Last week US Energy Secretary Steven Chu launched “Apps for Energy”, a competition to attract the web’s brightest innovators to a policy arena where they are desperately needed: energy saving.

It is no secret that we’re wasteful with energy. Here in the UK, we rightly cherish some of the oldest building stock in the world. However, our ageing buildings are infamously inefficient when it comes to energy use. Our homes and workplaces are thought to account for almost 50 per cent of all energy use in the UK, which means that in a world of carbon cutting, we either need fewer buildings (no thanks!) or drastically more efficient ones. And our behaviour towards energy use also needs a rethink.

We’ve been talking about the need for behavioural change and the energy efficiency of our buildings for years. Sadly, little action has been taken so far. I say sadly because if we actually did it with real purpose, we’d be onto a winner. Energy efficiency is widely recognised as the most cost effective way of combating climate change – it doesn’t need the taxpayer to subsidise it – it can pay for itself, and save households and businesses money.

That’s the whole idea behind the Coalition Government’s flagship policy, the “Green Deal”. You’ll be able to give your home or business an energy efficiency makeover at no initial upfront cost, and the resulting energy savings will be used to pay back the cost in instalments. Hence the Green Deal catchphrase “Pay as You Save”.

However, whilst this sounds like a no brainer, the Government and industry are getting worried about take-up of Green Deal packages by consumers. Research by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy has shown that similar schemes in the US have typically seen a disheartening take-up rate of 1% amongst their target customers. Greg Barker MP has been calling the Green Deal “the largest and most ambitious home improvement programme our country has seen since the second world war”. At 1% take-up, it won’t be that.

The idea of Apps for Energy is a simple one – it taps into the idea that “my phone is smart, so I don’t have to be”. We haven’t done much about our energy use, largely because we don’t know how to go about it. Also the hassle factor of finding out how to get something done, such as insulate our homes, then actually doing it, is relatively high.

Apps are helping to make lifestyle change and improvement a no brainer, and an increasingly large number of people have access to them. A recent Ofcom study found that in the UK:

  • Over a quarter of adults and nearly half of all teens now own a smartphone;
  • 37 per cent of adults and 60 per cent of teens are ‘highly addicted’ to them; and
  • Smartphones are beginning to affect social behaviour.

The US Department of Energy is clearly onto something with “Apps for Energy”. If smartphones are beginning to affect social behaviour, and apps are great at making lifestyle change easier, apps for smartphones are perfect to help increase the up-take of energy saving measures.

At the start of the year, the RIBA’s Green Deal consultation response recommended that the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change could use a small part of the £200m funding announced for the Green Deal to fund just such a competition. See page 13 of the RIBA’s consultation response for details. So, will Ed Davey MP be calling his US counterpart to exchange notes before announcing how the Green Deal funding is to be used? I certainly hope so…


A summary of the RIBA’s response to the Green Deal consultation can be found here.

James Drinkwater, RIBA Policy

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