Measuring vulnerability for distribution network operators

Helping DNOs to understand and support their vulnerable customers

Project duration: September 2016 to May 2017

In 2012 we researched the different demographics of Western Power Distribution's (WPD) customer base and how they use energy in a project called Who's On Our Wires. In 2016-17, we updated this database and provided a similar service to other distribution network operators (DNOs) to help them understand what they can do to support vulnerable customers in their distribution area and prevent fuel poverty.

Our original project for WPD - Who's On Our Wires

WPD distribute electricity to 7.8 million customers across a 55,300 km2 service area which covers the Midlands, South Wales and the South West. In 2012 we created a database for WPD which combined data from our Housing Assessment Model with Experian Mosaic data (socio-demographic and economic data) that predicted future changes to electricity use and which substations these would affect.

The database also showed WPD how many of its customers were registered on the Priority Services Register (PSR) in relation to average uptake, and the location of customers who might be at risk in a power cut, (e.g. because they are ill, elderly, disabled or dependent on electricity for medical equipment) or who may be struggling to keep their home warm.

The research resulted in a number of targeted services to support these households including the Power Up Advice Hubs, a free energy advice service run in partnership with CSE, Citizens Advice and the Energy Saving Trust and the Affordable Warmth Local Action Fund (administered by CSE), which distributes grants to groups supporting vulnerable households to reduce their energy costs.

Understanding vulnerability

Vulnerable customers are defined by Ofgem as those who are significantly less able to represent their interests in the energy market, or those who are significantly more likely to suffer detriment than the average energy consumer. In practice, 'vulnerability' manifests itself in many ways and those who are identified as 'vulnerable' may be experiencing multiple and overlapping difficulties associated with health, disability, age, financial capability or other issues. Since 2012 Ofgem has developed its understanding of the social obligations of DNOs like WPD and it now places clear obligations on them to deliver a range of services aimed at helping vulnerable customers.

An important part of the ability to support these customers is having a clear understanding of the issues and situations that affect vulnerable people. For example, numbers of people registered on the PSR is not, in itself, sufficient to understand how customers are affected by power cuts. Therefore, databases such as the one we created for WPD help to give DNOs a more accurate understanding of how changing situations create different sorts of vulnerability (and what they can do to deal with these).

This is an example of how the data mapping works. This one shows publicly available data on income levels in an easily accessible visual format.

Our latest work

In 2016 we were commissioned by WPD to update our original analysis in relation to a number of changes including incorporating new data and an improved understanding of how different circumstances can cause people to be vulnerable. Since 2012 cuts to benefits and public services have had wide-ranging impacts on vulnerable households, and the updated dataset will assist WPD in supporting people that have been negatively affected by these changes.

We have also carried out this type of vulnerability mapping for Scottish Power Energy Networks (SPEN), and Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) and have produced a web app for SSEN that allows staff to utilise the data in different ways.

These DNOs will be able to use this data in order to:

  • Understand locations of particular types of vulnerable situations across their network and how people are affected by these situations.
  • Ensure those areas identified as most vulnerable are prioritised.
  • Locate gaps in PSR coverage and plan where to focus recruitment initiatives.
  • Assess how resilient different areas are (in relation to power outages, storms, floods and power cuts).

CC image courtesy of Andrew Coombes via Flickr.

For further information contact:

Dr Toby Bridgeman | 0117 934 1435

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