Current efforts to change patterns of energy demand tend to target people as discrete and isolated individuals. In so doing, they ignore the fact that energy use occurs in places such as homes, workplaces and communities in which complex webs of social relations already exist. Here, we argue that more attention should be paid to how people’s social relations influence energy demand. We review recent qualitative research to show how social relations shape how much energy people use, when and where they use it, as well as how they respond to interventions. We propose a typology that identifies three types of social relation as especially significant: those with family and friends, with agencies and communities, and those associated with social identities. We show how a focus on social relations can generate new forms of policy and intervention in efforts to build more just and sustainable energy futures.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Torriti, J. Peak Energy Demand and Demand Side Response (Routledge Earthscan, 2015).
Baker, K. J., Mould, M. & Restrick, S. Rethink fuel poverty as a complex problem. Nat. Energy 3, 610–612 (2018).
Dobbins, A., Nerini, F. F., Deane, P. & Pye, S. Strengthening the EU response to energy poverty. Nat. Energy 4, 2–5 (2019).
Grubler, A. et al. A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 °C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. Nat. Energy 3, 515–527 (2018).
Jenkins, K. E. H. & Hopkins, D. Transitions in Energy Efficiency and Demand: The Emergence, Diffusion and Impact of Low-Carbon Innovation (Routledge, 2019).
Crossley, N. Towards Relational Sociology (Routledge, 2010).
Burkitt, I. Social Selves: Theories of Self and Society (SAGE, 2008).
Burkitt, I. Emotions and Social Relations (SAGE, 2014).
Gauntlett, D. Making is Connecting (John Wiley & Sons, 2011).
Ellsworth-Krebs, K., Reid, L. & Hunter, C. J. Home-ing in on domestic energy research: ‘house’, ‘home’ and the importance of ontology. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 6, 100–108 (2015).
Lane, R. & Gorman-Murray, A. (eds) Material Geographies of Household Sustainability (Ashgate, 2011).
Morgan, D. Rethinking Family Practices (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).
Jamieson, L. Families, relationships and ‘environment’: (un)sustainability, climate change and biodiversity loss. Fam. Relatsh. Soc. 5, 335–355 (2016).
Bell, S. et al. Sociality and electricity in the United Kingdom: the influence of household dynamics on everyday consumption. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 9, 98–106 (2015).
Hargreaves, T., Nye, M. & Burgess, J. Keeping energy visible? How householders interact with feedback from smart energy monitors in the longer term. Energy Policy 52, 126–134 (2013).
Nyborg, S. Pilot users and their families: inventing flexible practices in the smart grid. Sci. Technol. Stud. 28, 54–80 (2015).
Reid, L., Sutton, P. & Hunter, C. Theorizing the meso level: the household as a crucible of pro-environmental behaviour. Prog. Hum. Geogr. 34, 309–327 (2010).
Elder, G. H. Human agency and social change: perspectives on the lifecourse. Soc. Psychol. Q. 57, 4–15 (1994).
Burningham, K. & Venn, S. Are lifecourse transitions opportunities for moving to more sustainable consumption? J. Consum. Cult. 20, 102–121 (2017).
Nicholls, L. & Strengers, Y. Peak demand and the ‘family peak’ period in Australia: Understanding practice (in)flexibility in households with children. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 9, 116–124 (2015).
Collins, R. Keeping it in the family? Re-focusing household sustainability. Geoforum 60, 22–32 (2015).
Whittle, R. et al. From responsibility to accountability: working creatively with distributed agency in office energy metering and management. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 10, 240–249 (2015).
Hargreaves, T. Interacting for the environment: engaging goffman in pro-environmental action. Soc. Nat. Resour. 29, 53–67 (2016).
Gibson, C., Head, L., Gill, N. & Waitt, G. Climate change and household dynamics: beyond consumption, unbounding sustainability. Trans. Inst. Br. Geogr. 36, 3–8 (2011).
Shirani, F., Groves, C., Parkhill, K., Butler, C. & Henwood, K. Critical moments? Life transitions and energy biographies. Geoforum 86, 86–92 (2017).
Henwood, K., Groves, C. & Shirani, F. Relationality, entangled practices and psychosocial exploration of intergenerational dynamics in sustainable energy studies. Fam. Relatsh. Soc. 5, 393–410 (2016).
Hansen, A. R. ‘Sticky’ energy practices: the impact of childhood and early adulthood experience on later energy consumption practices. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 46, 125–139 (2018).
Powells, G., Bulkeley, H., Bell, S. & Judson, E. Peak electricity demand and the flexibility of everyday life. Geoforum 55, 43–52 (2014).
Strengers, Y. & Nicholls, L. Aesthetic pleasures and gendered tech-work in the 21st century smart home. Media Int. Aust. 166, 70–80 (2017).
Hargreaves, T., Wilson, C. & Hauxwell-Baldwin, R. Learning to live in a smart home. Build. Res. Inf. 46, 127–139 (2017).
Mennicken, S. & Huang, E. M. Hacking the natural habitat: an in-the-wild study of smart homes, their development, and the people who live in them. Lect. Notes Comput. Sci. 7319, 143–160 (2012).
Herrero, S. T., Nicholls, L. & Strengers, Y. Smart home technologies in everyday life: do they address key energy challenges in households? Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 31, 65–70 (2018).
Schot, J., Kanger, L. & Verbong, G. The roles of users in shaping transitions to new energy systems. Nat. Energy 1, 16054 (2016).
Ellsworth-Krebs, K. & Reid, L. Conceptualising energy prosumption: Exploring energy production, consumption and microgeneration in Scotland, UK. Environ. Plan. A 48, 1988–2005 (2016).
Bulkeley, H., Powells, G. & Bell, S. Smart grids and the constitution of solar electricity conduct. Environ. Plan. A 48, 7–23 (2015).
Fox, N. Here Comes the Sun: The Evolution of a Prosuming Project Within a Social Housing Estate. PhD thesis, Univ. of Sussex (2018).
Davis, L. W. in The Design and Implementation of U. S. Climate Policy (eds. Fullerton, D. & Wolfram, C.) 301–316 (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Ambrose, A. R. Improving energy efficiency in private rented housing: why don’t landlords act? Indoor Built Environ. 24, 913–924 (2015).
Ambrose, A., McCarthy, L. & Pinder, J. Energy (In)Efficiency: What Tenants Expect and Endure In Private Rented Housing. A Final Report to The Eaga Charitable Trust (Sheffield Hallam Univ., Eaga Charitable Trust, 2016).
Ambrose, A. & McCarthy, L. Taming the ‘masculine pioneers’? Changing attitudes towards energy efficiency amongst private landlords and tenants in New Zealand: a case study of Dunedin. Energy Policy 126, 165–176 (2019).
Hoppe, T. Adoption of innovative energy systems in social housing: Lessons from eight large-scale renovation projects in The Netherlands. Energy Policy 51, 791–801 (2012).
Darby, S. Smart metering: what potential for householder engagement? Build. Res. Inf. 38, 442–457 (2010).
Hess, D. J. Smart meters and public acceptance: comparative analysis and governance implications. Health Risk Soc. 16, 243–258 (2014).
Rosenow, J. & Eyre, N. A postmortem of the Green Deal: Austerity, energy efficiency, and failure in British Energy Policy. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 21, 141–144 (2016).
Sovacool, B. K., Kivimaa, P., Hielscher, S. & Jenkins, K. E. H. Vulnerability and Resistance in the United Kingdom’s smart meter transition. Energy Policy 109, 767–781 (2017).
de Wilde, M. The sustainable housing question: on the role of interpersonal, impersonal and professional trust in low-carbon retrofit decisions by homeowners. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 51, 138–147 (2019).
McMichael, M. & Shipworth, D. The value of social networks in the diffusion of energy-efficiency innovations in UK households. Energy Policy 53, 159–168 (2013).
Middlemiss, L. et al. Energy poverty and social relations: characterising vulnerabilities using a capabilities approach. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. (in the press).
Owen, A., Mitchell, G. & Gouldson, A. Unseen influence - The role of low carbon retrofit advisers and installers in the adoption and use of domestic energy technology. Energy Policy 73, 169–179 (2014).
Wade, F., Shipworth, M. & Hitchings, R. Influencing the central heating technologies installed in homes: The role of social capital in supply chain networks. Energy Policy 95, 52–60 (2016).
Wade, F., Shipworth, M. & Hitchings, R. How installers select and explain domestic heating controls. Build. Res. Inf. 45, 371–383 (2017).
Naus, J., Spaargaren, G., van Vliet, B. J. M. & van der Horst, H. M. Smart grids, information flows and emerging domestic energy practices. Energy Policy 68, 436–446 (2014).
Walker, G. & Devine-Wright, P. Community Renewable Energy: What should it mean? Energy Policy 36, 497–500 (2008).
Seyfang, G., Park, J. J. & Smith, A. A thousand flowers blooming? An examination of community energy in the UK. Energy Policy 61, 977–989 (2013).
Howell, R. A. Living with a carbon allowance: the experiences of carbon rationing action groups and implications for policy. Energy Policy 41, 250–258 (2012).
Taylor Aiken, G. (Local-) community for global challenges: carbon conversations, transition towns and governmental elisions. Local Environ. 20, 764–781 (2015).
Fisher, J. & Irvine, K. Reducing energy use and carbon emissions: a critical assessment of small-group interventions. Energies 9, 1–12 (2016).
Pitt, D. R. Harnessing community energy: the keys to climate mitigation policy adoption in US municipalities. Local Environ. 15, 717–729 (2010).
Oteman, M., Wiering, M. & Helderman, J.-K. The institutional space of community initiatives for renewable energy: a comparative case study of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. Energy Sustain. Soc. 4, 11 (2014).
Klein, S. J. W. & Coffey, S. Building a sustainable energy future, one community at a time. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 60, 867–880 (2016).
Bauwens, T., Gotchev, B. & Holstenkamp, L. What drives the development of community energy in Europe? The case of wind power cooperatives. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 13, 136–147 (2016).
Walker, G., Hunter, S., Devine-Wright, P., Evans, B. & Fay, H. harnessing community energies: explaining and evaluating community-based localism in renewable energy policy in the uk. Glob. Environ. Polit. 7, 64–82 (2007).
Aiken, G. T., Middlemiss, L., Sallu, S. & Hauxwell‐Baldwin, R. Researching climate change and community in neoliberal contexts: an emerging critical approach. Wiley Interdiscip. Rev. Clim. Change 8, e463 (2017).
Walker, G., Devine-Wright, P., Hunter, S., High, H. & Evans, B. Trust and community: Exploring the meanings, contexts and dynamics of community renewable energy. Energy Policy 38, 2655–2663 (2010).
Parkhill, K. A. et al. ‘We are a community [but] that takes a certain amount of energy’: Exploring shared visions, social action, and resilience in place-based community-led energy initiatives. Environ. Sci. Policy 53, 60–69 (2015).
Watts, L. Energy at the end of the world: An Orkney Islands Saga (MIT Press, 2018).
Smith, A., Hargreaves, T., Hielscher, S., Martiskainen, M. & Seyfang, G. Making the most of community energies: Three perspectives on grassroots innovation. Environ. Plan. A 48, 407–432 (2016).
Creamer, E. et al. Community Energy: Entanglements of community, state and private sector. Geogr. Compass 12, 1–16 (2018).
Devine-Wright, P. in Framing the present, shaping the future: contemporary governance of sustainable technologies (ed. Murphy, J.) 63–86 (Earthscan, 2006).
Chilvers, J., Pallett, H. & Hargreaves, T. Ecologies of participation in socio-technical change: the case of energy system transitions. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 42, 199–210 (2018).
Middlemiss, L. A critical analysis of the new politics of fuel poverty in England. Crit. Soc. Policy 37, 425–443 (2017).
Day, R. & Hitchings, R. ‘Only old ladies would do that’: age stigma and oldeer people’s strategies for dealing with winter cold. Health Place 17, 885–894 (2011).
Waitt, G., Roggeveen, K., Gordon, R., Butler, K. & Cooper, P. Tyrannies of thrift: Governmentality and older, low-income people’s energy efficiency narratives in the Illawarra, Australia. Energy Policy 90, 37–45 (2016).
Gillard, R., Snell, C. & Bevan, M. Advancing an energy justice perspective of fuel poverty: Household vulnerability and domestic retrofit policy in the United Kingdom. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 29, 53–61 (2017).
Reid, L., McKee, K. & Crawford, J. Exploring the stigmatization of energy efficiency in the UK: An emerging research agenda. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 10, 141–149 (2015).
Anantharaman, M. Elite and ethical: The defensive distinctions of middle-class bicycling in Bangalore, India. J. Consum. Cult. 17, 864–886 (2017).
Middlemiss, L. & Gillard, R. Fuel poverty from the bottom-up: Characterising household energy vulnerability through the lived experience of the fuel poor. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 6, 146–154 (2015).
Sahakian, M. & Bertho, B. Exploring emotions and norms around Swiss household energy usage: When methods inform understandings of the social. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 45, 81–90 (2018).
Hansen, A. R., Madsen, L. V., Knudsen, H. N. & Gram-Hanssen, K. Gender, age, and educational differences in the importance of homely comfort in Denmark. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 54, 157–165 (2019).
Tod, A. M. et al. Understanding influences and decisions of households with children with asthma regarding temperature and humidity in the home in winter: a qualitative study. BMJ Open 6, 1–14 (2016).
Snell, C., Lambie-Mumford, H. & Thomson, H. Is there evidence of households making a heat or eat trade off in the UK? J. Poverty Soc. Justice 26, 225–243 (2018).
Longhurst, N. & Hargreaves, T. Emotions and fuel poverty: the lived experience of social housing tenants in the United Kingdom. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 56, 101207 (2019).
Anantharaman, M., Kennedy, E. H., Middlemiss, L. & Bradbury, S. in Power and Politics in Sustainable Consumption Research and Practice (eds. Isenhour, C. et al.) Ch. 9 (2019).
Robinson, C. Energy poverty and gender in England: a spatial perspective. Geoforum 104, 222–233 (2019).
Hargreaves, T. & Wilson, C. Smart Homes and Their Users (Springer, 2017).
This Perspective draws on insights and evidence drawn from several research projects. The authors would like to thank the following funding bodies: the UK Economic and Social Research Council (grant numbers: PTA-031-2004-00291 & PTA-026-27-2086); Carbon Connections (grant number: CC29); the UK Engineering and Physical Research Council (grant numbers: EP/F022832/1 and EP/K002430/1) and the White Rose Collaboration Fund (grant number: n/a). The authors thank all participants across these projects for sharing their insights and everyday expertise. Finally, the authors are grateful to Mary Tallontire (@murkybucket) for providing the illustrations contained in Boxes 1 and 2.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Hargreaves, T., Middlemiss, L. The importance of social relations in shaping energy demand. Nat Energy 5, 195–201 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-020-0553-5