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Is flexible electricity use possible for everyone?

Energy poverty has been an unknown concept in Sweden for many years, but now this is unfortunately relevant once more. Jenny von Platten, researcher at RISE, has investigated whether, and how, flexible electricity use can help the most vulnerable.

Energy poverty, i.e., the economic inability of a household to keep its home sufficiently warm, is something that Sweden has been spared from for many decades. But with soaring energy prices, the issue is unfortunately again topical; the problem is that there is little knowledge of what can be done about it.

“Because energy poverty has not been relevant in Sweden for so many years, it’s something we in haven’t studied. Consequently, we do not have all that much knowledge about the problem,” says Jenny von Platten, doctoral student at RISE's unit for urban development.

To help remedy this, she has conducted a study to determine whether it is possible to understand – and to counter – energy poverty as it relates to flexible electricity use.

“Energy poverty returned during last winter's price spikes, so I wanted to look at what can be done to avoid these price spikes. Not just because it is relevant at present, but also to see who will be the winners and losers in future energy systems.”

Several influencing aspects

In her study, Jenny von Platten has looked at who is hardest hit by energy poverty, and she sees three different aspects that come into play. Firstly, it is about external factors such as where in the country you live and the kind of heating you have in your home. Secondly, it is about the individual household's circumstances, for example the ability to pay and needs, such as how much of the day is spent at home. And thirdly, it is about the household's ability to be flexible in its electricity use and thus avoid the highest price spikes.

“What we are seeing is that those who are already vulnerable, such as single people with children, are particularly vulnerable when it comes to energy. They often have less ability for flexibility and thus cannot avoid the price spikes, even though they might not have the financial means to deal with them. They are thus at high risk of suffering financially from energy poverty.”

In contrast, those households that are financially secure can invest in smart technology that makes them more flexible.

“This means that they have a fairly good chance of avoiding price spikes and, in the long run, gaining economic benefits from more dynamic pricing.”

Not heating a pool may not be as much of a hardship as not being able to heat your home

Knowledge enables efficient allocation of resources

What then, can society do to both increase flexibility and at the same time help those at risk of energy poverty?

“Through knowledge, we can more accurately identify which groups are at risk and we can then allocate resources more efficiently. In this way, we maximize the benefits of tax money because we use it where the subsidies have the most impact.”

But it is also about identifying where there's actually potential for flexibility without sacrificing social sustainability.

“The big effects will not be achieved if we start demanding flexibility from households that are already at minimal energy use levels, but rather by talking to those households that have a lot of leeway. Not heating a pool may not be as much of a hardship as not being able to heat your home. It is about making it possible and attractive to save money by being flexible, not about punishing those who do not have this opportunity.”

RISE can contribute with expertise

And Jenny von Platten is far from the only person at RISE focusing on these issues.

“I have many colleagues here who are working with the technical aspect of flexibility, but also those who are more focused on the social elements. We can out help with most aspects of this field.”

Published: 2022-10-05
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