The unprecedented rise in energy prices has led to increasing numbers of households in fuel poverty. The charity, National Energy Action, estimated last year that 6.7 million households were in fuel poverty, an increase of more than 50% in just over six months. To address this national crisis in the short term, it is vital to address the price of energy for those households vulnerable to fuel poverty. However, if we want to start addressing the roots of the problem, we need to explore a range of issues from lack of insulation to insecurity of tenure.
Newly published research suggests that roof top solar panels could also be part of the solution and local authorities in the UK have been keen to see green energy as part of an energy efficiency measure for social housing providers.
What are the problems for low-income households adopting solar energy?
In 2022, the UK Government announced a solar photovoltaic ‘PV’ scheme for 20,000 social-housing properties. However, as solar electricity is generated during the day and peak energy uses is generally at night, households without access to expensive battery storage will often need to reconsider their daily domestic routines, such as laundering. To consistently benefit from their solar power, they need to become active ‘prosumers’ - simultaneously producing and consuming it.
This should be making homes warmer and cheaper, help landlords and bring much needed savings to low-income social tenants. There remains however an important question has to how households live with the system after installing solar pv. Local authorities and social housing providers can supply to their housing stock, but few studies have explored how, or even if, household become solar prosumers and the impact this has on their daily lives as well as their annual energy bills. What are the lived experiences of people with solar power from low-incomes housing developments? Might this vary with the seasons given that production is so closely tied to daylight hours?
Nature (Energy) study researches household changes when given free solar panel
A study by researcher Dr Nicolette Fox featured as the current cover story for the internationally acclaimed Nature (Energy) journal in 2023, draws on research to understand the stories of residential solar households, over four seasons, living with prepayment electricity meters in a low-income community. It shows how many of them actively engaged with the solar power and considered ways to embed it in their daily lives. However, while none of the households wanted to waste the solar power they were generating, equally its use had to fit within their family routines and busy lives. The study also highlights the potential for social housing landlords to support tenants. For example, providing monitors that indicate in real time when solar power is available, or sharing know-how from existing tenants about how they engaged with their homemade electricity.
How solar panels are perceived by low-income communities is unlikely to be on the radar of policy makers. Yet the research revealed how a number of the households in the study felt they were associated with ‘posh’ designer homes, not council housing, and initially turned down the offer of free solar panels as ‘too good to be true’. Eventually persuaded that this was a genuine offer, what was striking was how quickly this lack of solar entitlement changed as the physical and social fabric of the estate started to transform as solar panels appeared on roofs and neighbours talked about the benefits. The research highlights how many of the households used their ingenuity to capture their solar power and, in the process, started to transform their relationship with energy, alongside improving their finances and wellbeing. As one of the participants, Irene, said, “Where the electricity’s concerned…the amount of times [I used to think], ‘Oh is it going to last, is it going to last?’…. In the stress levels…it works wonders because…I know it’s going to be fine until tomorrow…these aspects are major, major improvements for us.”
Solar power as a step towards net zero
In a world facing climate breakdown, alongside significant energy affordability and security challenges, this research offers inspiration and insights to all of us about how we could integrate renewables into our lives and move closer towards net zero. Importantly, it also highlights the potential for solar households to be able to reduce invidious ‘heat or eat’ decisions and the role PV panels could play as part of a series of measures to support energy resilience in low-income communities. What the research also reveals is the wealth of knowledge that such households draw upon in embedding solar into their lives, and how we could all learn from this by inviting, and funding, such communities to contribute to policy initiatives and co-producing public information.
Fox, N (2023) 'Increasing solar entitlement and decreasing energy vulnerability in a low-income community by adopting the Prosuming Project' Nature (Energy)
The author: Dr Nicolette Fox currently works within Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Brighton where she leads the Community University Partnership Programme. She is also a visiting senior research fellow at the Sussex Energy Group, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, where she undertook her PhD Here Comes the Sun - the evolution of a Prosuming Project within a social housing estate. Nicolette originally trained as a journalist.