Airborne wind energy is an emerging renewable energy technology that harvests higher-altitude winds (300–600 m above the ground) with automatically controlled kites. Like other renewables, airborne wind energy will impact people and nature. These impacts will shape the social acceptance of the technology and influence its large-scale deployment.
If the industry ignores people’s concerns about the technology and the public starts showing resistance to airborne wind energy, it could increase implementation costs, decrease political support for airborne wind energy, and minimize the industry’s contribution to meeting renewable energy targets. Other low-carbon energy projects, such as wind turbines, carbon capture and storage facilities, and biomass power plants, have been slowed down and even hindered in the past due to strong negative responses from the public. Therefore, it is important to understand how people perceive and respond to this new technology. In my PhD, I am investigating the social acceptance of airborne wind energy.
Before conducting empirical studies, I first wanted to get an overview of what is currently known about the acceptance of airborne wind energy, so I did a systematic review of the existing literature. Of the 362 records that I identified, only 40 peer-reviewed publications turned out to be relevant. These publications discussed five major impacts of the technology on social acceptance: safety and related aspects, visibility, sound emissions, ecological impact, and the siting of airborne wind energy systems.
Most publications were authored by engineers (83% of authors), and none of the papers were written from a social science perspective. In total, 34 out of the 40 publications had mainly a technical and/or economic focus and mentioned the social acceptance of airborne wind energy only in passing. As a result, the literature’s claims about how the technology will influence people’s responses were only based on authors’ assumptions and not on scientific evidence, such as interviews, surveys, or experiments. I could not identify a single study that empirically assessed the social acceptance of airborne wind energy.
Furthermore, the review demonstrated that most researchers in the field seem to be quite optimistic about how the emerging technology will be perceived, especially given the current lack of empirical evidence. Specifically, the reviewed literature assumed that the expected low visual impact of airborne wind energy due to its high operational altitude, the absence of a tower, little shadow flicker, and the possibility of retrieving the kite in low wind conditions would influence the social acceptance of airborne wind energy positively. The expected low acoustic and ecological impacts were also assumed to impact people’s responses to the technology positively. The only anticipated acceptance issues were certain siting decisions (e.g., onshore rather than offshore developments, sites in densely populated regions) and potential public safety concerns about the technology (e.g., regarding aviation safety, currently lacking regulation and proof of reliability).
It can be concluded that currently the literature overlooks that the impact of technical aspects such as noise emissions on people’s responses to airborne wind energy will partially depend on the deployment context and people’s personal attributes. For example, locals’ evaluation of the decision-making process and distribution of benefits as (un)fair, their trust in the project planners, and their attitude towards the energy transition overall will likely influence how they experience and evaluate a local airborne wind energy development.
Thus, the findings from the literature review suggest that there is a need for empirical social science research on the acceptance of airborne wind energy, such as through surveys, interviews, focus groups, and lab or field experiments. My PhD project can, therefore, add new and relevant knowledge about the topic at hand.
I do have an interdisciplinary background and I enjoy an interdisciplinary setting. At times this means that I am embarking on a new research journey, and I virtually have to start from zero. This can be quite tedious, but on the other hand, it is also rewarding.
When I started working at The TPM Energy Transition Lab I had no background in behavioral science. Yet my task is to connect human behavior with the energy transition. Human behavior is a vast research topic and after spending some time exploring this topic, I know that I still have only scratched the surface. Others spend years studying this field. Thus, by no means am I suggesting that I have become an expert. Though, that is never my goal.
I am a sustainability scientist. Sustainability is a broad field and thus, sustainability scientists need to be able to understand many different topics, and understand how those connect to other topics relevant to sustainability. Thus, part of my profile is not only the ability to get acquainted with different scientific fields, but also to cooperate with scientists from different fields. Hence a sustainability scientist should embody interdisciplinary research.
Admittedly when I started exploring the connections between human behavior and the energy transition, I thought I would just build up my knowledge about behavioral science on the go. Though, this was not the case. More and more theories, concepts, approaches, and terms popped up and I was more and more struggling to make sense of them. After all, when I want to do applied research and choose a theory, I have to know why I made certain choices. The more I read, the more I knew that I would not be able to defend any choice, as I had no context. The lack of a foundation in behavioral science became apparent and a barrier to progressing in my research endeavors. I decided to overcome this barrier by writing up a working paper summarizing the main concepts, theories, approaches, and terms that I have come across since starting my postdoc journey at the TPM Energy Transition Lab.
The result is this somewhat short and long working paper. The little perfectionist inside of me thinks it is a short working paper as I could really just gloss over many relevant topics. When I was presenting parts of this working paper to the TPM Energy Transition Lab, I spent some minutes highlighting what this working paper is not covering. Thus, I need to emphasize this is not a complete compilation of behavioral (change) models. It is a starting point.
Often researchers get asked what the benefit of some research is. So why this working paper? Who is it useful for? From a rather selfish perspective, I have to state that this is the result of me trying to understand behavioral science. However, if I am in this position, someone else might be too. Therefore, I decided to not keep this as an internal document but to share it so that others can read it and use it as starting point. Accordingly, this working paper might not be insightful for someone with a degree in sociology or psychology. In fact, someone with a degree in sociology or psychology may find many blind spots in this working paper. Nevertheless, I still want to highlight that I am also summarizing some newer approaches and that I am cross-referencing quite a bit. Thus, even for those who have a degree in behavioral science, this document might be of some use.
I suggest for a working paper, this document is long. The interested reader may however not need to read the whole document. Those who are interested in models may focus on Chapters 2 and 3 that expand on behavioral and behavioral change models and approaches. Chapter 1 is of course a short introduction, also providing some cues for why we should even care about the behavioral perspective. Chapter 5 is the attempt to link some of the approaches that have been discussed in the previous two chapters. In this chapter, the reader will also rediscover the graphic that is featured on the cover page. Chapter 6 is called behavioral levers and attempts to summarize factors that support or hinder behavioral change. Thus, motivation, heuristics, as well as defense mechanisms, amongst others, are covered. Finally, Chapter 6 is the closing chapter. This chapter is not summarizing all the information that is provided within each chapter. Rather it summarizes the lessons learned and the insights that were gathered preparing this working paper. It is up to the reader to decide which parts of this working paper might be useful.
In the spirit of interdisciplinary research, I am hoping that researchers who aim at including behavioral science perspectives within their research find some usefulness in this working paper.
As the Energy Transition Lab (ETL) of the Technology Policy and Management Faculty at TU Delft grows, researchers working on energy topics are coming together. The ETL directives extend this effort across the PhD candidates in the TPM faculty. And we, the PhDs, could benefit from it.
Towards the end of 2021, twelve PhD candidates gathered for the first time to start building the Energy Transition Lab PhD group. What does bring us together? Initially, our research interests and focuses on the energy transition from diverse perspectives. For example, energy justice, values change, market designs and policy regulations, framing and social acceptance, public responses to renewables, energy communities, consumer acceptance, and imaginaries in governance. We all come from different engineering and social sciences backgrounds and do interdisciplinary research. There is a diverse level of expertise among the group members. We can find PhD candidates in their first, second, third, early fourth, and fourth year and from different cultural backgrounds. Another bond between us is the interest in building a support community. Especially during these pandemic times, doing a PhD can be even more isolating. Hopefully, this group will help make our journey smoother.
We are starting to formulate our views, goals, and interests in the group. Here are some of our ideas:
Overall, building a community to support each other throughout our PhD journeys
We are planning on having regular meetings to share our research topics between the group
Events to share research findings with stakeholders
Pushing forward our ideas with the support from the TMP ETL
I am truly excited to be part of this group and look forward to building projects together.
At the recent COP26 in Glasgow, Kadri Simons, European Commissioner for energy, said the following:
When we talk about the energy transition, we are talking about radically changing our way of life – for the better […] This will be a transition of hearts and minds.
We can’t forget that some people, some communities, will face greater challenges than others.
If the only livelihood you or generations of your family have ever had is based on fossil fuels, then the transition could be a rather frightening prospect.
We believe that the just transition is a key issue of the climate fight: we must leave no one behind.
This is why the EU has made just transition a key pillar of the European Green Deal – our energy and climate strategy.
This speech illustrates that the question of justice is gaining prominence in the domain of energy policy. And it should be, because after all the goal of the energy transition is to make the world a better place to live in.
Also in academic research, the topic of energy justice is given more and more attention. Especially the tenet-based approach is popular. This approach provides a framework by which energy policies can be evaluated on: the way they distribute benefits and ills; the fairness by which decision-makers engage with the people who are affected by these policies are executed; and the remediation of the section of society that are ignored or underrepresented.
To engage with this emerging topic, the TPM Energy Transition Lab has set up a series of seminars in which the researchers from the faculty have shown their take on energy justice. The following themes have been addressed so far:
Reflections on the tenet-approach to energy justice
Energy justice in countries from the Global South
The role that modelling methods can play in normative issues
The inclusion of marginalised groups in the European transition policy
These themes most certainly deserve more extensive and in-depth investigation. Moreover, there are other themes that are still waiting to be explored, but what can be inferred at this moment is that our research reveals that the tenet-based approach works well as an evaluative framework for given policies, but it is also a framework that is very much static. This can be problematic given the fact that the energy transition is not so much the transformation of the economy, it is the transformation of the sociotechnical systems that underlie the economy. This implies that we are dealing with a situation that is fundamentally dynamic, and justice frameworks should account for these dynamics. We should consider justice for a world in flux. I think that at TPM, we are the designated group to take on this challenge, as I will explain below.
However, I will first introduce a number of deeply interrelated factors that are subjected to change in the energy transition that will have an impact on justice issues:
An obvious point is that technologies New energy systems will bring about new practices and routines. What these new practices and routines will exactly lead up to is highly uncertain, but they will surely have an impact on the distribution between ills and benefits. The changes in technology have an effect on many factors as well, as can be seen below.
The concepts with which we understand reality and measure progress change. For instance, think about the way that the energy transition is predominantly understood in terms of the decarbonisation of the economy. The speech of Kadri Simons already hints that this understanding has now come to include socio-economic issues as well. As the transition proceeds, we may expect more attention for material flows and the exhaustion of scarce metals. Other concepts that may change is our conception of climate change itself. Now the climate is seen is ‘nature’ that is being polluted by mankind, but for instance due to geo-engineering we may come to see the climate as a ‘manmade’ thing.
Values that we cherish today, may be replaced by values we do not have ‘discovered’ yet. Related to the energy transition, we now emphasise energy security, affordability and sustainability as key values. It was not that long ago that we did not know the value of sustainability was added. In fact, sustainability and ecological awareness are new values to start with, conquering nature by technical dominance has been a driving force to measure progress until at least the 1950s. Also energy security and affordability may change: black-outs may become obsolete or regularities; energy poverty a relic of the past, or accepted as a fact of life.
Not only values, but also the moral principles by which we asses justice may prove to be volatile. Currently most attention goes out to groups and communities who suffer from the energy transition in terms of recognition and well-being. Justice means that ‘everyone gets what’s due’, what that means however can be understood differently and will also be applied differently in different contexts.
Indeed, the people that are affected by the energy transition may change over time. In other words, those who are the winners and losers of the transition today, may not be the winners and losers in the longer run. In this respect it is interesting to see how fossil fuel companies increasingly picture themselves as the victims of the energy transition, while these are always seen as the epitaph of incumbency. For instance, Ben van Beurden, CEO of Shell, felt it was unfair to the company that the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the oil company has to reduce its carbon emissions by 45% in 2030.
This volatility of moral issues has to do with the fact that energy transition policies form wicked problems. These are problems about which there is no agreement on the problem definition and the solution. Such wicked problems are dealt with in society in moral terms. Policies are not right or wrong, they are good or bad. And as society is characterised by moral pluralism, there will always be section who become angry with any policy.
If the distributive and procedural effects of policies are perceived to be unjust or if groups of people feel ignored they will not accept these policies and projects. They will come to protest the legitimacy of the energy transition, creating delay or even the termination of the decarbonisation policies. However, these feelings of injustice emerge as a reaction to proposed policies, from these societal reactionsnew values and concerns emerge that need to be taken into account if one aspires a transition that accounts for all relevant values.
Related to this issue is that policies and projects are usually seen as discrete events that can be evaluated as isolated processes, while energy controversies are characterised by spill-overs – they are inspired by conflicts that have taken place elsewhere. For instance, the discussion about shale gas exploration in the Netherlands has been motivated by debates taking place in the US and in the UK. It cannot be predicted whether and which type spill-overs will take place, meaning that decision-makers cannot anticipate the way in which society will assess a certain energy policy.
A just energy transition is not a mere European matter. History has a long tail and the injustices caused by colonialism tend to persist. On the one hand, this is manifested in transition that take place within former colonies which are too often still characterised by failing institutions, socio-economic inequality and corruption. On the other hand, and this is not often realised, the renewable energy system reproduces colonial patterns of the fossil-based energy system. One may only think of the materials that are mined under bad labour conditions in the global South, while rich countries enjoy the clean energy at the other end of the supply chain.
This tentative list of justice-related issues that are in flux means that a static framework does not suffice. So, what is so special about TPM that it is precisely our faculty can contribute to our further command of energy justice? I think this is because we are not afraid to break down silos between different disciplines, but we are ready align the attention for values, governance and systems’ engineering. Just to mention some strengths, there is expertise on participatory methods, controversy research, dealing with empirical and normative uncertainties, value change, energy democracy, and institutional economics. Bringing these strengths together will allow TPM to develop a unique approach to energy justice in a world that is in flux – and make the world a bit better.
Beyond Oil 2021 has been the second conference I attended this year. I was happy that I could attend it online, as I had to travel to my home country for an emergency. This, clearly was another illustration of the advantages of online conferences. Though, I also admit I miss the feel of offline conferences. The conference had a hybrid format and I think this challenge was well handled. On two days researchers presented their work related to the much-needed transition towards a more sustainable society. The program was filled with case studies and conceptual work, the role of individuals, of institutions, of structures was addressed, power, justice and politics as well as innovations were themes of presented work. A great mix, that indicates the complex nature of the challenge humanity is facing.
I presented my ongoing research. Due to the format of the parallel sessions I had to squeeze content in an 8-minute presentation. Admittedly, I liked this format because it left much space for a long panel discussion. The slides of my presentation are below. As you can see, I had to keep it superficial. Nonetheless, I hope it gave an insight into what I am working on. The title of my contribution is a bit wordy: “Behavioral change for a socio-economic transition: linking system with individual behavior in complex systems.” However, I think it nicely summarizes my work. I am looking at a) how individual action or behavior connects with the system in which the individual is embedded and b) how behavior in conjunction with the embeddedness within the system can contribute to a transformation of our socio-economic system.
My presentation started with a quote from Greta Thunberg from one of her recent talks at the youth4climate summit. There she said: “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah,”. I started with this quote as I was hoping to catch people’s attention, but more importantly Greta nicely brought to a point a finding of my own research.
Greta’s statement fits to the findings of what composes what I call unfortunate resilience. While I believe that I am the creator of this term, I have not invented the idea of this concept. Within socio-ecological systems theory it is understood that some system may not change, although it would be good if it did change. Olsson, Galaz et al. (2014) write about this concept, stating that others have called it “rigidity trap” or “bad resilience”. The former already indicates that unfortunate resilience is tightly connected to lock-ins. It is the idea that a system can get locked-in in an undesirable state. It is undesirable because in the long run it is not possible to maintain equilibrium and thus instead of slow adaptations, such lock-ins will mount in a system collapse.
To grasp this point one may look at the interconnectedness of systems and subsystems presented in socio-ecological system theory. Walker, Holling et al. (2004) discuss and illustrate aspects of resilience. One of these aspects is called Panarchy which refers to the idea that the state of a system affects the state of all other connected systems. For example, the socio-economic system (lower system) is embedded in the ecological system (higher system). The lower system can create an imbalance on the higher level, which at some point in time will also lead to an imbalance of the lower system. Burning fossil fuels has created an imbalance in nature. Nature’s way of dealing with this is climate change. Climate change in turn affects humans. When the imbalance in the natural sphere has reached a certain magnitude, the systems humans have created and even the very existence of humans are threatened and will collapse at some point. The systems created by humans should adapt or transform based on the information that human actions cause an imbalance in nature.
Without getting too far on the topic of adaptations versus transformation, I want to note that whether an adaptation is sufficient depends on how much something needs to change. If you want to read more about the difference between adaptation and transformation, I am referring you to the work of Folke, Carpenter et al. (2010). Adaptations are rather small changes. The ability to adapt is part of what constitute someone’s or something’s resilience. A transformation is however a large-scale change. Think of the caterpillar and the butterfly (transformation) compared to finches having different beaks (adaptation) depending on the environment they live in.
The concept of unfortunate resilience is connected to the idea of maladaptation. Olsson, Galaz et al. (2014) summarize maladaptation to a system being high in resilience. So high that it reaches a threshold beyond which it is actually no longer able to adapt. Thus, it is a state of excess resilience. It is a point where resilience becomes rigidity. Resilience often has this notion of flexibility (Walker, Holling et al. 2004), though is seems like the state of unfortunate resilience is one in which the sustenance of a status quo creates a rigidity, a lock-in, that at one stage will culminate in collapse.
What constitutes unfortunate resilience, though? I am sure I have overlooked many factors contributing to the unfortunate resilience of the current socio-economic system. I suppose that there need to be many factors to create a strong unfortunate resilience. However, the factors I want to list are 1) buffers, 2) narratives and 3) psychological defense mechanisms.
As I have mentioned during my talk, one important factor that I do not mention is power. Power as a factor constituting unfortunate resilience needs much more attention than I could dedicate it so far in my current research endeavor. Though, I want to highlight that it is relevant to reflect about questions such as who creates narratives and thus supports psychological defense mechanisms? It needs to be acknowledged that the power to create and steer a discourse is key in shaping the track human society got locked in (Biely, Maes et al. 2018).
The buffers I included so far are of economic and technological nature. Buffers do not address the root cause of a problem and have the effect that they reduce the perceived urgency of a problem. For example, a flood insurance may reduce a house owner’s perceived urgency of doing something against climate change, when the damage a flood has created is covered by an insurance. Farmers in countries where governments support them in case of natural catastrophes destroying their harvest may feel less urgency than farmers who do not get such financial support. Another example that is more indirect, are carbon offsets. I may not perceive the urgent need to quit flying, if I can monetarily compensate for the emissions I have created. The thought having planted some trees somewhere in the world with one click may make it much easier to enjoy a flight with good conscious. Technological buffers are those that maintain or increase human’s wellbeing or comfort despite deteriorating environmental conditions. I come from a country where air conditions were not common. With summers getting hotter more and more people install air conditions. This allows people to better bare high temperatures in summer, but it also reduces the perceived urgency to do something about the root cause of the problem.
The second factor, narratives, refers to the blah, blah. In a sense they also reduce the perceived urgency to tackle the problem and they neither address the root cause of the problem. All the green growth, green economy, green, tech, sustainable growth, inclusive growth, net zero, negative emissions, build back better talk fits to the weak sustainability blah blah which is based on technology myopia and a trust in market mechanisms (Biely, Maes et al. 2018). It deserves a blog post on its own, but narratives are the reason why despite working on a technology University, I am not a fan of the socio-technical transition theory. I promise I will write about this soon.
Before I turn to psychological defense mechanisms, I want to expand a bit on the connectedness of factors. Factors that constitute unfortunate resilience do not stand alone but build a mesh that connects factors with each other on societal as well as on individual level. The narrative that green tech and thus the green economy will save us is backed up by people experiencing how technology buffers the negative effects of e.g. climate change. Technology seems to have an answer to all the problems and the narrative of green economy tells us that we will be able to afford these technologies and that by creating a green economy we do not have to give up anything. Narratives are told on a societal level. We want to create a green, inclusive economy. A narrative proliferated by policy makers, businesses, private as well as public international conglomerates and institutions. Individuals are not living in a vacuum but are interconnected with their environment. And thus, individuals affect and are affected by society.
Psychological defense mechanisms are the last factor I want to mention. I love to refer to the infographic made by Mathew Adams (Adams 2017) because it illustrates the complexity of the matter. It shows at a glance that we are fighting against many defense mechanisms when we want to change our own behavior. The infographic provides little examples which show that these are (at least partially) based on general narratives. I also want to refer to the recent book of Weintrobe (2021) who connects denial (a defense mechanism) with trust in human ingenuity (I wrote about the book here). I suppose how and which narratives and buffers (and maybe other factors) fuel psychological defense mechanisms is a research project on its own. Though, it seems that those who have made the connection argue to replace the faulty narratives with others that are more realistic (see eg. Weintrobe, 2021).
Replacing an unrealistic with a more realistic narrative may help humans to invest energy in real solutions. Let me first go back to the unfortunate resilience, where I established that this is a state of rigidity. Adaptation is locked-in actions that do not really solve the problem. If humanity wants to omit a collapse energy needs to be invested into restoring flexibility. Thus, we need to free our mind and come up with innovative ways to handle the challenges humanity is facing. It seems that such innovation would call for transformation, rather than for adaptation. We would have to think about innovations in how we organize our economy, as well as our political system. Though, in order to free the mind we first may need to grief old narratives (O’Connor and Woodard 2021).
So far so good. Though, who is going to start this process of grieving old narratives? To answer this, one may want to consult the old but ongoing debate between structuralists and individualists. While I think both schools provide some insight, I think they need to be combined. The structure does not exist, without its parts, and parts do not exist in isolation. Given the fact that this blog post is anyway already way too long, I will just refer to the potential usefulness of practice theory to understand how individuals and structure are connected.
Much more needs to be stated, but I will stop here with the promise to write about the insights I got so far about transition processes.
Over the years, it has become clearer and clearer: the energy transition is taking shape. Research on the energy transition also evolves. In the TPM Energy Transition Lab, we aim to take an interdisciplinary approach to expand our knowledge on ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t’, when it comes to the coming decades in the energy transition. We bring smart people together, each with their own perspective and expertise to see where transition insights are complementary or clash. We started sketching a map of the energy transition, with ‘simulation modelling’ as our pencils.
Simulating the complexity of the energy transition may help to unravel many of the challenges and trade-offs. Modelling forces you to think extremely systematically: if you translate something into computer code you have to be very clear and specific about it or it will either not compute or make no sense. This is often a painful process: to crystallize your ideas, decide what you leave behind and what you take on board. Ideally, you do not get lost. Or if you do, hopefully in the end you get out of your modelling crisis (read more in this blog or listen to me explaining it below).
Simple rules create complex patterns
If you do it right, modelling is elegant and you can see the complexity unfold before your eyes. The process of developing and using models can be a real inspiration. I see merit in the systematicness of all modelling methods; I have a specific appreciation for a specific modelling method with which I model so-called ‘agents’ that represent individual entities. Why? Well, for example, you start understanding how it is only simple rules which can explain complicated patterns… for example how groups of birds flock together. Can you come up with simple rules for individual birds that would describe the patterns you see below? And can you translate those into computer code?
How to look at the world
This made me look at the world differently. I started connecting ‘how systems evolve’ to ‘how individuals behave’ (and what governs that behavior): how economic crises emerge out of the behavior of banks governed by ‘the rules of the system’, how traffic jams emerge out of how individual cars drive, and how hard it is to translate global climate policy goals into regional/local action. By developing and studying many simulation models, I started to be able to switch perspectives, getting accustomed to think how changes in the behavior of individuals may have a rippling effect on the system. And where opportunities lie to shape the developments of the system as a whole.
Policy for the energy transition
For the energy transition, a key challenge is how to develop effective policy. This is a complicated question: lots of things matter for what makes policies effective. What technologies and system cost and how financing is arranged, complexities due to the multi-stakeholder nature of energy systems, all kinds of physical interdependencies between technological systems, and behavioral aspects of people, business and governments (see http://emlab.tudelft.nl/yfactor/ for an introduction to such factors and this scientific article). And how do the many policies interact? And what if different countries have different strategies?
Phasing out support for renewables
In a recent paper, Marc Melliger and I show how easy it is to be misled by a policy success. Wind and solar energy are becoming competitive; governments may see this as a signal to take away policy support. We explored through many simulated scenarios the possible downsides to such policy changes in the Netherlands and Germany. Taking the perspective of the behavior of individual firms, we simulated how investors in electricity generators may react to ongoing and changing market developments and policy. We used empirically observed investment preferences and state-of-the-art agent-based simulations and analyzed resulting system patterns. And we find it is risky to take away support – it may make us miss our wind and solar targets – so we ought to hold on to it: better be safe than sorry! Read more in this blog or this scientific article)
As I started out with, we try to sketch a map of the energy transition by simulating its complexities. We hope to understand better how the transition may unfold and how we can avoid unnecessary mistakes. We aim to add more and more color, integrating perspectives and disciplines researching the transition. Reach out if you want to know more and join us for the ride!
The energy transition is commonly framed as a shift from a fossil-fueled to a zero-carbon-fueled energy system (IRENA, 2020). However, climate change is not the only issue that our society faces, as clearly stated by the United Nations with the Sustainable Development Goals. Many societies across the globe face socio-economic inequality issues such as poverty, safety, gender inequality, racism and exclusion of minority groups, lack of access to basic resources and services, among many others. Although the energy system seems to have no clear connection with these issues, as a matter of fact, it does. The energy system is often seen as a network of techno-economic sectors that provide and regulate energy services. However, the energy system is sustained by natural resources and ecosystem services of the environment, and whose ecosystems host people and communities with their own cultures and customs. When looking at the energy system as embedded in societies and ecosystems, it is not difficult to notice that the ecological and societal issues permeate the energy system and vice-versa. Therefore, changes in the energy system have the potential to exacerbate or to help solve societal and ecological issues. To make sure that the energy transition positively contributes to ecosystems and societies, researchers and practitioners must acknowledge the socio-economic inequalities of which the energy system is part.
Below I enlist some examples of socio-economic inequalities, which the energy transitions may help to solve:
Reduction of poverty. Energy systems can be designed to provide good quality energy services to all. People can be prosumers of the energy system. Clean and affordable energy generation projects can be the seed to many local businesses beyond the electricity market. Special care needs to be taken when there is a risk of job losses due to the energy transition. For example, coal mining communities should have the option to be part of the transformed energy system to avoid unemployment.
Gender equity. The energy sector lags behind with closing the gender gap with a lack of women participation in leadership positions due to structural and cultural challenges (IEA, 2018). All genders (including non-binary) should be represented in the sector to seek inclusive energy transition pathways.
Similarly, minority groups differentiated by ethnicity, age, religion, gender, among others, have the right to be included in the energy transition so that the future energy system considers their energy needs. The reconfiguration of the energy system can be sensitive to local’s economic-development views.
Moreover, the energy transition should mitigate any further impact that it may cause such as land use, landscape impact, livelihood impacts, among other environmental and social impacts.
Energy transitions can be used as opportunities to acknowledge and redefine roles and reconfigure the energy system so that the ecological and socio-technological transformation contributes not only to solving climate change but also other socio-economic inequalities.
“You have to color outside the lines once in a while if you want to make your lab a masterpiece.” Inspired by Albert Einstein
In April 2020, we founded the TPM Energy Transition Lab at Delft University of Technology. At the start, the dean of our faculty (Technology, Policy, and Management) challenged us to color outside the lines and to not be too afraid of failure. We translated this into a motto for the ET Lab: “Risky research in a safe environment”.
The objective of the TPM Energy Transition Lab is to facilitate, design, and execute boundary-crossing research that can speed up energy transitions. More specifically, we aim to provide researchers in our faculty with a safe environment for risky research related to two important themes: behavior in and design of energy transitions. To reach this objective, we signaled two conditions: (1) an interdisciplinary research perspective and (2) sufficient resources (time, money, and tools). In our strategic plan, we explained as follows why these conditions are important but hardly ever met.
Energy transition is a widely investigated topic in several domains. However, research is typically descriptive, model-based, or rooted in a singular theory paradigm. Simultaneously, research is often limited to discipline-specific silos, focusing either on social, technical, economic, and institutional aspects, but hardly ever altogether. An integrated interdisciplinary perspective, that looks into the interplay and co-evolution of these aspects can pave the way for novel theories and research methods. Furthermore, it can open up innovative tools for supporting decision-making in energy transitions. This interdisciplinary research perspective aligns well with the concept of team science. Team science is when scientists from various fields and with various skills work collaboratively toward the resolution of major societal issues, such as sustainable transitions. This could lead to a deeper understanding of the topic at hand and efficiently produced scientific discoveries that are more readily applicable. Furthermore, team science improves motivation because team members execute tasks that suit their expertise and talents (e.g., Allen, Smith, Thoman, and Walters, 2018).
Team science comes with a challenge though. Research projects are temporary and there is often no time for proper introduction or team building. How to handle that? Business school professor Amy Edmondson shares the elements needed to turn a group of strangers into a quick-thinking team that can adequately respond to grand challenges in this TED talk.
The fast-changing dynamics of energy transitions call for rapid – and sometimes risky – research. Stated differently, to contribute to society with valuable insights, energy transition researchers must act quickly and adequately. An internal survey learned us that many researchers – like myself – are lacking the resources needed for this: time, money, and research tools. We cannot free up our busy schedules in which we are juggling teaching, research, management, and other services on short notice. Moreover, current funding structures provide virtually no opportunities to apply for “quick” research grants. This lack of resources, unfortunately, results too often in abandoning our boundary-crossing research ideas that could speed up the energy transition.
Another way to supply support and resources is the one-stop-research-shop we are developing (i.e. an online platform). We aim to facilitate our research by arranging – in a centralized way – all aspects of research. This includes ethical protection, data management, and participant recruitment, -consent, and –payment. Furthermore, the lab lays the foundations for a lending service of technical research equipment (“technotheek”). This development is in progress, we hope to give you more information soon!
This blog tells you in short about our road to a safe environment for risky research on energy transitions. Let’s conclude with the quote on top of this blog, inspired by Albert Einstein: “You have to color outside the lines once in a while if you want to make your lab a masterpiece.”
How to break path dependency? That is my starting point. Path dependency refers to the idea that past decisions determine or at least influence present and future options and decisions. An example; the educational path you chose has an effect on the jobs you will be qualified for. A change might be possible, but there will be costs related. The earlier you change the lower these costs will be. If you figure out at the beginning of your educational path that it is not the right thing for you, costs are still relatively low. If you figure it out shortly before you graduate, costs are substantially higher. If you are working on a job for years and figure out you want to change to a completely different field, you may have to deal with a substantially lower income when starting fresh. There are many examples of path dependencies.
In my research I do not apply the notion of path dependency to a specific technology or a specific policy, but rather to the socio-economic system as a whole. The argument is that the current socio-economic system which is based on the paradigm of unlimited growth is unsustainable. No matter which technologies are invented, as long as they are embedded into the current socio-economic system, they will not deliver the wished outcome, sustainability. Thus, we need to shift from the current socio-economic system to a new distinct socio-economic system. Though, how can we do this and why has it not happened already? To answer these questions I am following two research routs.
I suggest in order to understand how we can transition from one socio-economic system to another one, we have to understand why this transition is not taking place. I frame this the unfortunate resilience of the current socio-economic system. I want to understand why the socio-economic system is not transitioning by taking an upside-down perspective on resilience. I am searching for factors, mechanisms and structures constitute the resilience of the current system. Hopefully, by identifying these factors, mechanisms and structures I will gain insights on how they can be overcome.
An aiding tool to understand transition is the development of a new sustainability transition concept. This concept includes insights from resilience theory, path dependency theory, systems thinking, socio-technical transition as well as socio-ecological transition theory. While the concept does display the greater system level, I am combining it with the individual level. This is as the structures that create our socio-economic system are connected to human behavior. Reoccurring behavior forms institutions and institutions form behavior. Both sides are intertwined, and the solution will have to deal with both.
The transition envisaged has not happened so far, thus it can only be studied in theory. However, there are individual cases of transitions. Research indicates that citizens in the developed world will have to cut their footprint by 90% in order to achieve the climate targets. If that does not call for drastic changes, I do not know what does. Taking drastic changes is scary, yet there are people who voluntary make these changes. I am referring here to people who do not use a private car, who live a zero waste or zero plastic lifestyle, who have a vegan diet, live minimalistic and who refuse to fly. For sure some of these changes are more drastic than others. Though, that depends on the respective situation. My preferred example is the car. In some regions not going by private car is easy and almost the norm. In other regions not having a car is not an option. If people managed to undergo such drastic changes in their personal life it might be possible to upscale it. By studying how such changes came about and what barriers people had to deal with we may find out how others could do the same. On the other side of the spectrum are those, which is the majority of the population, who did not undergo a drastic change. On this side, it is interesting to know what perceptions bout such drastic lifestyle changes are, which ones would be most favorable and what would increase the likelihood of giving it a try?
At the end, both research routs will hopefully be combined to provide insights on how we can overcome path dependencies and facilitate a transition towards sustainability.
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