerous public information campaigns through her career, including the Think! road safety campaign and an adult literacy and numeracy drive taglined “Our Future. It’s in Our Hands”.

She says “carrot-and-stick” approaches are important for such campaigns. “There always needs to be a deterrent or an enabler sitting beneath the marketing. With energy – do you go with the cost of living angle, the potential gas shortages – which may panic people – or the climate crisis? All three could be equally motivating,” she says.

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The prize for an agency landing such a contract could be lucrative. The government has previously handed out similar briefs to established agencies such as Freuds, the agency behind Live Aid and Comic Relief, and M&C Saatchi, which has been the subject of a bid battle this year. London agency MullenLowe was among the winners in the Covid information drive, including work on the NHS vaccination programme.

Baumann says: “It would need to be more subtle than the blanket Covid campaigns. People’s situations are so very different. If you’ve got a Tory leader who lives in a level of comfort preaching frugality and delivering the message on rationing you need think very carefully about what you’re communicating.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The UK has no issues with either gas or electricity supply, and the government is fully prepared for any scenario, even those that are extreme and very unlikely to occur.”

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