The Short Story
Me, Myself and My Research
I am currently a Research Fellow for the Centre for Housing Research at the University of St Andrews, supporting research on prosumption and smarter homes? projects.
In July 2016 I passed my PhD viva voce, examined by Prof Jan Bebbington and Dr Russell Hitchings! My PhD was under the supervision of Dr Louise Reid and Prof Colin Hunter in the Department of Geography and Sustainable Development. Prior to this I received my BSc (Hons) in Sustainable Development from the University of St Andrews in 2012. My PhD research centred on domestic energy and low-carbon living; investigating how lifestyle expectations influence, and are influenced, by the physical features of the home. This approach is informed by a growing body of literature on social practice theory and the importance of a socio-technical perspective. Thus, my research moves away from ideas of behaviour change, informed by social-psychology, to thinking more broadly about what energy is for, and in particular asking what comfort means in Scottish homes. Indeed, the meaning of comfort has become an important concept in order to critique the dominant techno-economic approach to meeting demand, yet this is mainly focused on thermal comfort and no research in this context has aimed to empirically study this concept. Thus, my research employed qualitative methods to ask about the meaning of comfort, including the use of household interviews, house tours and drawings. The research was based on speaking to residents of ‘low-carbon’ homes in Fife, Scotland.
An active community member
I am active at the University in other capacities beyond research. I am PG representative for my department, a tutor in the Sustainable Development programme and an Assistant Warden at the University’s largest hall of residence. I have organised a Sustainable Development seminar series (2011) with over 12 presenters and some interactive formats (fish bowl, world cafe) and set up a 'writing group' (following from #AcWriMo and #SUWTuesdays) where we work for two hours regularly writing in the same room as a way to protect writing time and keep up to date on what our colleagues are working on (2014).
Being active in practical sustainability projects, I helped set up a Transition Initiative in St Andrews in 2011. I was coordinator for two years (Oct 2010- May 2012) and I am still a member of the Steering Group. Through my involvement with this Transition Initiative I have been lead and co-author on numerous successful funding bids as well as a member of multiple interview panels. Currently, I am focusing on a local bike project, which I co-founded and coordinate, to create a rental scheme and offer free classes on bicycle maintenance (May 2012-present).
It is important to me to be active in both the University and sustainability projects as a way to learn new skills, be part of building a community, and to have a wider impact. I believe to be a sustainable development researcher one has to 'roll up their sleeves'.
Carbon Conversations Facilitator:
Ellsworth-Krebs, K. and Reid, L. Conceptualising energy prosumption: exploring energy production, consumption and microgeneration in Scotland, UK. Environment and Planning A, 2016.
Ellsworth-Krebs, K., Reid, L. and Hunter, CJ. Home-ing in on Domestic Energy Research: 'house,' 'home,' and the importance of ontology. Energy Research and Social Science, 6:100-108, 2015.
Energy Vulnerability 2013
Sustainable Consumption & Prosumption
I am interested in theories of transition and change towards sustainable lifestyles, sometimes branded 'low carbon living'. This began with a focus on theories of behaviour change which generally places agency on individuals and their choices to move us towards a more environmental and equitable future. However, the behaviour approach, supported by social-psychological theories, has been widely critiqued (such as Shove's (2010) seminal piece on 'Beyond the ABC') and there has been an increase in scholarship concerned with trying to understand change as the result of socio-technical systems or social practices. The practice approach moves away from the individual as the basic unit of analysis (their values and choices), instead focusing on the 'social organisation of normality' (Shove, 2003) or how everyday practices become established, disappear or evolve. My research is informed by practice theory (and this leaning was more firmly established by my attendance at the DEMAND Energy Summer School in 2014). Hence, my research asks about what energy is for and how it is embedded in our understanding and expectations of 'normal' everyday life.
Moving away from thinking about behaviour and choice encourages broader consideration of the energy system and how it shapes our practices and expectations. This has led me to take part in another research project with my supervisor, Louise Reid, on developing and expanding the concept of prosumption through empirical research on energy prosumers (households or communities that are both producers and consumers of their own energy). Indeed, the processes of production and consumption always interpentrate (Ritzer, 2014). The utility of bringing this conceptualisation to the context of energy research is clear when considering a rapidly increasingly amount of micro-generation which challenges an out-dated distinction between energy producer and consumer.
Methods & Researching Home Energy
The housing sector is an important area in energy research, accounting for up to 45% of a nation’s energy consumption. Domestic energy demand is a topical policy issue, with implications for climate change, energy vulnerability and security. Furthermore, to me, the home presents an intriguing locus of analysis. In sustainability research, the household has been praised as a meso level in which 'macro level change can be observed and micro level activity can be contextualised' (Reid et al., 2010). Moreover, the majority of domestic energy research is dominated by a techno-economic approach which focuses on improving design, technologies, or other physical aspects of domestic buildings and the concept of home can be used to challenge this dominance because it is more than simply a physical unit. The home is both a social and physical unit and there is a considerable body of interdisciplinary academic work that could enhance and inform research on domestic energy (see Blunt and Dowling (2006) for a useful review and critical geography of home research). Hence, the motivation for my first publication on 'Home-ing in on Domestic Energy Research: 'home', 'house', and the importance of ontology'.
Similar to my interest in a greater attention paid to clarifying the locus of analysis for domestic energy researchers, I also wish to see more reflection on appropriate methodologies to research the home (and domestic energy) extremely interesting (and lacking in the academic literature). Housing researchers are not the only ones guilty of limited methodological reflection, this criticism arguably extends to researchers of sustainable practice as well. I hope to write more on methodologies for researching home life and practice, including whole-household interviews, home tours, and drawings of ideal rooms in the home.
Comfort has become a topic of interest in energy and sustainability literature initially sparked by Shove's (2003) book on Comfort, Cleanliness, and Convenience, however the concept has narrowly been defined in terms of thermal comfort. While this is sometimes explicitly explained, generally because space heating is the largest percentage of energy demand in the home so thermal comfort is the focus of investigation, others (implicitly) suggest that comfort is synonymous with temperature and the ‘comfort zone’. Broadly, this has resulted in other aspects or meanings of comfort being largely ignored. Just like my call to move away from domestic energy research focused on the 'house' as only a physical unit, I also argue that our conceptualisation of comfort needs to be expanded away from being narrowly defined.
Researching home energy, informed by a practice approach, has led me to the concept of comfort. In order to move away from the dominance of techno-economic thinking, we need to ask new questions to highlight new avenues of investigation or recommendations. If we aren't asking about 'pro-environmental behaviours' or 'efficiency' how can we explore 'what energy is for' or choose a practice to focus on? Comfort is intuitively linked to the concept of home; furthermore comfort is not universally definable, meaning different understandings are connected to different lifestyle expectations (which is important to consumption). Our expectations of comfort vary historically and geographically, indoor temperatures in the UK have risen and instead of heating one or two rooms in the home we generally expect to heat the whole house. Talking to householders about comfort-making and expectations of home comforts can suggest where increasingly energy-intensive expectations are headed or interventions that are not simply about encouraging low-energy 'choices'.