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Beyond technology: Why the energy transition needs social science

By Jennie C. Stephens

Editor’s note: Jennie C. Stephens is a professor of sustainability science and policy at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the School of Engineering. The following guest blog is based on a presentation she gave at a two-day workshop on electricity in rural and islanded communities, sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the views of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) or its board of directors.

The energy transition currently underway in this country and around the world involves two different, but interrelated forces — technological change and social change. The focus thus far has prioritized the technological side, but I believe that we are not paying enough attention to the social, behavioral, institutional and cultural changes that are also fundamental to the transition.

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Jennie C. Stephens

Take the smart grid for example. The term is not well defined, and different stakeholders have different visions of what it is and the degree of social versus technological change involved in its development. Are we only changing technology — installing advanced meters and other digital technology and communications systems — so we don’t have to change anything socially? Or are we thinking about substantial changes in electricity consumption patterns and our assumptions about how we use energy? What about the institutional and cultural trends that are emerging as a result of new technologies such as rooftop solar and advanced meters?

With this inevitable energy transition, are we dealing with evolution or revolution, incremental change or something much deeper and more far-reaching? Social science research could add much to this discussion.

Although rural and remote, islanded communities and the utilities that serve them may be perceived as geographically on the margins of the transition, they are in many ways central to it. These utilities, often electric cooperatives, may be more resourceful and open to change and innovation, for a variety of reasons; and they have the potential to be more actively engaged with their communities.

If social science and cultural considerations were included in our views of the energy transition, the concerns and potential of rural and islanded communities would be better integrated into policy, and their experiences could serve as models for others. The result could be a more textured and heterogeneous view of the transition.

Shifting how we think about energy

A quick disclaimer here. I am an interdisciplinary academic, which means I have engineering training but now focus on social science research. It also means I have the privilege and luxury of thinking big picture, long term and idealistically. The perspectives I offer are based on mixed-method social science research — including analysis of media, policies and documents — trying to understand a wide variety of perspectives on energy system change.

The team I work with also conducted focus groups with a broad range of stakeholders in seven states, aimed at teasing out the different factors, priorities and perspectives influencing energy system change.

What this research shows is that our current energy transition represents a real shift in how we think about the basics of energy — how our power is generated and how we use it. It is a shift from the competitive framework of limited fossil fuels to a conception of renewable energy as abundant and perpetual.

We have been in a system assuming reliability and affordability were what we care about the most, but now we also have to think about efficiency, resilience, security and sustainability, Tensions are emerging among these multiple factors and the diversity of priorities and stakeholders involved. We tend to focus a lot on utilities — they obviously have a lot of influence — but things going on with other key actors also have a big influence on the process of change.

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Figure 1: Many factors influence renewable energy technology deployment and system transition. (Graphic courtesy of Jennie C. Stephens)

The transition also includes a shift from centralized to decentralized systems, with more local, distributed generation and opportunities for broader civic engagement in the process of change itself.  We tend to focus on technical and economic feasibility because they are often key factors in policy development. But we also have environmental considerations, regulatory and legal constraints and the political dimensions of who is advancing which technologies and why.

Then we have this huge cultural dimension of how individuals, households and communities relate to different energy technologies — which adds further complexity and heterogeneity to the picture.

For example, the smart grid and all its related technologies are generating enormous amounts of data, which has created still another challenge. How can we manage and harness this information to improve energy decision-making of all kinds? In particular, data from rural and smaller-scale utilities are often not integrated into macro-level analysis. Energy consumption information is surprisingly difficult for government, energy efficiency service providers and researchers to obtain and evaluate – which is a major impediment to better energy management.

No smooth transitions

Perhaps most important, we must acknowledge that the process of transition is necessarily disruptive and nonlinear. We don’t know exactly how the transition to energy systems based more on renewables is going to happen. It’s happening differently in different places, but it includes social changes in demand and consumption, as well as technological changes in renewable energy supply.

Expecting a smooth transition is not realistic; there will be winners and losers. We should be ready for disruptions even as we craft policies aimed at minimizing the impacts such upheavals may cause.

Change is occurring fast; and we need to adjust a lot of our assumptions about the energy system and adapt to a more dynamic landscape. Many energy experts have consistently underestimated renewable energy adoption and penetration, which means we are missing key trends and opportunities for understanding what’s really going on.

We need policies to promote investment in analysis of energy consumption data and ensure better access to this information. We are increasingly hearing suggestions that this data should be centralized and standardized in some way, which has in turn raised data aggregation, access and security issues.

Education is another aspect of the energy transition that offers huge opportunities, particularly at universities.  We have students coming to universities, saying, “I want to get into the energy field,” but they don’t know what their major should be — engineering, economics, policy or government? Universities, many of which now have few classes focused on energy, need to develop curricula and majors for these students, who will be our future energy workforce.

University extension programs also offer the potential to expand awareness and engagement on energy issues between universities and local communities.

When we broaden energy education beyond engineering – explicitly including social and cultural perspectives on the energy transition — we can also contribute to recruiting a more diverse set of students, including women and underrepresented minorities. A gender imbalance in the energy sector workforce is widely apparent, although it is not well studied or documented.

We may not know how big the gender gap is in the energy sector, but research demonstrates that diversity strengthens organizations, communities and sectors, and encourages innovation. So initiatives to increase diversity in energy have huge potential to advance social as well as technological change.

So we need to embrace and explore social, cultural and institutional change as well as technological change. If we don’t, our rapidly changing energy landscape may not make sense or work well. Conventional rules, assumptions and interdisciplinary analysis need to be adjusted; social and behavioral science perspectives need to be integrated.

When we pay more attention to the social aspects of the renewable energy transition, we open ourselves up to the optimistic possibility of distributing power – not only electric power – but other kinds of power, too. The energy transition offers hope toward giving individuals, households and communities more control and involvement, the kind of “energy democracy” that can only strengthen our democratic society.