The Industry and Parliament Trust hosted a Breakfast Event between parliamentarians and industry entitled, ‘Energy Literacy: Helping Consumers Interpret Energy Bills’ on Tuesday 14th November 2023. The discussion was chaired by Alan Brown MP, a member of the Select Committee on Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, with guest speakers Phillippa Brown, Deputy Director of Specialist Audiences, Smart Energy GB and Dr Caitlin Robinson, Proleptic Lecturer in the School of Geographical Sciences at University of Bristol.
Why is energy literacy such a pressing topic?
Concepts such as standing charges, kilo-watt hours, and energy price caps make energy use tricky. Complicated language and technologies mean that it is not always clear how to use energy at home in an efficient and healthy way. Given the recent rise in energy prices, energy is an increasing concern for a growing number of households, with 46% of households reporting feeling very worried about the rising cost of energy in 2022. Growing concerns about the cost of energy for households has led to a greater focus on the public’s understanding of their energy consumption – specifically energy literacy.
The challenges of energy literacy are diverse
A recent YouGov survey found that only half of people who pay their energy bills know what the energy price cap is. Specific groups are more likely to have lower levels of energy literacy. For example, the National Literacy Trust found that 22.4% of 18 – 24 years olds responsible for paying bills sometimes avoid reading their bills because of language used, compared to 3.1% of over 65s. Meanwhile, refugees who are new to the UK and often reliant on extremely low incomes can find navigating the energy system challenging, especially where a language barrier exists.
Concerns about energy literacy don’t just stop at ability to read energy bills. There is an entire energy literacy around the actors in the energy system including differentiating between operators, suppliers and regulators. Digitalisation - including the role out of smart meters, online billing systems and other new digital technologies in the home - means that households also increasingly require digital skills and capabilities to engage effectively with the energy system. Yet an estimated 10 million people in the UK lack the very basic foundation skills needed for our digital world. Future changes to the energy system will create new energy literacy challenges. Things will become more complicated as we transition to a low carbon energy system, with renewable energy technologies and low-carbon tariffs generating new energy literacy challenges.
What can be done to improve energy literacy?
The language used in energy bills needed to be more accessible and consistent. Use of overly technical vocabulary in energy bills and technologies is a key barrier, especially for those whose first language is not English, or who have limited literacy and numeracy skills.
Some groups need to be prioritised for support. Certain segments of society are more likely to have low levels of energy literacy, be vulnerable to fuel poverty, or digitally excluded, including older persons, people with a disability and those from migrant and refugee communities. The example of the roll out of smart meters highlighted a wider need to target priority groups, to build confidence and trust in engaging with new technologies.
Building trust in the energy system is important. There was a shared agreement that trust in the energy system is at an all-time low. Trust is key to energy literacy and ensuring that, more generally, engagement of households with the energy system is positive.
Recognise the value of role of family and friends, and local organisations. Locally embedded community organisations play a key role in delivering trusted energy advice.
Energy literacy needs to be part of wider support for households
While there is a need to remove barriers to energy literacy and equip households with the skills to engage, there was also a recognition that not everyone will have the capacity to develop these skills. Support needs to be in place to ensure households are not disadvantaged. This may be via a trusted intermediary that can help people to navigate decisions relating to energy, or through retaining traditional forms of communication such as phone lines. Furthermore, many households are already energy literacy experts, well versed in getting the most out of the energy that they purchase. But they are still struggling to access the energy they need. Improving energy literacy is just one part of a wider need for support for households during the ongoing energy crisis, especially over the coming winter.
Words by Dr. Caitlin Robinson, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and Proleptic Lecturer in the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol