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.

Changing energy demand Research InsightCass, N and Shove, E (2017) Changing Energy Demand [.pdf]  This extended cross-cutting research insight identifies five different understandings of energy demand – what it is, where it comes from, and crucially how it changes. Conceptualisations of energy demand as an outcome of economic processes, behaviour, technological efficiency, socio-technical change and social practices are explored and compared. The implications of each for different strategies for steering change and making and evaluating policy are also laid out.

Morley, J. (2017) Technologies within and beyond practices [.pdf]. In Hui, A., Schatzki, T., and Shove, E (eds.) The Nexus of Practices: Connections, constellations, practitioners. London: Routledge  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.

What is energy for? Understanding consumption, efficiency and demand [.pdf], presentation by Elizabeth Shove at IEA Energy Efficiency and Behaviour Workshop, March 2015.

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. The Conversation. Energy bills are higher on the political agenda than ever before and we are constantly being told that smart meters will help us make better decisions and have more control over 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. The Conversation. 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. and Watson, M. (2015) No more meters? Let’s make energy a service, not a commodity. The Conversation. 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.

Resilience of electricity infrastructure. Submission to the House of Lords Inquiry, September 2014 by Gordon Walker. Concerned with electricity infrastructure’s resilience to future demand, this submission recommends that end-use and changes to these practices should be considered, rather than assumed.

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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.


Wiig, A (2017) ‘Demanding Connectivity, demanding charging: the co-production of mobile communication between electrical and digital infrastructures’, In Demanding Energy: Space, Time and Change (eds Hui, A., Day, R. and Walker, G.). Cham: Palgrave. In this chapter, Wiig presents an ethnographic travel narrative which details charging practices in train stations in the Northeast United States, on trains, and the energy demand of a nearby data center; providing an overview of the merged infrastructures that facilitate new social practices, and in turn, new forms of energy demand.

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’.

Hui, A (2017) Understanding the positioning of “the electric vehicle consumer”: variations in interdisciplinary discourses and their implications for sustainable mobility systems.  Applied Mobilities. DOI: 10.1080/23800127.2017.1380977.  Electric vehicles have a central place within discussions of future sustainable mobility systems. This paper, however, argues that multiple conflicting understandings of the ‘electric vehicle consumer’, discussed in different social scientific literatures, pose a challenge for interdisciplinary collaboration because they lead to very different understandings of the type of change needed in order for greater levels of EV use to be realised. Understanding the EV consumer as a rational market actor therefore constructs expectations of technologies, demand and paths of change very differently than understanding consumers as one amongst many important social actors.

Morley, J. and Shove, E (2017) The Many Futures of Decarbonisation [.pdf]. 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.

If the Walls Could Talk: Daily Rhythms and Energy Use in Stevenage [.pdf] & If the Walls Could Talk: Central Heating Comes to Stevenage [.pdf]. These booklets aim to understand how household energy demand has changed since the 1950s. How have systems of home heating changed? How has this affected the way homes are used and lived in? How and why have daily routines changed over time? How have designers, architects and planners influenced homes and daily life, and how can past experiences of planning inform adaptation in the future?

soundcloud-iconSound Bites: Frank Trentmann discusses the dynamics of household energy consumption, Anna Carlsson-Hyslop introduces her interest in the histories and politics of infrastructure, and Nicola Spurling thinks about how infrastructure and careers are related.

Spurling, N. (2014) Working Paper 2: Demand by design: How our infrastructure and professions shape what we do. Essay outlining some initial thoughts on the relationship between end-use practices, infrastructures and the histories, systems, structures and practices of the planning professions.

Spurling, N. and Welch, D. (2014) Unsustainable practices: Why electric cars are a failure of ambition. Originally published on Talking Climate. Electric cars are another example of the common ‘techno-fix’ approach to climate change – in which futuristic technologies resolve the problem while everyday life carries on as normal.

Shove, E., Walker, G. and Brown, S. (2013) Transnational Transitions: The Diffusion and Integration of Mechanical Cooling. Urban Studies, 51(7), 1506-1519. DOI: 10.1177/0042098013500084. In less than a generation, air conditioning has spread around the world, increasing energy consumption and producing demand where none existed before. How has this come about?

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. London: 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.

Butler, C., Day, R. and Holmes, T (2017) Knowing energy demand without metrics (or, what do we need metrics for anyway?)[.pdf]  This is a short, polemical piece which questions the need and utility of quantified metrics in knowing and responding to energy demand. It argues for the greater importance of experiential knowledge, narratives and principles. It was written at the November 2016 DEMAND Clan Gathering.

Marsden, G. Shove, E. and Blue, S. (2017). The Impact of Population Change and Demography on Future Infrastructure Demand [.pdf]. A response by DEMANDers to a Government consultation on the governance, structure and operation of the National Infrastructure Commission, which took place between January and March 2016.  The original consultation document [.pdf] and response to the consultation [.pdf] are available via the UK Government website.

Cliff, A. and Rinkinen, J. (2018) Visualising electricity demand: use and users of a 3D chart from the 1950s, Science Museum Group Journal, 9, DOI: 10.15180/180905. This paper unpacks a 3D chart of energy demand, acquired by the Museum of Science & Industry in 1990. Situating this chart within the history of energy visualisation, Cliff and Rinkinen explore what the chart enables us to comment on the object’s use and users, as well as the role of objects in telling stories about energy supply and consumption.

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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.

De Decker, K (January 2018) How much energy do we need? [.pdf] In this article, Kris considers how energy use is calculated looking at minimum and maximum use to try and ascertain how much energy we need.


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.

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is a mainstay of contemporary policy, but what are the implications for DEMAND?  This collection of articles and references present different views on the topic.

In ‘What’s wrong with energy efficiency’ Elizabeth Shove discusses some of the assumptions on which discussions of efficiency are founded. She argues that because they take meanings of service for granted, efforts to promote efficiency may unwittingly perpetuate or increase problematic patterns of demand.  This article generated some discussion.  You can find Tina Fawcett and Jan Rosenow’s reading of these ideas (What is right with energy efficiency) and Elizabeth’s response to them (Writing the wrongs of energy efficiency) here.   Nicola Labanca (DEMAND visitor) and Paolo Bertoldi take up similar themes, in another recent article in energy policy (Beyond energy efficiency and individual behaviours: policy insights from social practice theories).  Kris de Decker also writes about the limits of efficiency in an article entitled ‘Bedazzed by energy efficiency’.

Decker, Kris (2018) Bedazzled by Energy Efficiency
In this article, Kris discusses how, rather than focusing on energy efficiency, transforming present ways of life is key to mitigating climate change and decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Labanca, N. and Bertoldi, P. (2018) Beyond energy efficiency and individual behaviours: policy insights from social practice theories
In this paper, Labanca and Bertoldi take on current policies for energy sustainability, arguing that this may be a limited approach if not complemented with a new generation of policies that can be designed based on insights provided by social practice theories.

Shove, E (2017) What’s wrong with energy efficiency? In this paper, Shove argues that, far from being a solution, efficiency, as currently constituted, undermines that which it is expected to achieve.

Fawcett, M. and Rosenow, J. (2017) Commentary: What is right with energy efficiency? A response to Elizabeth Shove
In this post, Fawcett and Rosenow respond to Shove (2017), suggesting that there is a lot right with energy efficiency, and that there is robust evidence which suggests that it has reduced total energy demand and the consequent carbon emissions, despite many other drivers of growth.

Shove, E. (2017) Response: Writing the wrongs of energy efficiency
Shove responds to Fawcett and Rosenow (2017), putting forward four main ‘error messages’ to counter readings of the original article that remain rooted within the ‘efficiency paradigm’.

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