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19th European Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption and Production – Circular Europe for Sustainability: Design, Production and Consumption

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Moving from ‘consumers’ to ‘users’ in heat decarbonisation

New end-use technologies are often suggested as playing important roles in decarbonising energy consumption, but policies to support their deployment are often limited by being informed primarily by technical and economic understandings: how technologies can ‘fix’ energy ‘problems’, and how ‘consumers’ might be incentivised to buy and install new technologies. Such understandings neglect to consider how users interact with technologies beyond purchase and installation: specifically, the ways in which ‘users’ play an active role in constructing the meaning and use of technologies, and how these processes might lead to trajectories of evolving meaning and use that may diverge from policy projections. Following a successful UK trial (the FREEDOM Project), hybrid heat pumps have been highlighted by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) as a promising solution for heat decarbonisation in the UK. Many technical benefits could be achieved as the result of ‘smart’ controls switching between electricity and gas use for heating. This paper complements the techno-economic focus of this analysis and suggests how attention to users’ constructions of meaning, use and understanding of the new technology could support the potential for smart hybrid heat pump to contribute to heat decarbonisation. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with users at the beginning and end of the FREEDOM project trial (repeat interviews with 20 users across 13 households; average interview length 60 minutes). Inductive analysis revealed that different forms of user learning about the new technology occurred through interlinked processes of experiencing, responding and making sense, associated with users’ existing practices, understandings of technologies, the trial, and themselves, as well information received (and interpreted) from official and unofficial sources. Of particular policy relevance are the findings that some users develop misconceptions about heat pumps through first learning about them as part of a hybrid system; such a trajectory of domestication might challenge a later transition to full electrification as envisaged by the CCC. Meanwhile, the trial context, associated with feelings of gratitude and expectations of ‘teething problems’, could influence users’ reported acceptance of smart control of heating in their homes. More generally, findings about how users learn about new technologies could help to inform alternative approaches to policy making to support the potential for new end-use technologies to contribute to decarbonisation.

Bryony Parrish
University of Sussex
United Kingdom


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