In the story of energy poverty, energy efficiency is a vital thread

19 Mar 2019

Marilyn Smith is a writer/editor, photographer and multimedia producer specialising in the energy sector.

In remote Nepal, a woman and her daughter spend two hours with a wooden mallet and a hand-woven basket, husking enough rice (which they have grown themselves) to feed their family for about two weeks. Later, they will spend two more hours collecting wood for the fire to cook it.

At 2:00 am, the second largest hospital in Liberia is eerily quiet. No monitors beeping, no ventilators ‘whooshing’, no fans or air-conditioning humming. A nurse enters to do rounds – by the light of his mobile phone. The hospital is not connected to the electricity grid; because of high costs, diesel generators are turned off overnight.

Throughout winter days, Katarina, a pensioner in rural Ukraine, stops to lean against walls that enclose the boiler room of her summer dacha. With no pipes or radiators to circulate heat, the far side of any room is typically around 15°C. When gas prices increased by 280% in April 2015, she stopped going to church on Sunday mornings, unable to purchase a candle for prayers.

Being an eye-witness to such situations of energy poverty quickly reveals that the energy available is inefficient and costly. But for energy to be truly life-changing – and life-sustaining – people need both efficient sources and efficient devices.

But how can they – or other actors – know what people need? 
Across energy access and energy efficiency initiatives, there is a need to build energy literacy among the public, policy makers, industry, the finance community, and others.

Reporting that seeks to empower: a new model for energy reporting

The Energy Action Project (EnAct), a multimedia project investigating energy poverty and who is doing what to address it, aims to bridge that information gap. In fact, it was born of disconnects.

When I served as chief editor of the International Energy Agency (2009-12), global efforts were coalescing on the need to achieve universal access to energy and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with energy production and use. It often struck me that each report, whether 60 or 600 pages, was full of great stories.

Dropping such stories became a way of ‘testing the waters’ to see how much people knew about energy – and whether they could be enticed to its story. One ‘factoid’ that got attention was that, over the lifetime of a microwave oven, 10% of energy goes to heating food while 90% runs the clock. This led to questions such as, ‘Why don’t we use microwaves like irons – i.e. unplug when not in use?’ and discussion about how oven and kitchen design make that difficult to do.

Making tea offered a good chance to deliver a shocker about energy poverty: a kettle boiled twice a day by a person in Britain uses five times as much electricity as a person in Mali uses per year.[1]

There-in lay the first disconnect: energy agencies produce great information, but often bury it in reports the public rarely reads. The second disconnect was found in energy reporting: most of it lands in business or technology, while many readers stick to news and lifestyle sections. As the clean energy transition started to gain attention, more people I knew began saying things like, “I need to learn more about energy, but I don’t know where to look.”

Having learned, the complexity of the energy story, I set out to create a new model for reporting that would interweave the threads of technology, policy, financing, social aspects and human behaviour.

While our tagline is ‘reporting that seeks to empower,’ EnAct believes that to empower people, we must first engage them in the energy story. We do this through video and photos that make the connection between people and energy. From there, we see the need for two levels of knowledge sharing. To inform, our ‘parallel blog’ approach offers a ‘Basic’ 300-word article that reader can grasp; those who want more can click on ‘In-Depth’, where we explain the research that underpins new knowledge. In parallel, we run social media campaigns (see below) to help people better understand energy and how they can use it more efficiently.

Our first ‘package’ focuses on energy poverty in Europe and North America. I invite you to visit COLD@HOME to experience our approach. A recent email confirmed EnAct is doing something unique and valuable. The writer said, ‘I went to the COLD@HOME website to watch one of your films – and stayed for two hours.’ Other followers have changed behaviours because of our content.

To meet the energy and climate challenges ahead, we need energy to be an enticing story. In the near future, EnAct plans to launch packages investigating the clean cooking challenge, electrification in developing countries and in situations of humanitarian crises, as well as a ‘what is energy?’ stream to boost overall energy literacy.

For more information, marilyn.smith@en-act.org

Twitter: @EnActNow / Facebook: www.facebook.com/theenergyactionproject / www.facebook.com/coldathome Instagram: @everyday_energy LinkedIn:

[1] Africa Progress Panel 2016

Marilyn Smith is a writer/editor, photographer and multimedia producer specialising in the energy sector. In addition to spearheading EnAct, she directs ORENDA Communications, a creative agency that provides services to energy-sector clients such as: IPEEC, the IEA, APERC, KAPSARC and others.