Switching energy company. For good

The Digital Product Research team at Co-op Digital spent a year exploring new products and services. We researched and tested ideas that we may or may not build. Our latest experiment was around people’s understanding of the energy market and what it would take to get them to switch to a renewable energy provider.

For the last few months the Digital Product Research team has been exploring how we might speed up Britain’s transition to sustainable energy controlled by its communities. By this we mean reducing our use of energy from fossil fuels bought from large multinational companies and moving to using renewable energy from a range of UK-based sources. Our most recent experiment in this area is a prototype for collective green switching.

Collective green switching happens when a group of people all move to a renewable energy supplier. It’s a really easy first step to reducing your carbon footprint. And when a group of people switch at the same time, it’s an effective way to fundraise, as energy companies make a thank-you payment for every new customer. A group of 40 people switching at the same time could raise £1000.

Our mission was to get people who have never switched, to move to a 100% renewable energy company. But we knew that might be tricky.

Why don’t people switch?

We are often told that switching energy provider will save us money. But only around 15% of us are receptive to this message and change energy company every year [PDF]. 

Photograph in Sheffield of a billboard that says: 7/10 brits overpaying for energy. Switch today and save up to £618

Yet over half of us never switch energy company – despite ads like this and nagging from evangelical switchers. Some of us are sticky, and that’s just the way we are.

It’s not about money

A big early influence on our thinking was a paper on attitudes to switching [PDF]. Xiaoping He and David Reiner are researchers at Cambridge University. They found that most of the non-switchers in their study stayed with the same company even though they knew they were paying too much. Any potential savings don’t seem to be worth the trouble of switching.

It’s the fear of hassle

We found this in our own research too. We held one-hour interviews with 5 parents of school-age children who had not switched energy provider at all or in the last 8 years. They all knew they would save money. But their perception of the process – that it would be a hassle, that it would go wrong, that it would be time consuming – put them off. One parent said, “It just gives me shudders. I just think it would be a nightmare.” Even thinking about the process was stressful. Another parent said, “A lot of mums when I speak to people, they don’t have the headspace to take on stuff.”

Renewable energy companies aren’t well known

We also found that awareness of alternatives to the ‘big 6’ energy companies was low. The people we spoke to had not heard of companies that only sell renewable energy, such as Ecotricity.

When we showed our non-switchers renewable energy companies, they liked them. One said, “I like that. It feels like buying local produce.” And others echoed this sentiment. Clean energy from renewable sources, produced by UK companies was appealing to them. Although buying energy from this type of company was a new idea for them, it went down well.

Would people switch for good?

During our interviews with parents, we showed them our prototype website where they could switch to a green energy provider. With the feedback from the interviews in mind we updated the content on our website. We removed all references to saving money. Instead we focused on how switching could help others. The message on our landing page was: Let Co-op change your energy provider for you and raise money for Hanover Primary School.

The image below shows the our old homepage next to the new one.

Homepage before when the focus was on saving money and after, when the focus is on raising money for a school

We don’t know…yet

We’re pausing work on our collective green switching service for now. We contacted a lot of schools and parent teacher associations and didn’t hear back from any of them. Schools and families aren’t at their most receptive in July.

This means, we can’t prove that people would switch for charitable reasons (to help a school raise money) even if they wouldn’t switch for personal gain. But we think it looks promising, and certainly an effective way to help schools. We’re still excited by collective switching for good, and hope to continue exploring this area soon.

Over to you

Our goal for this work was to speed up Britain’s transition to sustainable energy controlled by its communities. This is everyone’s responsibility, not just ours. And collective green switching is a great way for any type of organisation to raise small amounts (£1-2K at a time).

We hope to return to this work in the future, but we’re also keen that others carry on from where we’ve left off. Which is why we’ve worked openly. We’ve blogged about our findings and our software is available for anyone to view and download.

We’ll be very happy if anyone uses these resources for a project of their own. If you do, please let us know.

Sophy Colbert
Content designer

11 thoughts on “Switching energy company. For good

  1. smithdavidwales August 9, 2017 / 4:09 pm

    To what extent did you consider Co-operative owned energy sources?

    • Sophy Colbert August 18, 2017 / 9:33 am

      Hi, thanks for your comment and sorry for a slow reply. For this particular piece of work we just looked at energy companies that are 100% renewable – but we’ve also looked into community energy groups in previous pieces of work which do tend to be co-operatives or community benefit societies.

  2. smithdavidwales August 9, 2017 / 4:11 pm

    Did you consider how the Co-operative as one of the UK’s largest energy users could use its purchasing power to benefit, for example, hard pressed local village or community centers?

    • Sophy Colbert August 18, 2017 / 9:34 am

      Hi – not for this particular project which was very much focused on the issue of getting non-switchers to switch to renewables. But it is an area that we are interested in and may look at in future work in this area.

  3. smithdavidwales August 9, 2017 / 4:13 pm

    Ha! Was that my spelling of centres or the software spelling?

    • Sophy Colbert August 18, 2017 / 9:35 am

      Not sure!

  4. sophiefp August 9, 2017 / 4:43 pm

    This is fabulous – what a great simple thing to offer. I really like the change in emphasis to helping your community by switching.
    Just a little tweak that might help – if you could reassure people that you’d tell them how much more or less the new supplier charged than their old one, before they commit, then they would be comfortable that they could check what financial difference it would make, one way or the other. Cost saving may not be top priority here, but it’s still important to know they’re within budget.
    Can’t wait till this gets going once schools are back. I know they are not very responsive as schools are always so busy (or on holiday). School Business managers might be worth writing to as well, if they are not yet on your list.
    Once the project is up and running you could tell Eco Schools about it and see if they’d like to tell schools about it (they have a schools event every year too you could be at). Good luck!

    • Sophy Colbert August 18, 2017 / 9:36 am

      Hi Sophie – thanks for your comment and sorry for a slow reply. Thanks for your feedback too – really great points. This is one of the benefits of working out in the open and talking about what you do as you do it – getting input like this along the way is really beneficial.

  5. Martin Meteyard August 9, 2017 / 4:48 pm

    It seems such a shame that the co-operative movement has its own energy provider, Co-operative Energy, which doesn’t even figure in these comments.

    • Sophy Colbert August 18, 2017 / 9:37 am

      Hi Martin, thanks for your comment and sorry for a slow reply. For this piece of work we were just looking at switching, and the difficulty of engaging people in that, and trying different approaches to get people to switch beyond financial. Finding the right supplier is another question, and one that was out of the scope of our work.

  6. MJ Ray August 30, 2017 / 9:07 am

    I’ve switched several times but not recently and the reason is fear of hassle, but not in the way you seem to think.

    OK, the switching process is slow and ugly as the old and new providers squabble about the changeover meter reading and the old one tries to bill you for stuff they didn’t supply… the regulator says that it shouldn’t happen but it seemed to every time… but that’s not the hassle.

    The hassle I fear is being stuck for months to a year with an energy provider that has awful customer service like npower (or at least is awful to me) or gets bought by one while I’m stuck with them (TXU Energi bought someone while I was with them, I think).

    So I’ve stayed with cooperative energy for a while. They’re not perfect and I doubt I’m getting the best deal any more but I value my time and I’d like not to spend it dealing with those who cut costs by cutting customer service.

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