Thoughts About the Ongoing Energy Transition and the Importance of Listening
We are witnessing a global transition from fossil-based energy to new, supposedly emission-free sources. For people involved in the energy sector, be it on a local, national, or global level, it might feel like the change is increasingly speeding up at the same time as the complexity and uncertainty keeps growing.
The ongoing energy transition is fundamental, affecting all levels of society. It is also highly political, challenging existing markets and business models. Not to forget that digitalisation adds a third "cyber" layer to the more traditional socio-physical systems. Digitalisation is being considered the primary solution to control the increasingly electrified, fragmented and sector coupled energy production and consumption systems.
The concept of energy transition does not automatically equal the use of renewables nor sustainability outcomes. It can also entail the change from one polluting source or unsustainable behaviour to another.
Historically, energy transitions have been driven by the need and availability of energy sources. For example, Fouquet and Pearson (2012) define energy transition as "the switch from an economic system dependent on one or a series of energy sources and technologies to another".
Research shows that most transitions seem to have unfolded over long periods of time; for example, oil was drilled from the first commercial well in the US in 1859, but the market share of 25% was passed in 1953. Then, there is evidence of quick energy transitions as well. For example, Brazil managed to increase ethanol production and substitute ethanol for petroleum in conventional vehicles so that in 1981, six years after the Proálcool program started in November 1975, over 90% of all new vehicles sold in Brazil could run on ethanol (see Sovacool 2017). One could suggest that the ongoing European "Green Deal" or the global "Grand transition" (a name coined by the World Energy Council) seem to be moving relatively fast compared to most historical transitions. Time will tell how they compare to them.
Considering the current global geopolitical situation and its effects on the investment landscape, countries dealing with energy scarcity and security issues, shifting power balances between big economies, as well as new innovations entering the markets, we are definitely in the middle of a great shift. The Paris Agreement (COP21), with its aim to halt global warming, is still working as a backbone for international cooperation and guiding national energy strategies in many countries. The outcomes of what has been put into motion by these international agreements are being materialised at the national and local level.
It has been suggested that energy transitions are becoming more of a social or political priority in ways that previous transitions have not been. In earlier times, the transitions may have been accidental or circumstantial, whereas future shifts have become more planned and coordinated. It is important to remember that something inherent to the consumption and production of energy is human power dynamics. According to Avelino (2017), understanding the politics of transitions requires careful attention to the question of who wins or loses when new innovations emerge and get implemented and which vision(s) of the future predominate in deciding the direction of energy transitions. Politics is linked to issues of power and agency and are closely related to the theme of governance and the implementation of transitions.
The last ten years have introduced us to concepts such as prosumers, energy communities, microgrids, smart cities, carbon sinks, net zero buildings, energy poverty, flexibility markets and so on, involving "ordinary" people with energy issues, compared to what was earlier considered something of a "plug in the wall" commodity. Especially now, in the aftermath of the so-called EU energy crisis (I am writing this paper in September 2023), many Finns, together with the rest of the EU, are probably wondering how the coming winter weather will affect the electricity prices after the first "expensive winter".
Understanding the socio-cultural embeddedness of energy
On the EU level, the Roadmap 2030 and European Green Deal are shaping the energy market towards, for example, a massive growth in wind power investments and instalments of solar power (also on household level). The next step seems to be the roll-out of hydrogen solutions, all in the support of the increasing electrification and digitalisation of the energy sector. As new technologies, modes of operating, actors, services, and applications enter local markets, they inevitably cause positive and negative disruptions to people's lives.
The age of specialisation in a highly technological society, such as the Western society, means that our daily lives are embedded in technology that requires expertise and different outside services. Even if most of us agree that modern society has come a long way in making life comfortable and safe, it seems we might forget some of the basics that humans are psycho-physical beings. Our senses capture information on many levels and the rational mind is just the tip of an iceberg compared to the subconscious mind. We are also creatures of habit and "cultural animals" formed by our socio-cultural contexts. This means many shared collective beliefs set the base for our well-being and a sense of belonging to certain landscape(s), nature, music, family, and community. When something disrupts the existing order of things, it also challenges our inner (subconscious) feeling of safety – whether we are aware of it or not.
It still seems to surprise many tech developers that suddenly – "out of the blue" – people start opposing a solution which seems perfectly straightforward… at least from the perspective of the person designing it. Still, there is a good chance that it disrupts something of intrinsic value to people. As in, for example, wind parks built in a popular outdoor area where local people have hunted, picked berries, or just wandered for generations. Thus, the technological function and its usefulness are understood, but they collide with other values, leading to adverse feelings and reactions.
The art of listening
Although the energy technology and digital solutions are the same (or similar) in most countries, their implementation is not. This is because society, culture, habits, institutions, and geography differ. The so-called socio-cultural aspects of a nation and region affect how people use or accept new innovations brought to their doorstep.
Knowing your customer-citizen is an obvious element of the fundamental understanding required for a company or policymaker to successfully manage transitions in the desired direction. But there are certain pitfalls and challenges, especially if the business or governance approach is geared towards "one size fits all" solutions, meaning that the segmentation and target group is very narrowly defined and understood.
For example, research on municipal energy transition (Berg et al 2021) shows that it is quite common that only a small group of decision-makers and experts, as well as some energy-interested inhabitants, are consulted when planning local energy solutions. The majority of local people do not participate; they will not sign up for discussion and workshop events even if the events are open for everyone. Still, the main users of the future energy solutions or those who could benefit economically might be in those groups remaining outside the discussions and planning, thus affecting the actual realisation of them. Examples of negative outcomes include protests against new instalments such as wind power, solar power and smart meters or non-compliance to agreements.
Even if renewable, clean energy solutions could present opportunities to boost regional wealth and livelihoods, there is always a chance of the actual gain landing somewhere else, on someone else's plate. Whilst there might be a significant investment in a new renewable energy facility in a municipality, the economic gain might go to a multinational company. The locals are left with the negative side effects of the construction phase, restricted land use and other changes in the living environment. Unwanted externalities are unfortunately commonplace in most market systems, and the energy sector is no exception.
When something disrupts the existing order of things, it also challenges our inner feeling of safety.
So, why do so many people remain outside important planning processes, one might ask? Especially if there has been a clear invitation to join? One explanation, outside the lack of personal interest and knowledge, might be found in the hidden and/or visible power hierarchies. Power dynamics are inherent to energy transitions. The social and cultural structures of a country, region and local context affect who will be heard and considered an expert. How can we break these invisible hierarchies and power structures so that more people can have a say in development that is clearly affecting their lives? There are many positive examples of local (energy) communities where many different actors have started working together towards a common goal. These groups are usually "bottom-up", created by a clearly defined need or challenge.
We as humans need connection to each other, nature, and our roots (culture). A safe place for well-being might look different to different people, but it is usually connected to what we consider our home. What if there was more focus on the local and "home" levels in the planning phase of new energy solutions? Would it make a difference to the success of projects and new innovations, or maybe people would choose differently?
Smart cities, smart households, digital IDs, electric vehicles, and ultimately people are becoming part of the Internet of Things at a time when global policies and "big tech" are driving the Western energy market(s) towards electrification.
All of this is taking place in the name of sustainability. One can wonder whether there is a "stop button", i.e. a right to opt out and find alternative solutions to our energy futures. Perhaps there are alternative possibilities or visions accessible to us that would equally encourage a healthier world?
Petra Berg – Postdoctoral Researcher School of Marketing and Communication and VEBIC, University of Vaasa
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