There are opportunities to accelerate the transition to a decarbonized energy system – but they require that we rethink our questions, and our selves

Posted on Monday, April 25, 2022

Author: Chelsea Schelly

2022 Fulbright Research Chair, ISSP, uOttawa


There is no doubt that, for future humans to have a habitable planet to call home, it is imperative that we decarbonize energy systems (including electrical, thermal, and transport energy) as quickly as possible. It’s also clear that, if we care about other people, we should do this in a way that does not disproportionally benefit or burden any particular group of people (like benefitting those who already have more than they need and disproportionately contribute to climatic change through their carbon intensive activities or burdening those who can hardly afford to pay their energy bills today).

Some of the barriers to doing this, to providing just and equitable access to decarbonized energy services, are about quantity - can we provide enough with this technology in this location? But many of the barriers to accessing just energy services aren't about technology. They're historical barriers, social barriers, institutional barriers. They're in part about who is at the table for decisions about system transitions, about how we organize access to these services that we all need. Those questions are really critical for thinking about how we organize access to what people need to live a good life. Embedding energy in the provision of energy services allows us to really grapple with those questions in new ways. This means we have to question how we currently organize access to energy, and that we researchers need to include changes to how we organize access as a valid empirical research question when we study energy transition pathways.

In addition to challenges associated with how we organize access to energy systems (as a commodity sold in a highly complex semi-regulated market artificially bolstered by subsidization), issues of scale are also to be questioned, and challenged, in technological transitions. What do I mean by scale?

As a social scientist, the way that I'm approaching technology means recognizing that technologies are inextricably intertwined with the way that we think about the world and the ways we engage with the world through our behavior. Technologies create an intersection between our habits, the practices we engage in, and our norms, or what we think is normal or typical. In cultures that have been dominated by very large-scale technologies, as well as very large-scale systems of colonialism and extractivism, we tend to think in certain scales. We tend to think about efficiency in certain ways. We tend to think about ourselves as experts in certain ways, and shifting how we think about scale requires that we question some of those things about our society and about ourselves.

When we talk to communities about what they want and when we talk to households about what they want, what communities want is technologies that work at the community scale and what homeowners or individuals want is technology that works at the household scale. One of the benefits of many of the technologies that are available to us for decarbonizing our access to energy services is that they are very flexible when it comes to scale. This is not to suggest that every individual needs to install solar panels at home or that we need to totally eliminate utility scale development; but I do very much mean to suggest that scale is itself a research question. It's a question that we can be asking in our processes of research and inquiry, rather than assuming that we know what’s most efficient or rather than assuming that there's only one scale at which we can actually get this job of decarbonization done.

We can ask questions about scale, and a part of that questioning also involves asking ourselves about the scales of our lives and our own usage, recognizing that a part of the transition is going to require some downscaling of our own access to energy services, what we define ourselves as needing access to in order to live a good life. That's also part of questioning scale as a research question, as a source of inquiry, rather than assuming we know what's right, and the opportunities here are really endless. We can be thinking about what communities want in terms of residential or distributed solar. We can be thinking about opportunities for integrating cogeneration in lots of different downscaled systems, and we could also be thinking about what are the motivations for development or transition at different scales. Further, we have to see those motivations as reasonable and valid in their own right, and questioning scale and our own assumptions about scale is one way to do that.

Questioning scale in energy transitions research and our own engagement with the world gets us right back to my first point about how we humans organize access to energy. The provisioning of energy services is organized through a very complex web of institutional actors operating within very complex markets. I'm a sociologist, so I understand these things only and always at the level of meaning that they have for communities. I find these organizational structures that shape access to energy services really complicated to understand, and I've worked on energy systems social sciences for over decade.

The big picture takeaway here is that the system of institutions and markets, utilities and regulators, the distribution companies and transmission companies and independent system operations, etc., etc. - these are things that people created. And these are things that humans can change. These institutional actors and their configurations sometimes pose barriers to the kinds of collaborative activity that's really going to be necessary for communities to be able to pursue decarbonization in a way that aligns with community priorities and goals. For communities to be able to actualize energy sovereignty and make decisions about energy transitions in ways that are informed by community values and preferences, sometimes existing institutional structures and existing energy markets stand in the way. Again, for me, this is not to suggest that I know the best way to organize access to energy services, but simply to say that the forms of organization can themselves be elevated to research questions, we can destabilize what we take for granted about how we organize access to energy by centering forms of organization in our empirical research. By questioning scale and forms of organization, through our research and also by asking questions about our own lives, we can open up new possibilities for decarbonizing energy systems in ways that enhance energy sovereignty and promote just access to energy services.

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