For a successful transition to a sustainable energy system, there must be comprehensive research on, first, technology and, second, the behaviour and circumstances of society’s electricity users. Cajsa Bartusch and John Östh, researchers in industrial technology and cultural geography at Uppsala University, give their views on the matter.
The transition to a fossil-free energy system and associated electrification has caused electrical capacity shortages in many local networks. This threatens community development in several metropolitan areas, including Uppsala, Cajsa Bartusch thinks. With her colleagues in the Uppsala Smart Energy Research (USER) research group, she is investigating various user perspectives on the energy-system transition.
“It’s not the amount of electricity we use that’s most problematic, but the peaks created when many people use lots of power simultaneously. One solution, ‘demand flexibility’, means that consumers reduce their usage during peak hours, when the power networks are congested, or store self-generated electricity at times of high capacity so as to use it later, when it’s low,” Bartusch says.
For an understanding of electricity users’ ways of relating to the electrical power system, taking numerous factors into account is essential. Bartusch thinks an integrated approach — one including interaction among individuals, their social environment and the technical features of the smart electrical network — is necessary.
Need to involve people
John Östh, Professor of Human Geography at Uppsala University, has an approach that includes the significance of geography and various mechanisms. He perceives an underlying dissatisfaction associated with where people live and whether they feel favoured or disadvantaged. In considering the energy transition, it is important not to create an “us and them” relationship or get fixated on averages and statistics. Östh thinks getting people involved is crucial and the energy transition is not feasible otherwise.
“What factors enable people to make environmentally better choices? How can consumers see the benefits of changing their energy-use behaviour? To answer these questions, we need to know how different groups in society view these matters. We can create an ultra-efficient energy transition system, but if people aren’t willing to join it we won’t have gained anything,” Östh continues.
“The issue is only half about the actual transition. The rest, or perhaps most, of it is actually about the users and their attitudes.”
Consumers central to future energy system
Bartusch agrees that the role of users (here, electricity consumers) is decisive. Technology is developing fast but its implementation, she thinks, depends entirely on them.
“The energy system has long been dominated by big, well-established companies and characterised by centralised, high-tech production. The transition to an energy-efficient, low-fossil and climate-smart economy needs a more decentralised, open system involving the whole of society. In tomorrow’s energy system, users must be central,” she says.
Thus, the potential for changing behavioural patterns lies not only with individuals. Unless their behavioural changes are followed by modification of culturally shared norms and values, and supported by technology, instruments, regulations and infrastructures, individuals will soon return to their “old” behaviour.
How can you benefit from other researchers’ knowledge of the energy transition issue?
John: “By shaking hands, so to speak, with various groups with differing points of view. In our reasoning and discussions, there’s often a long series of lightbulb moments. Cajsa and I have done a lot of work on joint applications. I’d say she’s the bridge between engineering sciences and human behaviour, while I can bring to the table complex bits of knowledge about geography and human movement patterns. We’re also members of Uppsala University Sustainability Initiatives (UUSI) — a platform that, through boundary-crossing collaborations, aims to strengthen the University’s research on sustainability issues.”
Cajsa: “We’ve recently received substantial research grants for projects with clear user perspectives. We see that as confirming both the need for social and interdisciplinary research in the area of smart grids and the will, in the transition to a sustainable energy system, to promote interdisciplinarity and cooperation with the local community .”
In the future, what questions do you want to see raised in this field?
Cajsa: “In recent years, we’ve experienced ever greater climate anxiety, but it hasn’t tended to affect our electricity use to any great extent. Why is this? We want to crack that code. Electricity users are both motivated and able to help bring about a rapid transition to a sustainable energy system. But what do we need to do to make the required energy-related behavioural changes come as naturally as sorting at source?”
John: “I’m a geographer, so I like to see how things vary in spatial terms and measure geographical variation. Where will it be easier or harder to implement change? Can we, perhaps, reach a broad public and achieve an energy transition more easily if we get through to a specific group or go for one particular kind of transition, rather than another?”