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The Co-provision of Utility Services: Resources, New Technologies & Consumers


Bas van Vliet, Department of Environmental Sociology, Wageningen University

Heather Chappells, Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University


From the Reader distributed for the Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability Summer School 1999, Lancaster University. For table of contents with links to all of the other papers of the reader, click here.


  1. Introduction


In this paper we discuss some of the new perspectives on domestic consumption, utility provision and everyday environmental technologies, which have emerged during our research on the Domus project (Domestic Consumers and Utility Systems), a European collaboration between the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. The Domus research was born out of the wish to have a better understanding of what sustainable household consumption might look like. To meet such a goal, we directed our efforts at conceptualising and reviewing relationships between domestic consumers and systems providing critical household services - those relating to energy, water and waste. These services and their associated resources are arguably most relevant in terms of understanding the scope for environment-related changes in household consumption. Our intention here is to present some ideas on how new ways of representing relationships between utility services, their technical infrastructures and their consumers, can be used to better understand the diverse ways in which systems of provision are organised.


We begin by considering some of the approaches which have already been developed to explain the ways in which production and consumption elements of utility networks are organised. In the following sections we present our own reconceptualisation of these complex relations and map out what we believe is a more comprehensive framework for investigating infrastructures, one which reveals the intricate dynamics of resource flows and the shifting and multiple scales of provision activities. Onto our new map of infrastructure relations we then plot some examples of systems of provision in the Netherlands and the UK, where flowing resources, active consumers, fragmenting providers and mediating technologies are interacting in new ways to blur traditional management responsibilities. This leads us to speculate on the emergence of ‘co-provision’ as a better means of understanding the organisation of contemporary energy, water and waste services, and to consider the associated environmental implications of such a blurring of traditional producer and consumer relations and responsibilities.


2. Relationships between utility service production and consumption


Our original aim was to develop a clearer understanding of how consumers relate to the resources that are provided through socio-material systems of provision, and specifically the utility services and flows which provide the material substance of our daily lives (Spaargaren, 1997). In traditional approaches to describing the organisation of service provision, a distinction has often been made between the active roles of service providers and their passive consumers who have only limited involvement in system management, for instance seeing them only in the role of clients of state provision or customers of private provision (Saunders and Harris, 1990), not as households or individuals (Warde, 1990). If we consider the dominant logics and strategies which have emerged in utility management over the last decade or so, a similar picture is presented. For instance, throughout the earlier part of this century, relations between utility providers and consumers were largely determined by supply-side strategies, where massive infrastructure investments at a macro level (power stations, reservoirs, pylons and aqueducts) were made to meet the increasing demands of consumers (Guy and Marvin, 1996). These supply strategies rendered utility users as homogenous and passive, effectively siting them at the end of supply chains receiving water and electrons of the same order, quality and form.

This situation has now been challenged as infrastructures have been reconfigured to meet the new pressures of privatisation and environmental degradation. As early as the 1970s, mainly in the United States, a new logic of demand-side management (DSM) began to emerge in utility management. Connected to new resource ceilings (regulations on supply-building and the ‘energy crisis’), DSM has been used to describe initiatives undertaken by, mainly energy utilities, to manage their resources more economically and environmentally efficiently and develop more ‘consumer-focused’ relationships (Gellings, 1996; Siohansi, 1996). Traditionally this has included strategies such as load management programmes, in which utilities attempt to even out peak loads to improve the efficiency of their generation and transmission networks or the promotion of energy efficiency measures to curb demand in certain ‘stressed’ areas of the network (Gellings, 1996).


In the UK, DSM initiatives by water and electricity utilities have developed from the 1980s onwards, as regulatory changes, restrictions on capacity building, environmental pressures and new incentives to develop more finely tuned customer relationships in privatised provision networks have emerged (Boyle, 1996). In the Netherlands, DSM-like measures have been initiated more by environmental regulation. Policies to prevent desiccation of natural reserves forced water companies to close water winning sites and to look for alternatives. Efficiency measures (dual flush on toilets, water saving showers) have in some cases successfully postponed investments in new water extraction and treatment plants. During the last decade, environmental considerations, rather than capacity problems, have also motivated the execution of demand-side management measures in electricity sectors. As part of a covenant with the electricity sector, energy companies have subsidised the purchase of energy efficiency devices, insulation measures, high efficiency heaters and solar collectors.


What is of relevance here, is the extent to which these logics and associated strategies of infrastructure management have influenced the relationships between consumers, providers, and their resources. On the one hand it has been suggested that more demand oriented approaches have provided "an ideal framework for engineers for whom consumers looked like kilowatt meters". The claim is that utilities have been able to develop a more integrated approach which looks at "technical options, customer needs and utility requirements" (Gellings, 1996, p285). Moving beyond the meter, utilities can now view consumers as a series of half-hourly or night and day loads who are switched on and off to match certain network capacities, or as a series of hot and cold spots on infrastructure networks (Guy and Marvin, 1996).


On the other hand, although ‘demand-side’ implies a more active role for consumers in utility system management - compared to supply-side only options - little is known about what these precise roles might be. Although some attention has been paid towards the management of micro-infrastructures in the home and how consumers deal with a range of new efficiency devices, this has so far been limited. Moreover, closer inspection reveals that consumer roles are still tightly scripted, as seen in the profusion of technical fix solutions (water efficient toilet cisterns, energy efficient light bulbs) or provider controllable storage and monitoring devices (heaters and meters). It appears that the specific roles of households in the management of utility networks is still largely unclear and those that have been revealed are often shown to be limited by providers. Explanations of how infrastructures of provision work from a DSM perspective paint a particular picture, one in which we see compartmentalised consumers who operate in a relatively unchallenging utility world of neatly arranged and largely provider controlled activities. As we now go on to show, there are a number of elements which fail to get explored in such conventional approaches to understanding the organisation of utility systems of provision.




3. Reconceptualising utility relationships


Fine and Leopold (1993) have argued that in order to understand the ways in which provision is organised, we need to concentrate on the particular dynamics of the goods or services in question. Different commodities are structured by a chain or ‘system of provision’ that unites a particular pattern of production with a particular pattern of consumption. Following this logic, our attempt at redrawing the map of utility system relationships began by identifying the distinct connections between various material and cultural objects, flows and practices comprising production, distribution and consumption in the energy, water and waste sectors. In turn this led us to consider the long chain of activity between the generation of resources, utility providers and consumers and the organisation of these activities at a range of sub-levels, including the household. We concluded that many of the dimensions which help us capture the precise nature of the relations between different elements of utility systems are missing from dominant management logics. For instance, while demand-side approaches to utility management have helped to highlight some of the connections between producers and users along supply chains, they have failed to adequately explain what is happening in other critical areas of the utility systems map. In redrawing this map, we paid particular attention to these missing dimensions and their characteristics, which include: flowing resources, fragmenting providers, active consumers and mediating technologies - see Figure 1.


Figure 1 - A map of utility systems of provision

The horizontal spine of our map shows the relations between consumers (C), providers (P) and resources (R). Providers are the intermediaries between consumers and their utilisation of natural resources, a relationship which took shape in the early stages of urbanisation when direct access for consumers to resources (water extraction sites, woodlands or waste dumps) were increasingly replaced with mediated access sites (reservoirs, power stations or landfills). Collective socio-material systems emerged to mediate the provision of these resources to consumers: these include the electricity grid, water works, sewer and waste collection systems. Located within these utility systems are a series of mediating technologies (T’s), including storage, efficiency and monitoring devices. Different combinations of these devices assist providers or consumers in managing resource flows in time and space. In the context of privatisation and environmental concern, the specific configuration of these devices - their locations, scripts and uses - can be seen to reflect new organisational objectives. Management processes are also shaped by particular national, and increasingly European policies, and their connected systems of environmental, social and economic regulation. These institutional influences on the organisation of systems of provision sit alongside often longstanding (but also changing) consumer expectations of comfort, convenience, cleanliness and a variety of other everyday concerns.


Around our map, devices, resource flows and new provider and consumer relationships of provision are being worked out and are constantly on the move. The complexity of these relationships and their dynamics are rarely captured in conventional accounts of utility management. As an outcome, a number of key issues remain underexposed. These are briefly discussed below. Then we show how such issues can be revived and describe examples of the processes at work in systems of provision drawn from case studies in the Netherlands and the UK. In these we show how flowing resources, active consumers, fragmenting providers and mediating technologies are interacting in new ways to blur traditional management responsibilities. Finally, we discuss the implications of this for relationships of co-provision and for sustainable household consumption.


Resource flows and the dynamics of ‘ceiling’ setting


Conventional approaches to consumer-provider-resource relations tend to underplay the importance of the specific character of the environmental strains or resource problems in each sector. In many cases a static and commodified resource situation of peaks and loads is envisaged, rather than the dynamic energy, water and waste we have in mind. The peculiarities of these sectors and the particular flows of electrons or water molecules along grids and between households, providers and resource pools are often hidden. This makes it difficult to envisage how resource ceilings (e.g. limits of resource use) come to be configured and how these are mediated and adapted through a variety of sub levels throughout the supply-chain. Ceiling-setting in this context needs to be thought of in a much more expansionary way. Here we are not only interested in physical resource ceilings (local landfill capacities or regional water storage situations) but also in ceilings set by institutions,

for instance the environmental agendas of organisations, resources that households are able to afford, the regulatory limits set on the building of expensive new infrastructure etc. In the next section, we show how recent attempts at ceiling setting in water and energy sectors are closely linked to the substitution of flows, pools and generators.

In addition, resource ceilings are not just set at a macro level, but are also re-set and renegotiated throughout the entire supply chain, as we go on to show in our examples of storage processes. While regulators and utilities are often responsible for consolidating macro physical and institutional resource ceilings and in doing so shaping the sub-levels at which utility networks become operationalised, the shaping of ceilings by consumers or other organisations is often overlooked. By tracking sub-level storage devices, we show how ceilings come to be negotiated across infrastructures at the domestic and local level, and how these have so far remained hidden in conventional utility accounts of how utility systems work. We also consider the extent to which ceilings get lost in translation and how the associated communication of resource "problems" influences the types of demand management activities that are adopted.


Changing provider-consumer responsibilities


With the introduction of DSM consumers were asked to accept interruptible supply matched to particular financial incentives and storage heating technologies. As utility management has developed in the 1990s, the introduction of water saving devices or energy efficient light bulbs implies a ‘stretching’ of responsibility along the supply chain and into household’s toilet cisterns or lighting infrastructures. All of these developments imply the mediation of particular levels of responsibility and service expectation between providers and consumers. Despite this many utility managers still have low expectations of the roles that consumers will play in infrastructure management, with implications for the success of their environmental schemes and their efforts to control resource use. Our investigation of activities around the co-provision of efficiency devices helps to reveal the degree of malleability in consumer and provider roles in infrastructure management, and the degree to which both households and providers may be willing to accept new levels of accuracy, reliability and security of provision.


Furthermore, DSM strategies tend to consider only the significant utility ‘moments’ of resource management, referring only to ‘utility-set’ times of peak or non-peak loads or night and day rates. In practice, a range of macro and micro peaks exists across the system as a whole. For a more comprehensive understanding of flows along infrastructures we also need to think about the significant micro moments of everyday lives and specifically how heat, water and waste production or use are modified in the home. Here we can look towards the monitoring processes of infrastructure management and consider how flows along wires and pipes are interruptible and manipulable along a supply chain of control panels, displays and timers. The translation of significant meanings and moments through these monitoring systems also needs to be considered, for not only is infrastructure management set in a framework of utility-time, but knowledge about the operation and organisation of these networks is also relayed in the utility-language of kilowatt hours, tonnes or cubic litres. The possibilities different actors have to boost heat or to save water for later depends on how this connects with knowledges of daily routines, standards of comfort and convenience and their connections with particular energy, water and waste times, are of particular interest in this context.


Lastly, since privatisation there has been a dramatic re-configuration of production interests, with conventional utility companies (regional electricity companies, water supply companies) no longer the only legitimate managers of service provision. Other organisations such as housing associations or local authorities are also involved. These groups have a significant role to play in negotiating and delivering new energy, water and waste services for their tenants and will become providers of not just affordable housing but also of service packages and quality of life (McEvoy, 1999). Lovins (1996) describes utility networks are decentralising and how power plants and local storage devices will shift to our roofs, basements, backyards and driveways, quicker than we think. These developments will challenge what we think of as a ‘utility’. As we go on to show, in our examples consumer and provider relations are not evolving in any easily traceable or linear way. Instead we see negotiation of on and off-grid relationships between conventional utilities, new providers and consumers. In addition, we can also think about how such fragmentation of service provision is shaping processes of differentiation in utility networks, as new coloured electrons and pipes emerge to meet environmental, health or marketing requirements.


4. Processes of Co-Provision


From our empirical research on the Domus project, we can show how many processes of utility provision can now be seen as a form of ‘co-provision’. By this we mean the provision (including generation, treatment, distribution and consumption) of utility services by a range of new intermediaries (e.g. consumers themselves, other organisations or sub-networks), alongside or intermingled with centrally provided services (e.g. public networks or grid-provision). Co-provision is emerging in all three sectors with the blurring of boundaries between traditional producers and newly emerged service providers, between these new providers and domestic consumers, and between fragmenting institutional settings and physical flows of energy, water and waste themselves. Such an understanding of co-provision is much broader than that of ‘co-generation’, which is often used as a synonym. Co-generation is a term mainly used in electricity sectors, and is either technically defined as Combined Heat & Power (CHP) generation, or organisationally as small-scale generation by non-utility parties who deliver electricity to the central electricity grid. To get a better understanding of wider processes of co-provision as we have defined it, we now plot some examples on our utility map - see Figure 2. Here processes of co-provision (substitution, storage, efficiency, monitoring and fragmentation) are depicted as a number of ‘grey areas’.


Figure 2 - Revealing processes of (co-)provision


Example 1 - Substituting Resources and Changing Ceilings


At the time of development of utility networks, resource ceilings were set by natural limits (rainfall or natural gas reserves) or by the limitations built-into networks (storage and generational capacities). Although both factors still play a central role, resource ceilings have increasingly become negotiated between providers, governments (in their role of resource managers), nature conservation organisations and the like. Resource ceilings are constantly on the move due to new explorations of extraction sites, the development of new technologies to exploit resources or the substitution of conventional electricity generation by renewables. These processes of substitution also result in new forms of co-provision by consumers. For instance, during the last couple of years, energy companies in the Netherlands, have installed grid connected PhotoVoltaic solar panels on the roofs of private or rental houses. After experimenting with different ownership arrangements, one company concluded that householders should not only be directly connected to the renewable energy source but should also be given some sort of ownership of the panels, otherwise they may see them as only a burden (interview REMU, 1999). Although not entirely responsible for the generation of solar energy ( the sun, utilities and the panels play an important part), consumers can be seen as co-participants in resource substitution, as co-owners of the solar utility system. In addition the utility predicts that consumers will increasingly be involved in substituting traditional energy resources, for instance using domestic heat pumps to extract ground-heat for use in the home.


The provision of drinking water supply in the Netherlands serves as another example of the substitution of resources and the associated reframing of utility ceilings and relationships. Although in absolute terms there is no water scarcity in the Netherlands, water companies have been restricted in exploiting ground water resources, largely due to anti-desiccation policy. The Water Company in the province of Overijssel (WMO) has implemented a range of measures to postpone the moment when it reaches the local ground water ceiling, including: efficiency measures for households, closing down extraction sites that are located in the most desiccated natural reserves, making more efficient use of other winning sites, and R&D investments in exploring the possibility of using surface water as a new source for drinking water. The company has also investigated the possibility of a dual water system for a major new building site. Such a household water system (now installed at several locations in the Netherlands) provides a second quality of water derived from surface waters for ‘minor’ household practices such as toilet flushing, washing and gardening. WMO also co-finances the installation of rain water systems for individual households, which aim to reduce domestic drinking water consumption by up to 50% (Interview WMO, 1999). Many of these measures imply the resetting and fragmenting of the resource ceilings water companies have to deal with. They also require the sharing of responsibilities among many actors across the supply chain, including consumers who may now be involved in substituting one type of water for another, in dual water schemes. This new arrangement of water flows means that in some cases consumers are redefining their standards of cleanliness, convenience or comfort, and substituting not only water, but also long-held habits and relationships with providers.


Example 2 - Co-Storage and Sub-Level Ceilings


Storage of water, heat or waste is a common theme of utility management, but is often limited to discussions around some of the more visible storage capacities, those of reservoirs or landfills for instance. Consideration of sub-level storage activities is less understood, but is relevant is helping to explain the mediation of responsibility and resource pressures across the utility map.


In the case of waste, storage at the level of households is as old as waste management itself. Waste separation along the chain of storage, collection and treatment has recently put householders into the role of domestic waste managers dealing with several storage devices and collection schemes. Kitchens, sculleries and garages have been turned into important localities of waste management, particularly since the introduction of recycling schemes, and the provision of multiple bins and boxes for paper, organics, glass, batteries, textiles, chemicals, batteries and so forth. At Sutton Borough Council in the UK we heard how the management of sub-level stores and ceilings for recyclable waste was negotiated between tenants and the waste collection organisation. Once negotiations over the sizing, positioning and contents of new recycling bins had taken place and sub-level storage capactities agreed, the aim was to stabilise the system from a consumer point of view. Households continue to separate and put recyclables out for collection in the blue bins provided. Regardless of the uncertainties of the local newspaper market, the storage bins on the doorstep are regularly collected. In this example, we see how the efforts of the council to absorb paper market uncertainties themselves, means that changing resouce ceilings and system capacities are largely hidden from consumers. Instead the utility provider takes responsibility for finding alternative stores for newspapers at transfer stations or materials recovery facilities, whenever paper demand from manufacturers is low. In other words, the utility endeavours to ‘protect’ customers from having to adapt to the changing ceilings of waste.


Since households have been connected to water works, there has been little need for any large-scale water storage near the home, although many sub-stores such as tanks, sinks and cisterns do exist within domestic infrastructures. More recently, resource problems such as the depletion of existing water reservoirs and desiccation of natural areas, have also resulted in the revival of some new and revamped storage devices and techniques - rainwater butts (now promoted as an environmental innovation) and more sophisticated rain water collection systems are now being used for toilet flushing and rinsing in washing machines. In new build neighbourhoods in the Netherlands, the trend is to store rainwater in the area itself rather than leading it away through the sewer system. As a consequence, residents now have to maintain small drains in their gardens and should clean their car elsewhere, as its waste water would pollute the rainwater infiltration system. In the UK other sub-level water stores are re-drawing the map of utility responsibilities. New tanks are for example being provided to separate and contain recycled water in a range of sustainable building and pilot schemes. In one scheme, run by the UK Environment Agency, greywater systems have been trialled in ten homes. These systems involve new types of water storage and require closer attention from users who need to treat and maintain the quantity and quality of water contained therein, so that it is available and acceptable for toilet flushing or other designated uses.


A good example of how sub-level stores are critical in the utility management of changing resource ceilings comes from the UK electricity industry. At one company we heard how the main resource pressures were the expense of new power stations, the significant problem of installing submarine cables to remote island communities, and the pressure from regulators for energy efficiency. The company was restricted not by the physical impossibility of finding new supply capacity, but by political, economic and institutional pressure. While managers have the ‘back-up’ option of new supply investment they are also interested in sub-level storage strategies. Moving through the company’s supply chains through sub-stations to domestic infrastructures, we find storage heating technologies. These devices store the heat generated by electricity sold at a cheaper nightime rate and release it during the day. Typical of a range DSM approaches, these load management strategies effectively shift responsibility for resource ceiling maintainence from the energy company towards household consumers. As such night storage heaters provide some of the best examples of how new ceilings are negotiated between providers and consumers. In a number of cases ceiling setting by utilities to meet peak load cutting objectives operates alongside consumers practices related to expectations of comfort and the timing of warmth (e.g. consumers resetting systems to reflect their own ideal temperatures etc.).


At a number of sub-levels we see how the processes of storage structure relationships between consumers and providers. These stories are shot through with histories of investment in networks and of privatisation, environmentalism and commercialisation. Inspection of the sub-level stores reveals something of what electricity, waste and water mean and how ceilings, users and providers are positioned and constituted through the social relations involved and implicated in the development of both macro and micro infrastructures of storage.


Example 3 - The Co-Provision of Efficiency in Utility Infrastructures


The co-provision of efficiency is a good example of how new utility management logics present a challenge to the reliability and security of energy, water and waste networks. In the conventional mass production of utilities it is assumed that flows are strongly robust in the sense that supply is guaranteed, safe and uninterrupted. In such a public-service scenario we could imagine that consumers do not need to think about demand or resource problems because supply is more or less guaranteed. With the introduction of efficiency devices and DSM, there is a possibility that flows of security, reliability, comfort and overall robustness may be configured differently to reflect new relationships between providers and consumers.


The introduction of cistern devices is a particularly revealing example of how efficiency technologies reflect a water industry in transition. Described by managers as a ‘quick-fix’, ‘hippos’ - devices that reduce cistern volumes to help produce smaller flushes - and their counterparts (soggy doggys and save-a-flush) devices were being introduced by most of the UK water companies we interviewed. These devices are sent out to consumers along with instructions on how to fit them into their cisterns. The successful use of the hippo relies on the maintenance of flushing routines. The utility logic in introducing hippos is that it provides a ‘fit and forget’ technology for consumers and enables providers to be shown to be actively promoting water efficiency right across their regions, or as one water manager more cynically noted, to ‘pay lipservice’ to regulators recommendations. In the Netherlands and Sweden, such devices tend to be regarded as an end-of-pipe solution which represents a less thoughtful approach to water management. In both these countries attention is focused instead on making the cistern itself more efficient by designing it with a smaller capacity in the first place. This requires a different sort of investment by households and a whole range of providers. Such an approach is backed up by stronger regulatory signals than in the UK were large capacity toilet cisterns are still the norm. Although installing ‘fit-and-forget’ technologies is a popular tool to increase the efficiency of resource consumption, it is not a panacea in terms of resource conservation. For instance, the diffusion of low energy light-bulbs in the Netherlands may be called successful, with every household having at least one, yet the number of lights has also increased dramatically. Low-energy light bulbs have made garden lighting, safety lighting as well as inattentive behaviour affordable. The success of such devices in delivering the right sized flows relies on the correct water flushing and energy consumption regimes of households as well as the delivery of these devices by utilities.


Attempts to produce more efficient flows are not simply about control in a physical sense of restricting or enabling electrons or molecules to move. They are also about social control, as new comfort or convenience levels are mediated and stretched around valves, taps, lights and pipes, with their associated efficiency gadgets and devices.


Example 4 - Monitoring Flows between Consumers and Providers


Monitoring is a process of tracking the virtual and physical flows between resources, providers and consumers. The introduction of monitoring procedures such as metering in utility sectors is mainly motivated by either or both of the following (utility) logics. The first one is that individual monitoring should be the basis for payment systems and should replace regimes based on taxes, mutual solidarity and public provision with unrestricted access. The second is that monitoring leads to consumer knowledge, which in turn leads to more environmentally sound behaviour. Apart from being too simplistic we think these arguments disguise the fact that monitoring produces specific kinds of along the supply chain. Monitoring could perhaps be better viewed as a process which enables or impedes particular configurations of knowledge (coded in terms of the messages particular organisations want to convey) from flowing around wires and pipes both inside and outside the home. The following examples illustrate this point.


A project of the Amsterdam Water Company to install water meters was motivated by the two rationales as given above (interview GWL, 1999). It was the apparent wish of many Amsterdam residents to be charged individually for their water consumption. Metering was seen as a way to reward consumers for water saving behaviour or installing water saving devices. But apart from offering consumers more of a grip on their water consumption, the metering project will have the effect that drinking water supply in Amsterdam will no longer be a public service with almost unrestricted access for anonymous users. It will become an individualised supply of cubic litres of drinking water from a known provider to a known consumer, giving the water company for the first time the right and opportunity to disconnect defaulters. Metering does not just provide knowledge about flows of resources, it also produces valuable knowledge about consumer behaviour. Illustrative in this respect is that along with the metering project, the Amsterdam Water Company is considering a merger with the energy company in the region as a way of gaining access to its valuable client database, marketing department and customer service desk. Prior to this the company has never needed such intelligence.


The other conventional monitoring logic – providing knowledge to consumers to motivate conserving behaviour – should also be put in perspective. The number of cubic litres a water meter reveals does not necessarily tell consumers very much. Water consumption in households is captured in several different household practices such as washing, cleaning, cooking, or gardening. The meter does not provide any specific knowledge about these practices. If the rationale behind installing water meters is to provide consumers with knowledge about their water consumption, with the explicit goal of achieving water saving behaviour, then there may be more appropriate ways of doing this.


Although our research revealed some cases in which energy or water knowledges were being provided in more consumer-oriented ways (the Swedish Kronometern for example displays electricity use in not only unit of Crowns per hour, but also as accumulated household costs), it is still hard to find cases of monitoring that provide consumers with the knowledge required to take specific action. The kinds of information produced by all sorts of metering (from basic mechanical meters to on-line metering and prepayment meters) are especially useful for providers to enhance their knowledge about consumers, to trace hot spots and cold spots on networks, to send out individual bills or to disconnect defaulters. Monitoring could be more useful for consumer empowerment, but this requires the creative reconfiguration of specific knowledges which serve particular consumer needs. For instance, consumers who want to ‘green’ their lifestyles might wish to know what kinds of resources are used for producing the electricity they get delivered, what the destination of their waste is after disposal and how much water they use per day, per shower or per person. In sum, monitoring is not just metering nor does it just produce knowledge equally accessible for both consumers and providers. The kinds of knowledge produced and its accessibility and relevance to everyday life determine whose interests are served by monitoring processes and what kinds of action might follow from these.


Example 5 - Fragmenting Providers and Differentiation


The liberalisation of former utility markets enables new providers to enter the network and compete with the utility companies for clients who were previously treated as captive consumers. This process is going on in all three sectors, but most obviously in the electricity sector. The free trade of electricity is easier than that of water as electrons are more uniform and easier to transport than drinking water. Waste collection and treatment has also been liberalised and is partly manged by private companies. As a consequence of these changes we see a multiplication and splintering of providers in utility systems of provision. Connected to these changing provision processes, perspectives of the roles and importance of consumers are also rapidly shifting. For instance, one Dutch water manager saw a new situation in which clients could choose whether the company fulfilled their needs, rather than the company being in the position of vetting them.


The electricity sector serves as an example of how uniform public utility sectors have become fragmented after the gradual liberalisation of electricity markets. Network management, electricity production and distribution have been uncoupled and privatised. Distribution companies are now competing for large clients and for household consumers. As the basic product (electricity) is the same for all companies, competition is done through differentiation of all services that are associated with electricity supply. Interesting for our purposes are the attempts to differentiate the sources of electricity provision. Although electrons are always the same, energy companies have succeeded in selling different kinds of electricity to different clients. Green electricity schemes are the result of product differentiation to meet the wishes of that small segment of clients prepared to pay an extra fee for electricity produced from renewable resources, such as wind, sun, hydropower or bio-mass. Since small non-utility providers increasingly have access to national or regional grids, there has been a differentiation of ‘greenness’ in electricity supply. Providers range from small windmill co-operatives delivering as much electricity to the grid as their members can consume to intermediate organisations, such as Samenwerkende Groene Energie Producenten (SGEP) in the Netherlands - a collaboration of green energy producers which produce or buy green electricity from large and small generators and supply it to clients all over the country. Such organisations do not neccesarily have any direct involvement in the maintainence of grids, windmills or power plants but act more as trading bodies, requiring only an office for administration. Many of these companies compete with conventional energy companies by claiming that they provide purely green electrons, and even offer consumers the choice between different shades of green - wind, solar or other. By contrast conventional energy companies offer a mix of green along with the more conventional brown, and may have different ways of interpreting what is a ‘green’ form of generation - using for instance the (disputed) generation by bio-mass.


Whatever sort of provider, resource or users we are dealing with, there is no doubt that fragmentation and differentiation are important features of contemporary systems of utility provision. These new processes of fragmention will lead to the creation of multiple identities linked to utility services as well as new possibilities for consumers to choose between ‘grey, green, and greenest’ services, although what flows into the home may behave in exactly the same way. Such differentiation is even more striking as utility sectors could, until recently, be distinguished from other systems of provision by their uniformity of service provision with few choices available for ‘captive’ consumers.


5. Reconceptualising Systems of Provision


These stories of co-provision show us how utilities and consumers are becoming linked in many new ways and that consumers have an active role in utility service provision. Consumers have been more involved than conventional approaches assumed. The liberalisation of utility markets and the coming of new providers will in one way or another require consumers to take on yet more roles. Formerly separated processes such as generation, distribution and consumption will become intertwined as consumers act as co-producers or co-distributors on the same technical networks.


Furthermore, the stories remind us that utility management is about mediation of scales, stores and ceilings. This is critical in understanding both moves to decentralised and new centralised systems of utility provision. Both of these developments are possible in current conditions and will increasingly add to the diversity of service provision.


In many of our examples, it appeared that focussing on the standards of comfort, convenience and cleanliness householders wish to maintain is more fruitful than only studying changes in utility set loads and peaks of water, electricity or waste. It also means that there is room for creativity and differentiation in devising new service tuned into consumers everyday lives and which may promote more successful resource-saving strategies.


Our new conceptualisation of co- provision also has consequences for our view of the role of policy making at both national as well as European level. Although liberalisation is often (undeservedly) associated with deregulation, in the case of utility markets this is particularly inappropriate, as new structures of network management, production and distribution require even more sophisticated management and regulators efforts to guarantee access for all parties and to protect consumers. The role of national policy will therefore not decrease in importance but will shift from utility regulation to arbitration of all providers on the network. Furthermore, neither national, nor EU, policy making seems to have recognised the importance of consumers as co-providers of utility services. Consumer oriented policies mainly emphasise the protection of consumers from providers, but do not offer many tools to help consumers in taking up their roles as competent co-providers of water and energy provision or waste services. In practice many consumers and other co-providers encounter difficulties and delays in applying innovations, which can be traced back to regulation that is only framed for - now outdated - public utility provision.


National policy has a significant role to play in regulating the abundance of experiments which have emerged as different groups try to work out the shape of the utility systems of the future. As a starting point in understanding these utility system dynamics, we have shown how the missing dimensions of the utility systems need to be bought back into the decision-making frame. Understanding co-provision processes is one way in which we can anticipate the sorts of regulation and management approaches needed in this rapidly transforming world.


We began this paper by stating that conventional approaches towards utility system managment, such as DSM, fall short when it comes to understanding the relations between consumers and all other actors in the supply chain. By mingling ideas on systems of provision and utility management approaches, and mixing in cases of environmental innovation, we have shed new light on the intricate relationships and dynamics of utility provision. With such a scheme we think we are better equipped to analyse the divergent processes of environmental change in the European water, waste and energy sectors, and to assess new roles emerging for a range of actors within these systems, including household consumers.



The Domus project is funded by the European Union’s Directorate General for Science, Research and Development (DGXII). Much of the reference material for this paper comes from interviews undertaken for this project details of which can be found in our full case reports to be published later this year.


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