Over the past year there has been considerable media speculation as to the carbon impacts of enforced homeworking. Has working from home helped to reduce carbon emissions? The home working energy usage project sought to take advantage of the enforced homeworking that became essential for most non-frontline staff at Durham County Council and Durham University to explore the empirical truth.
We set out to measure the impact of home working on real world energy consumption, to help our organisations, and others like ours, with future energy scenario planning. Using over forty volunteers from the staff of Durham University (DU) and Durham County Council (DCC) we collected home energy bill data from the year before (March 2019 to February 2020) and the year after lockdown (March 2020 to February 2021). This was combined with energy consumption data over the same period for the seven buildings in which our volunteers worked. We also undertook a survey with the volunteers, collecting travel data on their commuting practices prior to and during COVID-19 and background information on their home energy usage. Detailed analysis of the findings enabled from these three data sets allowed us to model the impact of homeworking on energy consumption and carbon emissions and to identify some key issues to take into account in any discussions about future ways of working.
Our project’s challenge appeared very straightforward; to collect accurate energy data both from our DCC and DU volunteers and from the relevant DU and DCC buildings managers and then analyse it in such a way as to prove useful for scenario planning at both organisations. In practice, this presented several unforeseen challenges, as follows:
- How to encourage staff volunteers to participate? (Our aim was 100 volunteers, but we only achieved 42). With the entirety of the budget already earmarked we were unable to provide financial inducements to participants, so we relied on a range of approaches which tended to engage those staff who were already concerned about energy and carbon, which might influence our findings.
- How to collect the data – would we just collect energy billing data or include reported travel practices too? Was it to be an online survey, an offline one, or something else entirely? Should it be distributed via cloud, email, or some other means?
- What questions should we ask, to get the right information and how do we ensure that they make sense to the volunteers? How do we avoid overwhelming volunteers with too many demands? Will they be able to access the appropriate billing data?
- How would we ensure confidentiality and data protection for sensitive billing information?
- Could we access accurate energy consumption data for the seven identified office buildings?
- Did we have the necessary resources to collect, collate, analyse and interpret all the data collected?
Throughout the project, the team met at least weekly, to address the challenges and monitor our progress. This was vital to the success of the project; sustaining a constant dialogue was key to resolving challenges and to partnership building.
We began exploring data collection methods via preliminary Teams’ meetings in the three months before the project started (Oct – Dec 2020). Initially we planned a simple email to DU and DCC staff asking for volunteers to send us their energy bills for the period. However, we quickly realised that not everyone would know how to access two years’ worth of their energy bills and, even if they could, we needed to know far more than just how much energy they had consumed.
We recognised that we needed to control for a range of variables, such as whether the volunteer had remained in the same accommodation throughout the period (essential for comparison), whether their household had grown or shrunk during the lockdown, whether they had made any energy-related changes such as installing a new boiler, buying an electric vehicle, installing insulation, etc. Consequently, we decided that we needed to conduct a fairly detailed, personal survey.
Initially, we hoped to gather the information using an online survey, but unfortunately the cloud-based form systems that we investigated, such as Google Forms, did not allow for the level of customisation necessary. Essentially energy billing systems are quite idiosyncratic, and it swiftly became apparent that an offline survey document would be needed, that could be customised to meet the needs of individual participants. This proved to be a major undertaking, requiring far more time that we had budgeted for.
To address the challenge of how to frame our questions, so as to ensure that we got the information we needed, we conducted a pilot survey with willing colleagues. These participants identified a number of issues which we then corrected before sending the survey out.
Given the short project length (just six months), we needed to send out the survey in February, but because the project covered two years, 1 April 2019 – 30 March 2021, we realised that we would need to re-contact our volunteers very close to the end of the study to get their last three months of data.
Securing volunteers also posed a challenge and we adopted different tactics with respect to staff from the DU and the DCC. At DU we largely focused on engineers and energy scholars and used departmental mailing lists, but as the number of participants did not swell, we made use of social media and the university’s emailed announcements. None of this was particularly successful. In contrast at DCC we opted to recruit from volunteers with a particular interest in climate change, using the Climate Champions (over 100 staff members representing every business group in the Council), interested colleagues we already worked with, and the intranet and staff magazine to bolster our numbers of volunteers. Despite all of this, we failed to achieve the 100 volunteers, across the two organisations, that we had aimed for. Nevertheless, we were able to obtain meaningful data and results from the study.
We took data protection very seriously and developed a completely anonymised numerical system for handling volunteer’s data, which worked well. We also ensured that we had the appropriate permissions in place.
We were able to access complete, accurate energy consumption data for the seven office buildings by working with the DU Estates Team and the DCC Energy Management Team, both of whom use Systems Link energy management software that records half hourly data.
Several aspects of the project, especially volunteer engagement and data analysis were much more time and resource intensive than anticipated. We also found that many potential volunteers were unable to take part in the project because they could not access their consumption data, either because they had switched energy supplier during the period or because of problems with their smart meter. We addressed this with BEIS and have held meetings with the Smart Meter team.
What are your top three lessons learned?
We learned a lot over the course of this project both about partnership working and about the impacts of home working. Three significant lessons are:
It requires time and patience. Although DU and DCC have worked together on energy issues for 6 years, this collaborative, funded project raised significant bureaucratic challenges, suggesting that many UK universities are slow-moving entities, and that academics themselves are often shocked by the hurdles that must be overcome in order to accept and allocate finance. Nevertheless, as outsiders in each other’s organisations we were often given a credibility by their hierarchies that we did not receive in our own. This allowed us to have significant conversations with leadership in both organisations.
Our data analysis showed that the carbon emissions related to travel far outweigh the building related impacts of lockdown. Staff who travelled long distances by car before the pandemic made major carbon reductions from home working, even if they increased their home energy consumption, whereas staff who walked or cycled to work generally increased their carbon emissions by home working. We did not undertake any analysis of journeys made by public transport. This finding (duplicated by Cornwall County Council) needs to be taken into account by any organisation making decisions about future ways of working. We also found that many of the main offices showed only small reductions in energy consumption and carbon emissions after the initial and most intense lockdown period. Without careful zoning and other efficiency measures, the use of heating, lighting, etc. tends to be largely unchanged when a reduced number of staff are in the building. This also has significant implications for any organisation considering its future work patterns.
Further research required
Our project has made clear that further work is needed to maximise the learning. Within DCC the Transformation Team, who lead on new ways of working, are taking our findings to build into their future scenarios. Many other councils have expressed interest in this topic, and we hope to reach out to some of them. This research will be time-limited because organisations across the world are making decisions now about what post-pandemic work will look like, so it is essential that the carbon impacts of such decisions are built in from the outset.
What have the outcomes of the project been so far?
Project outcomes include presentations to key stakeholders, discussions with outside agencies and organisations, an ongoing collaboration with the DCC Transformation Team, and the production of a report on our findings.
Our series of presentations to various groups began prior to the project concluding. We targeted key allies who were well-positioned to use our findings to effect changes within their respective organisations. They reacted positively to our findings and confirmed the significance of the research. We also gave a presentation to the volunteers who had participated in the study, and to the council climate advocates, who also showed great interest and helped to identify areas that would benefit from further analysis.
Each volunteer has received an individual report, prepared by Professor Wang, analysing their home energy use, transport patterns and associated carbon emissions. This will hopefully assist them in making decisions about their own home energy use.
The DU Estates Team and DCC Energy Management Team have also been involved in discussions about energy usage in the seven offices before and during lockdown and this will be used to inform thinking about building use and energy retrofits.
DCC’s Transformation team has been especially interested in our findings and are now undertaking an ongoing collaboration to use the research in further examination of the future of office working within the council. This could include major decisions such as working hubs to reduce travel emissions.
We are reaching out to other councils and organisations that are interested in exploring the carbon impacts of home working and hope to be engaged in future research.
We are also in discussion with BEIS about the implications of the project generally and about the smart meter problems specifically. We found that anyone with a first-generation smart meter will only have access to one year’s consumption data, though second-generation meters provide two year’s data.
How will these outcomes be sustained?
We are especially focusing on ensuring that DCC future ways of working, post pandemic, are developed with carbon reduction as a major consideration. We are therefore working closely with our Transformation Team to ensure that appropriate discussions take place. This might include energy efficiency measures such as zoning in larger offices to minimise energy consumption when fewer staff are in attendance. It could also include adopting local working hubs to reduce staff travel distances. All of these and other options will have wider, non-carbon implications and will require careful consideration.
A coalition of DCC and DU is also seeking further funding to develop a wider research programme to provide learning, based on more complete data, that can be used by local authorities, universities and other public and private organisations across the UK, to inform their decision making and policy development on future ways of working.
What is the anticipated longer-term impact on progress towards net zero?
Work patterns play a very significant part in the journey towards net zero and our research has suggested that the most important aspect of this comes from the carbon emissions related to commuting. We therefore aim to use our findings to influence decision making in a timely manner so that post-COVID green recovery includes the development of working patterns that can minimise greenhouse gas emissions.
How has this project evolved your approach to net zero?
Our project has further highlighted the importance of partnership working. DU and DCC already have a well-established partnership and a Memorandum of Understanding but this project has demonstrated the skills that each partner can bring. DU’s abilities to analyse complex data have complemented DCC’s skills in staff and public engagement to enable a significant project that is of benefit to both. We plan to continue this joint project and to explore future joint working opportunities in the net zero journey, involving other stakeholders as well where appropriate.
Who will benefit from your project?
Our project will benefit DCC and DU decision makers exploring new, post-pandemic ways of working. We hope that the findings will also be shared with other local authorities and organisations undertaking similar discussions as we consider that our findings can be replicated across the UK.
We also hope to benefit the volunteers who took part in the project and encourage them to be aware of their home energy usage and especially the carbon emissions resulting from their travel patterns.
Our project forms a part of the net zero journey – specifically reducing the carbon emissions associated with work patterns. If our findings are acted on there will be benefits for everyone in helping to tackle the climate emergency.
Describe how your partnership developed over the course of the project?
Our partnership was already strong, but this project has enhanced our mutual respect for the skills that each partner brings to the table. We uncovered bureaucratic challenges that slowed down the project, but our mutual trust enabled us to be flexible (DU was unable to receive their funding from DCC for 3 months but progressed on trust). The DU / DCC team met every week and shared progress, which kept the partnership on track. Both DU and DCC provided extra staff resource, free of charge, to ensure the project was delivered effectively.
How will the partnership be sustained in the medium and longer term?
DCC now sits on the (DU) DEI Advisory Board and DU chairs DCC’s Climate Emergency Strategic Board. This ensures a continuing and forward-looking partnership. Both organisations have the climate emergency as a core priority. We are seeking further funding to develop research that builds on our project (each organisation has access to different funding streams). We are currently reviewing the various joint working achievements that have resulted over recent years and are considering holding a half day workshop to explore further opportunities. We consider each other to be essential partners in the journey towards net zero.