Understanding Demand

The DEMAND Centre’s research programme is driven by a distinctive theoretical approach to end use energy demand, based on three key propositions. First, that energy is used not for its own sake but as part of accomplishing social practices at home, at work and in moving around. In essence, the DEMAND centre focuses on what energy is for.

Second, energy demand is profoundly shaped by material infrastructures and institutional arrangements. In a very literal sense demand and the means to consume constitute each other. These means of consumption encompass systems of provision and supply – from grids, power stations, road and rail networks through to the multitude of devices with which end-users engage (computers, heating systems, cars, etc.).

Third, these systems reproduce interpretations of normal and acceptable ways of life. Concepts of need and entitlement to energy and mobility are consequently embedded in popular and policy discourse, in standards of many forms, in estimates of future energy demand and in related programmes of planning and investment.

What is energy for?

The DEMAND Centre takes as its starting point the view that energy is not demanded as an end in itself, but as a means to the doing of many social practices. Energy demand is an outcome of what people do at home, at work, and in moving around. Examples of social practices include, maintaining thermal comfort by heating or cooling, cooking, cleaning, office work, online shopping, and travelling for business or for leisure. These practices, which are changing all the time, can call for increasing amounts of energy, but they can also be accomplished in other ways.

Most analyses of demand reduction focus on the efficient consumption of energy, water and other natural resources, but not on the services and experiences they make possible. Consequently, policy processes, including analysis, debate and modelling including that concerned with carbon contribute to – and take for granted – ways of life and suites of values that are at the heart of demand, and hence of the problem itself. By focusing on social practices, rather than on the consumption of resources and efficiencies, it becomes possible to engage with critical developments in ordinary consumption, and with changing expectations and conventions.

  • Morley, J. (2017) Technologies within and beyond practices. In Hui, A. Schatzki, T. and Shove, E (eds.) The Nexus of Practices: Connections, constellations, practitioners. London: Routledge PDF.  This chapter ask how ‘things’ that use energy to automate tasks and remove practical, routine human involvement, such as central heating systems, can be theoretically positioned within theories of practice, which focus specifically on what people do
  • Shove, E. and Walker, G. (2014). What Is Energy For?: Social Practice and Energy Demand [PDF] Theory, Culture and Society, 31(5), 41-58. DOI: 10.1177/0263276414536746. Whereas theories of practice highlight basic questions about what energy is for, these issues are routinely and perhaps necessarily obscured by those who see energy as an abstract resource that structures or that is structured by a range of interlocking social systems.
  • Shove, E., Watson, M. and Spurling, N. (2015). Conceptualising Connections: Energy Demand, Infrastructures and Social Practices. European Journal of Social Theory, 18(3), 274-287. DOI: 10.1177/1368431015579964. In this article we focus on the task of understanding and analyzing car dependence, using this as a case through which to introduce and explore what we take to be central but underdeveloped questions about how infrastructures and complexes of social practice connect across space and time.
  • Compilation of working papers from the Demanding Ideas Workshop, Windermere, June 2014. This is a compilation of short working papers presented at a workshop held on 18-20 June 2014 at Windermere, England. The purpose of this event was to identify issues and topics that constitute ‘unfinished business’ for people interested in social theories of practice and in the relevance of such ideas for the DEMAND Centre.
  • Shove, E. (2014). Smart meters don’t make us any smarter about energy use, article originally published in The Conversation, February 18, 2014. Energy bills are higher on the political agenda than ever before and we are constantly being told that devices such as smart meters will help us make better decisions and take control of the energy we use. But evidence shows that these new technologies are not making us more savvy.
  • Hui, A. and Shove, E. (2013). All this talk about lights hides bigger energy challenges,  article originally published in The Conversation, November 14, 2013. The rhetoric of “keeping the lights on” is as misleading as it is compelling. Though there are billions of lights in the UK’s homes and in places of work and recreation, these are never on all at the same time. Many are off for a large part of the day and in any case lighting does not account for a very high percentage of energy use.
  • Shove, E. (2015). No more meters? Let’s make energy a service, not a commodity,  article originally published in The Conversation, April 28, 2015. Imagine never again receiving an energy bill. Instead, you could pay a flat fee for “comfort”, “cleanliness” or “home entertainment” alongside a premium for more energy-demanding TVs, kettles or fridge-freezers. This isn’t the stuff of science fiction – it’s emerging right now. Recent changes in technology and regulation are enabling the development of new ways to provide electricity and gas.

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How is energy demand made?

Energy use is almost always mediated by some kind of technology (air conditioning systems, freezers, lights, cookers) and infrastructures (power grids, sockets, data networks). These technologies and infrastructures are also implicated in making and shaping what people do. In other words, technologies and infrastructures make and do not simply meet demand. New technologies and infrastructures lead to new, and often more energy-intensive, notions of comfort, cleanliness and convenience, and to new conventions and expectations..

While infrastructures are clearly central to energy and transportation planning, there is a tendency to focus on the technologies involved and on supply-side issues. The DEMAND Centre’s research is different in that it concentrates on the relationship between infrastructures and the patterns of demand which they enable and upon which they depend. Our aim is to show how existing infrastructures have been adapted, modified, and layered on top of one another, and to identify possible paths for the future adaptation and reconfiguration of both infrastructures and end use practices.

In many discussions, demand is equated with current levels of consumption. In this context, demand side management techniques represent a means of ensuring those current, taken-for-granted levels of consumption can be delivered. Although very widespread, these assumptions overlook the longer histories both of provision and of consumption. In effect they assume that demand, in the sense of a ‘need’ for electricity or mobility is simply there, waiting to be met – hence the challenge is one of meeting need, while minimising cost to the consumer and meeting carbon emissions and targets.

In fact, demand and the use of electricity is in large part an outcome of systems, technologies and institutions of provision and supply. As is widely known, but also routinely forgotten, current levels of consumption (and their timing) reflect concerted and systematic efforts to build demand in ways that suit the ‘needs’ of generation – for profit, to cover the cost of past investment, to operate efficiently, and to cater for domestic and industrial markets. It is important to recognise that new investment in infrastructures means making decisions about building the future of demand as well as supply.


  • De Decker, Kris (2017) Rebooting Energy Demand: Automatic software updates In this short article, Kris de Decker investigates some of the ways in which energy demand increases behind the scenes.  Whether you want them or not, automatic computer, phone and other software updates automatically generate energy demand. This case is indicative of what might be a much wider trend in ‘demand-making’
  • Morley, J., Shove, E (2017) The Many Futures of Decarbonisation a short piece of writing that discusses energy policy in relation to energy demand.  The piece aims to challenge the dominant trend of separating supply and demand when focusing on technologies and decarbonisation.
  • Chappells, H. and Trentmann, F. (2015). Sustainable Consumption in History: Ideas, Resources and Practices. In: Reisch, L. and Thogersen, J. (eds.) Handbook of Research on Sustainable Consumption. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing. Sustainable consumption remains an emerging field in the study of history, notwithstanding the considerable advances in environmental history. This book chapter highlights the evolution of the concept and the interplay between practices, politics and networks that have shaped responses to shortages and crises in distinct historical contexts.
  • Shove, E. (2015). Infrastructures and Practices: Networks Beyond the City. In: Coutard, C. and Rutherford, J. (eds.) Beyond the Networked City: Infrastructure Reconfigurations and Urban Change in the North and South. Routledge. For various reasons there is little academic debate about what infrastructures are for, or about the constitutive but complicated relation between infrastructures and the patterns of consumption and practice they sustain. In making the case for paying more concerted attention to infrastructures-in-use, this book chapter emphasizes analysing the various ways in which they are implicated in the emergence, the disappearance and the cultural and spatial circulation of an array of social practices.

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Normality and need

In concentrating on resources and efficiencies rather than expectations and conventions, carbon reduction strategies have largely failed to notice or really engage with critical developments in ordinary consumption. Change over time reveals the escalation of norms of energy dependency in a society that must radically reduce carbon emissions. Novelty is continuously created, introduced into society and then disseminated through all social classes.

To achieve significant carbon reductions, it is important to investigate how new wants become so embedded in life that they become taken-for-granted needs. When does an expectation become a sense of non-negotiable entitlement? Underpinning notions of ‘need’ and ‘necessity’ (and, it follows, what constitutes ‘luxury’, ‘waste’ and ‘excess’) can be explicitly stated in policy provisions, but also implicitly mobilized in dominant discourses, or embedded in standards and established infrastructural and institutional arrangements.

New elements and shifts in ways of life become progressively locked-in. For example, by eliminating features such as overhanging eaves, or windows that can be opened, air-conditioned buildings can only remain comfortable using mechanical cooling — which then becomes a ‘normal’ aspect of modern life. The processes by which various forms of demand come to be considered normal thus play a fundamental role in ratcheting up energy demand.


  • Marsden, Greg Can we Reduce the Amount of Energy we use for transport? Mobility and Energy Futures Series 6, Leeds University.  This cross-cutting piece produced for Energy@Leeds discusses approaches to cutting the use of fossil fuels used in transport.  The research is based on time use data, travel and work case study and broader implications of social change.
  • Reflections on the Lancaster power cuts of December 2015. Several authors. DEMANDers in Lancaster were able to experience first hand the effects of flooding caused by Storm Desmond, that left 55,000 homes without power in December 2015. The power cuts problematise what is ‘normal’ and reveal what is ‘needed’.
  • Shove, E., Walker, G. and Brown, S. (2014). Material Culture, Room Temperature and the Social Organisation of Thermal Energy. Journal of Material Culture, 19(2), 113-124. DOI: 10.1177/1359183514525084. Drawing on a recent study of air conditioning in the UK, this paper shows that increasingly standardised notions of room temperature have implications for product and building design, and for how energy circulates through the many components and bodies involved. In describing indoor climates in these terms, the authors develop a social analysis of thermal exchange that is relevant at the molecular level and for long-term trends in energy demand and climate change.
  • Faulconbridge, J., Cass, N. and Connaughton, J. Standards, design and energy demand: the case of commercial offices (PDF), paper prepared for DEMAND Centre Conference, Lancaster, 13-15 April 2016. This paper examines the influence of ‘market standards’ on design. We do this using the case of the design of commercial offices and the effects of standards on moves toward less energy demanding designs. We argue that standards do important ‘work’ in design processes that require closer scrutiny.
  • Walker, G., Simcock, N. and Day, R. (2016). Necessary Energy Uses and a Minimum Standard of Living in the United Kingdom: Energy Justice or Escalating Expectations?Energy Research and Social Science. DOI: 10.1016/j.erss.2016.02.007. This paper examines the inclusion of energy-using necessities within the outcomes of deliberative workshops within members of the public focused on defining a minimum-standard of living in the UK and repeated biannually over a six year period. The analysis shows that energy uses deemed to be necessities are diverse and plural, enabling access to multiple valued energy services, and that their profile has to some degree shifted from 2008 to 2014. We argue that public deliberations about necessities can be taken as legitimate grounding for defining minimum standards and therefore the scope of ‘doing justice’ in fuel poverty policy. However we set this in tension with how change over time reveals the escalation of norms of energy dependency in a society that on climate justice grounds must radically reduce carbon emissions.

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