People, places and practice: a case study of the energy implications of migration and domestic laundry practice

Written by Quqing Huang on . Posted in Guest Blogs, Perspective

College students air out their quilts and clothes when the weather finally turns sunny and clear after long days of rain in Jiujiang, East China's Jiangxi province, March 9, 2014

Guest-blogger Quqing Huang recently completed her Environmental Technology MSc (specialising in energy policy) at Imperial College London. ACE Research acted as her external supervisor for her thesis, upon which this piece is based. Quqing is interested in the human-environment relationship, sustainability and clean energy. She currently works as a researcher at SynTao in Beijing, analysing government policies on corporate disclosure, corporate social responsibility and corporate compliance in China.

Britons seem to place a high value on the cleanliness of their linen, as a typical household runs the washing machine 5.5 times per week and uses the dryer for 5 times every week on average1. On a macro level, wet appliances are estimated to consume 1.3 Mtoe in 2014, which is the second largest source of electricity use in the household2. Being an energy-intensive practice, it opens a window for change in terms of demand reduction.

So far, to address domestic energy use, policy and research have focused on ‘behavioural change’. They principally draw on research outcomes from economic and psychological understandings of human behaviour, with an emphasis on individual choices. Therefore, some important aspects of the energy-use activity, such as infrastructure, practical skills, and shared social understandings behind the activity are rarely discussed and poorly understood.

The purpose of the research I conducted for Master’s thesis at Imperial College was to look into the domestic laundry practice via the perspective of social practice theory, identify its components (material, skills and images) and discuss how the interaction between those components may dictate the energy use outcome in the case study of a small group of Chinese immigrants in the UK.

One of the findings of my thesis is that laundry practice varies in different socio-cultural contexts. In the comparison between China and the UK, the difference mainly lies in the technology and the images. For example, in the UK, laundry practice has been highly automated with less seasonal impacts. People here are used to laundering by pressing a few buttons on the washing machine and repeating it on the dryer. In a few hours, the clothes are fresh and clean and ready to be put on again.

College students air out their quilts and clothes when the weather finally turns sunny and clear after long days of rain in Jiujiang, East China's Jiangxi province, March 9, 2014

College students air out their quilts and clothes when the weather finally turns sunny and clear after long days of rain in Jiujiang, East China’s Jiangxi province, March 9, 2014 3

Meanwhile, in China, most families use impeller washing machines. They are semi-automatic compared to the drum machines typical here, and require users to judge whether the clothes have been properly washed (foam-free) at the end of the washing cycle – rather than the machine taking control of it. This also partly reflects why washing by hand is popular among the Chinese, as they distrust the cleansing capability of their machines. Another reason to wash manually is convenience. It is inefficient in terms of time and money to run the washing machine just to wash a few pairs of socks and some t-shirts. Hygiene is also important when it comes to washing underwear. Most survey respondents in my thesis said that the underwear is usually washed separately and manually.

Chinese people are obsessed with getting washed clothes out under the blazing sun, which is pretty much at the same level as the British love of sunbathing. Not surprisingly, it accelerates the drying process. It is also perceived to have a germ-killing effect. Keeping in touch with nature and drying laundry in the open air seem to be driven by sensory needs (as shown in the pictures).

College students air out their quilts and clothes when the weather finally turns sunny and clear after long days of rain in Jiujiang, East China's Jiangxi province, March 9, 2014

Bamboo poles serve to air out clothes in Xiamen in East China’s Fujian Province on November 25, 2009 (photo / IC)

Given pre-existing differences in laundry practice between the two countries, Chinese migrants to the UK have needed to change their original way of laundering in order to adapt to local infrastructure and social norms. This leads to another important finding of the thesis. Which is that migration allows the components of laundry practice – materials, practical skills, images – to change in different dimensions. Thus, the outcome of these components’ dynamic interaction, i.e. the detailed configuration of laundry practice and its energy use, is hard to predict. Take students for example: a busy studying schedule, the effort needed time the use of public laundry facilities right and the relatively expensive service charge together lead to a reduced laundering frequency. At the same time, the lack of space and the necessary gadgets to air-dry clothes contribute to a greater tendency to tumble-dry. Thus, the energy use associated with laundry practice among Chinese students shows a rather mixed picture.

Even so, measures need to be taken in order to direct current laundry practice into more sustainable ones. Space and tools that are essential for air-drying should be made available; and the cleanliness, convenience and comfort aspects of laundry practice should be emphasized more in awareness raising and marketing campaigns.

  1. Zimmerman et al., 2012, Household electricity survey- a study of domestic electrical product usage. Final report issue 4
  2.  DECC, 2015, Energy Consumption in the UK (2015)
  3. Photo by Zhang Haiyan / Asianewsphoto; Chinadaily (2014) Hanging to dry, indoors or outdoors?

Our response to HMT and DECC’s consultation on reforming the business energy efficiency tax landscape

Written by Joanne Wade on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Consultation Responses, Perspective


ACE has submitted its response to HM Treasury and DECC’s consultation on reforming the business energy efficiency tax landscape. We agree there is scope to simplify the landscape, but stress that in doing so, there is real emphasis on reporting publicly with board approval and ensure that cost-effective energy efficiency recommendations are acted upon.

Our response to Energy & Climate Change Committee’s inquiry into low carbon network infrastructure

Written by Joanne Wade on . Posted in Consultation Responses, Energy Efficiency as Infrastructure, Perspective


The Energy and Climate Change Committee is investigating what changes are required from today’s electricity infrastructure to build a low carbon, flexible and fair network.

The terms of reference of the Inquiry recognised that for the transition to a low carbon electricity network to occur in a cost-effective way, all elements of our energy infrastructure, including those on the demand side of the meter, will need to be addressed.

We focused on one of the questions defined in the call for evidence: How can we ensure that a low carbon network is designed and operated fairly and in a way that helps to minimise consumer bills?

Read ACE’s submission here.

Our response to the European Commission’s consultation on the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive

Written by Pedro Guertler on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Consultation Responses, Improved Access to Finance, Minimum Standards for Existing Buildings, Perspective, Public Sector Leadership, Retrofit Incentives, Zero Carbon Buildings


This consultation forms part of the evaluation of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. Under the terms of the Directive, the Commission is required to carry out this evaluation by 1 January 2017, with assistance from a Committee of Member States’ representatives. The evaluation should reflect the experience gained and progress made since the adoption of the Directive. If necessary, the Commission should make proposals on the basis of the evaluation.

The evaluation also follows on from the Energy Efficiency Communication of July 2014, which indicated that additional measures to be introduced to improve energy efficiency would need to primarily address the energy efficiency of buildings and products if progress is to be made by 2030. The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive is the main legislative instrument in force at EU level covering the energy efficiency of buildings.

With a primary focus the UK energy efficiency market, our response to the consultation highlights: the uncertainty following the abandonment of the zero carbon trajectory; the missed opportunities with respect to driving higher rates of renovation; the low level of compliance with EPBD’s provisions and the virtual absence of enforcement; the question marks hanging over Display Energy Certificates; the need to make EPC data more widely accessible; and the need to plug skills and capacity shortages in the energy services and energy auditing sectors.

Our response to APPG for the private-rented sector’s inquiry into energy efficiency in private-rented housing

Written by Jenny Holland on . Posted in Consultation Responses, Minimum Standards for Existing Buildings, Perspective, Retrofit Incentives


The All-Party Parliamentary Group for the private-rented sector launched an inquiry into energy efficiency in private-rented housing. Along with Friends of the Earth and Citizens Advice, ACE led a widely supported civil society campaign in 2010/2011, which led to the 2011 Energy Act placing a duty on the Secretary of State to introduce a minimum energy efficiency standard for private rented housing from April 2018 at the latest. We were also a member of the DECC advisory working group which met throughout 2013 to advise Ministers on the detail of the regulations that would be needed to bring the minimum standard into force.

The group’s inquiry follows the government’s decision not to renew the landlord energy savings allowance in the March budget. This had originally been introduced to encourage landlords to improve the energy efficiency of the properties they let but was dropped because of low take up.

Announcing the inquiry, the group’s chairman, Oliver Colvile, member of parliament for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport said: “With the winter months just around the corner, improving the energy efficiency of rented housing is a crucial issue.

“The group’s inquiry will look to develop new ideas that will support landlords to meet their new target; save tenants money on their bills and help improve standards. I would encourage all those with an interest to submit their suggestions.”

Read ACE’s response to the inquiry.

Time to wake up to the reality

Written by Andrew Warren on . Posted in Guest Blogs, Perspective


Amazement, shock and concern greeted the news that energy use has declined over the last 50 years. But will the Government finally catch on to the benefits of energy efficiency?

In September, Energy in Buildings & Industry’s Warren Report was headlined “The Silent Revolution in UK Energy Use”. In it, I revealed that over the past fifty years UK GDP wealth has increased by almost threefold while at the same time overall energy consumption across the economy has actually fallen (by about 5 per cent).

The level of interest in this simple juxtaposition of two trends, heading in opposite directions, was astonishing. I have been writing monthly columns on energy for over 30 years but I can honestly report that never before has a single column of mine stimulated quite so much interest.

The reactions have ranged from amazement: “Why didn’t I know this before?” to disbelief “Are you really interpreting these statistics right”? from concern that such revelations may cause complacency “every possible saving measure has been made,” to shock that nobody in public life seems to have recognised what was happening “the Government must surely now treat energy saving as the First Fuel”.

For most people, the reaction was one of great positivity: “Why didn’t I know this before?” The chief executive of one of the largest energy consultancies told me that they would be tweeting and blogging the welcome news everywhere. The head of a large charity promised to send links to the column far and wide as did the secretary of one of the main all party energy groups in parliament.

Correct interpretation?

One of the first challenges: “Are you really interpreting these statistics right”? came from a veteran BBC correspondent. Concentrating on the residential sector, if domestic electricity sales were lower today than in 1997, and home gas consumption had returned to 1984 levels, then doesn’t that simply mean that fuel poverty is on the increase? A leading Oxford University academic raised the same point.

I accept fuel poverty is sadly on the increase. And that some households do deliberately try to eliminate heating, cooking and lighting usage in consequence. But that still affects, thank heavens, a relative minority. And some of these run up high fuel bills, forced instead to reduce other expenditure.

What has revolutionised consumption patterns for heating is a combination of better insulation, better glazing, more efficient boilers. In 1984 only half households had central heating, now practically all do, the majority using super efficient condensing boilers. Despite the Internet and a proliferation of gadgets, even appliance electricity consumption has fallen back during this century. Sales of electricity for domestic lighting are now 25 per cent lower than 30 years ago.

Others, like Geoff Turnley, argue that the reason for lower fuel consumption is not energy efficiency, but the “collapse of major manufacturing and steel production industries”. Not so.

The annual UK Digest of Energy Statistics gives the clear lie to this. Already this century, industrial energy sector final energy consumption has fallen 11.3 per cent, from 35.5 to 24.2m tons of oil equivalent. Of which two-thirds of the reduction can be attributed directly to improvements in energy intensity, rather than reductions in output. Looking back further, iron and steel output, far from collapsing, is at the same level as in 1980. It is simply being produced far more efficiently. And the chemical industry’s overall output has doubled since 1970, but its energy usage has scarcely altered.

A long-standing local government figure expressed concern that, if “every possible saving measure has been made”, some with a goodish energy efficiency record, like the retail sector, may argue there is nothing left to be done. I appreciate that concern: I have heard such arguments used before. I recall when in 2010 I was appointed to the Prime Minister’s taskforce to cut Whitehall energy usage by 10 per cent within the year, some government departments with reasonable track records tried that excuse. They got no truck from us (and particularly not from the P.M!). And, lo and behold, every Department did deliver that target with some ease.

Saving 20 per cent

It has long been a truism that there is invariably an extra 20 per cent of current energy usage that can be saved, just about anywhere.

Finally, a whole swathe of people concluded that, given this evidence, “the Government must surely now treat energy saving as the First Fuel”. Certainly that was the reaction of the head of a key trade association. A former senior civil servant mused as to whether the constant chopping and changing of relevant government policies had meant that consumption was higher than it need be, and whether fear of being seen as being too heavy handed had deterred the introduction of obvious regulatory measures – doubtless like “consequential improvements” for the building sector.

But let the final word go to the only one of my correspondents who I asked to quote by name: Sir Jonathon Porritt, Britain’s best-known environmentalist. He asked me the question: “why is yours just about the only voice making this point? For fifty years, energy efficiency has led the most successful revolution in the entire energy market. Why are our political leaders still so silent about it?”

Perhaps from now on, they won’t be. Only last month the Mail on Sunday headline read: “New power stations? We’ll just use less electricity- Britain’s new energy secretary to outline her plans.”

Our response to Energy & Climate Change Committee’s inquiry into investor confidence in the UK energy sector

Written by Joanne Wade on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Consultation Responses, Energy Efficiency as Infrastructure, Perspective


The Energy & Climate Change Committee is investigating the factors that contribute to investor confidence in the energy sector and wants to build an understanding of how DECC’s policy making process might impact on investor decisions.

DECC estimates that £110 billion investment is needed in our electricity infrastructure over the next decade. Stakeholders’ concerns that policy uncertainty was weakening the case for investment have led the Committee to prioritise the issue of investor confidence – without it, we hamper our ability to meet climate, energy security and affordability objectives. Energy efficiency and demand reduction is the cheapest contributor to these objectives, and this is what we highlight in our written response to the inquiry.

Our response to Energy & Climate Change Committee’s inquiry into home energy efficiency and demand reduction

Written by Pedro Guertler on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Consultation Responses, Energy Efficiency as Infrastructure, Perspective


The Energy & Climate Change Committee says that energy efficiency and demand reduction is one of the most cost effective ways to cut carbon emissions, improve energy security and reduce consumer bills. It adds that the Government has announced the end of two key policies – Zero Carbon Homes and the Green Deal – without bringing forward any replacement schemes – and that the Energy Company Obligation is also due to come to an end in March 2017.

The Committee is investigating what lessons can be learnt from these and previous energy efficiency schemes.  The evidence received will feed into its scrutiny of energy efficiency policies over the course of this Parliament.

ACE has submitted its written evidence, highlighting the successes of past programmes, the weaknesses of recent schemes and lessons that can be learned from them, including lessons from the US and elsewhere in Europe.

Yes Minister, but….

Written by Joanne Wade on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Perspective


ACE’s Director reflects on some of the comments in the Secretary of State’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference.

In her conference speech, the Secretary of State suggested that ‘our energy policy should once again be driven by the people who pay the bills.’  Yes indeed, but let’s not forget that we already have relatively cheap energy and our dissatisfaction with our bills is more effectively tackled by helping us to use this resource more wisely than by focusing obsessively on marginal reductions in the cost of a kilowatt hour. ‘Getting a grip to protect families from endless worry about their energy bills’ should start with ensuring that their homes are energy efficient, not with providing secure supplies.

We too are delighted that the new National Infrastructure Commission will look at energy: but it must recognise that our energy infrastructure does not stop at the meter.  Investment in demand side infrastructure needs to be fully and fairly considered alongside supply-side options.

We agree that the Government will help some people to keep their bills down by delivering its promise to insulate a million more homes over the next five years, and that is a good thing; but what about their heating systems, lighting and appliances? What if they need more than just the cheaper insulation options? And what about the other 25 million homes, give or take, that aren’t yet as energy efficient as they need to be?

The Secretary of State wants to get ‘the balance right between supporting new, low carbon generation and protecting bill-payers’: so she must enable energy efficiency to help her do this.  If we use less, we can afford to pay a little more for each unit if we need to, without being out of pocket.

She wants to ‘celebrate and back the businesses and innovators who will transform our energy system’: quite right, but why no mention of the high specification insulation systems that have been developed in recent years, of triple glazing systems that enable natural light to flood in without heat flooding out, of LEDs, of smart heating controls and ventilation… I could go on…

In closing, Ms Rudd invoked the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, to demand that we tackle climate change whilst being ‘tough on subsidies […] pro-innovation and pro-consumer’.  The energy efficiency sector is ready to do just this; it now needs the Government to notice this, and get on with setting the policy framework that will let this happen.

Our response to Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into Government’s approach to sustainable development

Written by Pedro Guertler on . Posted in Consultation Responses, Energy White Paper, Perspective


The Environmental Audit Committee says that promoting sustainable development – which for the purposes of this inquiry includes protecting the environment, supporting the low carbon economy and improving wellbeing – could be worth billions of pounds to the UK economy. In 2013, the low carbon economy generated over £120 billion in turnover. The 2015-20 period will be crucial for ensuring the Government continues to promote sustainable development, with many key policies coming to an end and due for renewal or replacement.

The Committee is exploring what impact the new Government’s fiscal and legislative agenda will have on sustainable development. It is looking to establish themes for its work during the Parliament and measures against which the Government’s success can be judged. The evidence received for this inquiry will feed into the Committees work over the course of this Parliament.

ACE’s evidence, submitted to the Committee, focuses on the role energy efficiency does, can and should play within the wider sustainable development agenda:

  • Increasing energy efficiency is a key prerequisite for meeting the country’s carbon emissions reduction and fuel poverty alleviation targets and will at the same time deliver increased business productivity, public sector efficiency improvements, and a comfortable and healthy indoor environment that promotes wellbeing for all;
  • Current government policy on energy efficiency is inadequate, and will not result in carbon targets or fuel poverty targets being met;
  • Over the course of this Parliament, the Government must put in place a clear and coherent framework of targets, incentives and regulations that require and support investment in cost-effective energy efficiency improvements;
  • Government should be encouraged to better monitor and report on the effectiveness of its policies, including through the collection and use of improved data on building energy efficiency.
ACE's Seven Energy Efficiency Asks for the 2015-2020 Parliament
  1. A new Energy White Paper (#energywhitepaper)newlogo (large)
  2. Buildings energy efficiency as infrastructure investment (#infrastructureinvestment)
  3. The public sector must take a leadership role (#leadbyexample)
  4. Zero Carbon standard for new homes and commercial buildings (#zerocarbon)
  5. Minimum energy efficiency standards for existing buildings (#minimumstandards)
  6. Incentives for energy efficiency retrofits (#retrofitincentives)
  7. Improving access to finance for energy efficiency measures (#accesstofinance)

Read about our seven asks in full; follow us on Twitter; and subscribe to our occasional email updates on progress below.