Led by: Prof Nick Pidgeon and Prof Karen Henwood
Photographer: Merryn Thomas
Future energy system change in Wales and the UK will bring with it a range of critical ‘socio-technical’ challenges concerning the interactions between innovative technical developments, the individuals, groups and communities who engage with them, and the business models and governance systems that underpin our energy provision and use. The current UK situation is complex and is demonstrably failing to deliver the required pace of infrastructure investment, and the community and individual commitment to respond to the energy trilemma. Increasing devolution of powers currently fragments the national planning and regulatory process; energy market liberalisation has brought new investment but weakened the role of national government in providing strategic direction and capital investment; local and national opposition to infrastructure and energy proposals is growing; ‘behaviour change’ initiatives often promise too little in relation to the scale of the energy trilemma challenges.
All of this should be seen against a growing public distrust of both government and the private sector to act responsibly in the face of uncertainty and risk. The public will continue to engage with how energy system change unfolds over time. There is thus a need for social science research on the social significance of energy systems to keep pace with change. It must promote understanding of the everyday and wider socio-cultural dynamics that surround such changes, and to do so it must develop appropriate methods. A strong portfolio of useful methodological approaches exists already (including qualitative longitudinal, narrative, multimodal, psychosocial), and are being developed further to make intangible problems (such as the hidden dynamics limiting practical change in energy use) more tractable. Another proposed solution to some of these difficulties, which mirrors steps taken in relation to emerging and potentially disruptive technologies such as nanotechnology and geoengineering, is to make flexible integrated energy system proposals more responsive to societal concerns by embedding their development within a Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) framework.
Technical and economic analyses of energy system changes often incorporate implicit assumptions about how people and communities will respond to such changes. We also know from decades of research that the projections of modelled scenarios and technical analyses often do not correspond with how the future turns out. This is usually because assumptions within technical models made about the ‘people component’ have proven either partly or wholly unrealistic. This work stream will involve expert interviews with some of those leading the technical work across FLEXIS; engineers, project managers, local council employees, and industry representatives, to discuss their visions of energy futures and the technical changes that this will involve.
The introduction of integrated, flexible energy networks will have significant (and currently largely unexplored) consequences for people’s everyday lives. This work-stream will use qualitative longitudinal interviews (where the same participants are revisited at different points in time) and visual methods to track continuities and changes in participants’ lived experiences. These in-depth interviews allow researchers to examine how emerging and prospective changes to energy systems have implications not only for how energy is used in everyday life, but also for issues relating to identities and people’s relationships with each other. Analysis will investigate how technical change may generate new vulnerabilities and dependencies (but also may encourage new skills and competencies) at household and local community levels. The extended longitudinal case study approach will also allow us to consider how social elements complicate efforts to plan for large-scale technical change.
If integrated energy systems are to be successfully developed in Wales, a range of novel infrastructure developments, such as new locally-based energy storage facilities, will need to be first sited and then built. Perceived threats to local ‘community’ and ‘place’, distrust of government and developers, and concerns about the fairness of siting processes all come squarely to the fore in public acceptance and risk perceptions where siting controversies arise. Among the impacts on communities are safety risks, but also value concerns over e.g. spoiled landscapes, freedom from outside interference in local affairs, threats to existing community cohesion and identities, impacts on local jobs and so on. Using key demonstrator sites in Wales, this work-stream will use focus group discussions to examine the potential for place-related concerns and sources of significant controversy to arise in relation to the siting of novel integrated energy system components. As with WP2 a key focus will be the extent to which policy and decision logics for system innovations can be shaped in ways that are responsive to societal and community concerns.
The FLEXIS social science work package is working alongside technical colleagues who are interested in ‘responsible innovation’ (that is, building responsiveness to wider societal concerns into innovation processes) as a model of technological development. There’s a significant amount of evidence in social science research to show that the quality of innovation is improved with the aid of public and other stakeholder deliberation, leading to technologies which are more likely to be seen as socially acceptable because they are more responsive to public concerns and aspirations. We will be undertaking research in and around demonstrator sites with the public and community groups in ways that draws upon and develops our track record in methodological work that is capable of promoting interpretive practice and generating insights. It will involve setting up deliberative and participatory activities, sometimes working collaboratively with specialist conceptual arts practitioners to produce research exhibits, and by deploying diverse, multimodal and creative approaches to knowledge representation, sharing and synthesis. Along with our three research activity streams (S1-3), this will enable us to advance understanding of the ways individuals, families, communities, local organisations and diverse social actors engage with, and make sense of, the complexities of future integrated energy system changes.