Can all dimensions of energy use patterns be represented?

Energy use patterns in human settlements around the world are complex. Growing evidence on how people use and consume energy shows that energy use patterns cut across the public/private, work/home, past/future, needs/aspirational boundaries. In increasingly uncertain times, people’s energy use is contingent on social, political, technological, environmental and economic changes around them. Based on our ongoing research in Ahmedabad (India) and Lima (Peru), we have identified the following five dimensions of energy use patterns that we consider difficult to represent. The challenge of representing these social dimensions of energy patterns in technologically driven planning tools, such as UBEMs, remains open for further exploration.

  1. Work-home hybrids
    In many informal settlements worldwide, residents run small industries and businesses from their homes (1–3). For instance, people sell groceries from their households for additional income. Others sew clothes, prepare food for large industrial food processing companies, run pottery workshops from their houses, among other things. On the one hand, segregating the energy use for household and work purposes is methodologically challenging. On the other hand, work-home hybrid patterns are difficult to represent in planning tools due to the lack of clarity between where the home ends and work begins.
  2. Social and economic use of communal spaces
    People often use communal spaces for various collective activities, be they for social or economic needs. For example, many residents in Lima use communal kitchens to provide sustenance to their families, particularly in times of crises such as the COVID pandemic. Likewise, people share communal spaces for study, community meetings, community festivals etc. In settlements such as Dharavi, residents also run industrial and commercial activities, such as communal laundry or waste segregation industry in open spaces. All these communal spaces require sharing energy throughout the year in varying quantities as per the need of the activity. The contingency and ephemerality of these communal activities pose a challenge to representing them in planning tools that are often static representations of the cities.
  3. Gendered energy practices
    Energy consumption is highly influenced by people’s identity markers – such as gender. Research has shown that energy is differently used by men and women in many human settlements in the global South (2,4,5). Men, for instance, are often away from home during the day for work in many societies. If the work is in the house, men would not necessarily engage in activities such as cooking. Alternatively, women often engage in cooking as well as carry out some work to support household incomes. Such gendered patterns of household economy and the associated energy use and consumption patterns remain hidden from household and building-level energy plans.
  4. Fuel switching
    Many poor households use traditional unprocessed solid fuels such as wood, animal dung, agricultural waste, coal, despite their documented negative effects on health (6). Through the global and national governmental push towards clean and modern forms of energy, residents are required to switch their use of fuels. This fuel switching requires significant rearrangement of people’s lives, established power relations, supply chains and micro-level economies of fuel. These changing patterns of energy use and their associated impact on people’s lives goes often unrecognised due to methodological challenges to represent the social impact of fuel switching.
  5. Aspirations
    Ultimately, given energy’s central role in our lives, people’s aspirations are closely linked to their use of energy and vice versa (7,8). For instance, in contexts where people don’t have a legal title to their land and house, people’s desire to live comfortably leads towards buying air conditioning rather than investing in durable construction materials for the house. Such aspirations are fleeting, contingent and they often change. Given their ephemeral character, they remain difficult to represent in planning tools.

To respond to these challenges, we are conducting remote participatory research to capture people’s energy use and consumption patterns. These patterns will be documented through qualitative narratives and we plan to create vignettes and archetypes from these narratives. We will use the vignettes and archetypes as inputs into the Urban Building Energy Models (UBEMs). Are there other energy use and consumption patterns that present a peculiar challenge for representing in planning tools? Are there other methods through which these dynamic energy use patterns can be represented in UBEMs? We look forward to exploring these questions further through research and conversations.