This report investigates the practices that use energy in households with children to understand change and flexibility for demand management. The findings suggest that demand management and engagement activities need to go beyond individually motivating family households to save money, protect the environment, or make better choices in the electricity market.
Family households represent 25% of Australian households and face particular challenges as a result of rapid changes in the energy market and pricing structures. The Changing Demand: Flexibility of Energy Practices in Households with Children Project investigates how energy demand is changing in households with children and the likely implications of more cost-reflective network tariffs for this consumer group. This interim report discusses the findings from in-depth interviews conducted with 44 family households which will inform a national survey later in 2014.
Children’s needs came first and daily routines enabled family households to manage the range of competing priorities and activities. Household activities in the late afternoon and early evening were highly coordinated and coincided with peak tariff period for Time-of-Use (TOU) electricity pricing. Family practices held meanings which are distinct from how these practices are valued and performed in other types of households. In particular, family health, children’s ongoing development, providing practical life skills, and enabling fun and socialisation were valued benefits. Energy use changed as children aged and went through various stages of life development and as new practice expectations emerged and changed with the introduction of new technologies, changing house design, increasing energy costs, and changing priorities.
Information and communications technology (ICT) practices was the biggest area of concern and rapid change for family households and many parents felt they had little ‘control’ over their children’s usage. Parents’ were often conflicted about the potential health and wellbeing impacts of their children’s ICT use with the potential educational, development and communication functionalities these devices might provide. These competing priorities and concerns took precedence over any ICT-related energy concerns. Electricity usage was not a key consideration in other everyday activities or priorities despite rising electricity bills being a common concern or contributor to financial stress for family households.
Most householders had low levels of energy literacy and engagement and felt unable to make appropriate choices about electricity tariffs and providers, and some were consciously disengaging from the current energy market focus on energy choices. Many were uncertain about their current electricity tariff. It was not practicable for most family households to change their routines to respond to a TOU tariff. Rapid change in family householders added to concerns about the financial impact of a TOU tariff on family households.
Family households were flexible and adaptable in response to the ‘normal’ disruptions of everyday family life. Most householders were willing to shift their routines in response to occasional alerts about critical peak demand. They described concerns for the ‘common good’ and the need to work together for social benefits or health and wellbeing of others (distinct from personal financial gain or environmental benefits). The findings suggest that current consumer demand management and engagement activities need to go beyond individually motivating family households to save money, protect the environment, or make better choices in the electricity market. Peak alerts, framed as a natural event or an ‘exceptional circumstance’ that benefits a common good and assists reliable and affordable access to electricity, is a potentially agreeable and productive strategy for engaging families to reduce energy use at times of peak demand.