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13 Mar 2019

Imagining energy poverty complexly: piloting the capabilities approach

A picture of people standing around a table with a background projection of a list of the primary capabilities by Mario Biggeri

The dominant energy poverty measurement methods have failed at reflecting the complexity of our communities. On the one hand, we, as a research community, have taken the practical reductionist approach towards geographical division and normalized climatically diverse regions. On the other, we have had to find minimum standards and thresholds that do not speak on the ways things like gender, age and culture filter and modify our energy usage.

With this in mind Dr. Harriet Thomson and I (Karla Ricalde) held workshops as a first step towards helping us construct a methodology for conceiving energy poverty more complexly. The conception of the methodology was inspired by Day et al (2016) in which they propose the Capabilities Approach as a way to add layers of meaning to energy services and to deepen our understanding of energy poverty. 

The pilot workshops were held in the UK and Mexico, comprised of groups of 10-20 people, most of whom were students. They started out with an introduction to energy poverty, energy services and the capabilities approach. And were followed by a practical exercise where we asked the participants to think about the ways in which they interacted with energy services in their daily lives. Then we co-generated knowledge around how these energy services related to primary capabilities. Finally, as a group we asked them to come up with a list of top priority energy services.


As expected, some things like cooking, thermal comfort, and personal hygiene emerged in every one of the workshops. The only difference in the case of thermal comfort was the extent to which it was considered important, and all three varied when it came to the links with primary capabilities; this occurred even within the groups and provided a good ground for opening up discussions on minimum necessary levels of energy services. 

Some other interesting themes emerged from the differences in cleanliness perception, both personal and around the house. One group in particular, with a high South Korean composition, valued cleanliness related energy services higher than all other groups. Groups comprised mostly from undergrad students ranked things like washing clothes and vacuuming in the lower end of the spectrum. Another interesting difference was the discussion around charging electronic devices, such as phones, tablets and computers, which came up across all groups. However, its importance varied a lot; some participants noted “I could live without my phone”, while others stated, “just seeing my phone battery drain causes me a lot of stress”, thus making it one of their top 3 energy services.  

One of the big surprises was listening to music which we came across in all groups and was highly scored; as one participant noted “Where I am from we are basically assigned an instrument at birth, I could not imagine myself without music”. Beyond leisure, social relations and identity aspects, groups related it to some less expected capabilities such as mental health and environment; pointing to its importance and showing a gap in measurement. Another surprising aspect was home businesses, which are also mostly overlooked by current measurement approaches. While only mentioned by two groups, one of them made clear that it was impossible to conceive a distinction between business and home, and that while the type of business might vary greatly, it was of high importance in all cases. The other group’s discussions around the matter were of a different nature, focusing on freelance workers and home-office arrangements, which seemed less essential to the construction of the household.

Gendered aspects were also palpable within the discussions. One group came up with menstrual cup sterilization, which opened a discussion on services that might not apply to all, but when applicable, their importance is irrefutable. Discussions around safety were also held with a gendered tint, things like electric gates for safety, kept coming up in the Mexican context; a participant noted “maybe not for me, but late at night, for a woman, it can be of great importance”. 

This piloting phase has allowed us to find ideal time allocations for the workshops, as well as guidelines for adequate communication. Beyond that, this first stage has showed areas of opportunity in the methodology and highlighted the importance of a controlled diversity within groups; some groups were comprised of people who considered home places in completely different climatic regions which proved a point of stress when discussing thermal comfort. It also emphasized the relevance of allowing space for the extra layer of complexity for relating energy services to energy sources and revisiting how they should all be seen as equal. In some cases, people felt less inclined to mention a service when it was related to traditional energy sources. In that sense, the workshops showed across the board a necessity for innovating in the ways we communicate energy topics to the public.

The most valuable lesson from the workshops was the impact this type of work has, in opening up dialogues and adding much needed levels of complexity to our understanding of energy poverty. These lessons learned will serve as foundations for a series of workshops that we will be mediating early May in Cuba. 

The work would not have been possible without the generosity and openness of Nydia Delhi Mata Sánchez and Dulce María Martínez Fabian of Universidad Tecnológica de los Valles Centrales de Oaxaca, Karla Cedano Villavicencio Instituto de Energías Renobables UNAM, and Keith Baker and Scott Restrick Energy Action Scotland; the guidance of the University of Birmingham; and the support of the Economic and Social Research Council, who awarded Dr. Thomson the Early Career Celebrating Impact Prize.

Contact us

Karla Ricalde: krice [@] @krlx

Harriet Thomson: h.thomson [@] @harrimus