Invisible Energy Policy in Higher Education

high energy magic building

Sarah Royston, Jan Selby and Elizabeth Shove of the DEMAND centre explain why we need a new perspective on energy demand in Higher Education.


high energy magic buildingDespite ambitious targets, the Higher Education sector is performing badly on energy demand and carbon emissions. Instead of the targeted 43% cut in emissions by 2020 (on 2005 levels), English universities are likely to achieve only a 15% cut, and 70% of them are on track to miss the carbon targets they set for themselves (Brite Green, 2016). Their high energy consumption is a major part of the problem. Why is it so difficult for universities to reduce their energy demand?

Invisible effects of policy

Ongoing research as part of the DEMAND centre is addressing this question, in a project called “Invisible Energy Policy”. Specifically, the project asks how policies that are not explicitly about energy, such as policies on growth, austerity or liberalisation, are actually having effects on energy demand. Because the effects are often unrecognised, we call these “invisible energy policies”. Invisible energy policies exist across many policy domains. For example, policies that result in services (such as hospitals, schools or shops) becoming more centralised may mean people have to use more fuel to travel to them.

Researching the invisible

To find out how invisible energy policies are having effects in Higher Education, our project combines detailed case-studies of two universities with research at the wider sectoral level. We use interviews, quantitative data and documentary analysis to track the complex links between “non-energy” policies at both the national and institutional scales, and their energy demand outcomes.

Results so far suggest that invisible energy policies like those on student choice and university funding are having significant effects on energy demand in this sector. For example, a major change in funding policy for English universities in 2013 meant that their income shifted away from state grants in favour of tuition fees. This has had many ramifications, including the rise of a “student experience” agenda. At the institutional level, this new priority has often resulted in larger student accommodation, longer library opening hours and extensive IT provision – all of which have implications for energy demand. For example, if a library opens 24 hours a day (as is now the case in many universities), instead of from 7am to 10pm, then it has to provide heating, lighting and ICT for 60% more time than before.

Our results also suggest that the way energy is governed could be making it hard for universities to reduce their demand. We found that energy plans were often poorly integrated with “mainstream” university policies and procedures, and that energy managers were very limited in the kinds of interventions they could pursue. What’s more, much of the energy demand associated with universities, such as off-campus accommodation, or international travel, is often not measured at all, and is largely ignored by energy plans.

Over the next 18 months, our research will build up a more detailed picture of invisible energy policy in Higher Education, and repeat the same process for aspects of the health sector – another major consumer of energy. Knowledge about invisible energy policies won’t automatically reduce demand. However, a fuller understanding of these hidden effects puts us in a much better position to challenge policies that contribute to escalating demand, to change the ways that energy issues are integrated into non-energy policy-making, and to suggest new opportunities for reducing energy demand in the future.


Sarah Royston is a Research Fellow at the University of Sussex.

Jan Selby is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.

Elizabeth Shove is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University.

They work within the EUED centre on the Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand (DEMAND).

More information about the Invisible Energy Project can be found on the DEMAND centre website

and in: Royston, S. (2016) “Invisible Energy Policy in Higher Education” (paper presented at the DEMAND international conference, Lancaster, April 13th-15th 2016).



Brite Green (2016). 2020 Carbon Target Progress Report for the Academic Year 2014/15. London: Brite Green. (Report produced for each English University).

Image credit: Artwork by David Wyatt, source: