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Islanded, connected, visible, intangible? Mapping expert imaginaries of whole energy system transition


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Whole energy system transition implies both complex processes of socio-technical change and complex sets of public values. Making sense of what may happen (the future ‘possibility space’) and what is at stake (the ‘issue space’) are social tasks to which, as science and technology studies (STS) scholars have argued, future imaginaries contribute resources. Such imaginaries provide symbolic templates (Mordini 2007) for understanding possible futures. Often such imaginaries have been associated with single technologies. STS has mapped numerous examples in relation to energy, such as nuclear and all-electric futures. The complexity of a coming renewables-based transition, however, mobilises imaginaries that include within them multiple energy vectors, the governance of the energy system, and the role of publics and other stakeholders. To explore these whole-system imaginaries, we report on interviews undertaken with academic engineering experts and others involved in demonstrator project delivery working on the ERDF-funded Flexis project in South Wales, UK ( Despite there being much shared common ground, in the shape of a whole systems imaginary of decentralisation, this brings with it a complex space of possibilities within which different socio-technical constellations can be imagined. These constellations have characteristics with very different implications for energy research and energy policy.

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Islanded, connected, visible, intangible? Mapping expert imaginaries of whole energy system transition

  2. 2. ENERGY SYSTEM TRANSITION: BEYOND INDIVIDUAL TECHNOLOGIES Source: Traditional technological visions and “heroic narratives” (Janda and Topouzi 2015)
  3. 3. SOCIAL SCIENCE AND WHOLE ENERGY SYSTEM CHANGE: THE FLEXIS PROJECT • Flexis project: 2016-2021 • Engineers from Cardiff, Swansea, South Wales universities • Welsh Government support, partnership with local councils and businesses (e.g. Tata Steel) • Social science focus: investigating how experts and publics make sense of and evaluate promises of whole energy system change • Central role for demonstrator projects within South Wales communities Goal of social science & engineering collaboration: developing a Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) framework for energy systems transitions
  4. 4. DEMONSTRATORS AS TECHNOLOGICAL NICHES • Influence of niches on system level change widely studied (Schot and Geels 2008) • Role of future visions in creating influence (Smith and Raven 2012) • Our work: interviews 20 experts associated with the Flexis project to explore how visions for demonstrator projects are evolving • Visions are characterised by equivocality (Daft and Lengel 1986) – result of • complex sets of values & priorities implicated in visions • uncertainties about how these priorities relate to each other • Shift from heroic narratives focused on single technologies as drivers of change to social learning narratives focused on complexity Janda and Topouzi 2015)
  5. 5. RESEARCH SCOPE • 20 interviews with experts conducted between October 2016 and April 2017 • Interviewees included • Engineers from Cardiff, Swansea, South Wales universities • Partners from local authorities (Bridgend) • Partners from Welsh Government • Collaborators from industry (multinationals and SMEs) • Focus on mapping visions but also the imaginaries underlying visions (key assumptions and priorities) • Imaginaries enable consensus around visions but also may prevent reflexive questioning of priorities (Kemp, Schot and Hoogma 1998)
  6. 6. THE ENERGY TRILEMMA AND DECENTRALISATION “It’s a capacity of the Grid but also the ability to deal with fluctuations and the thermal loads on the cables and everything […] a lot of the areas in Wales I guess the rest of the country are at capacity, so if you want to connect to the Grid you have to reinforce the Grid […] So if we can look more at these local energy supply systems, so when we develop new industry we develop the energy systems to go with it, wind or solar or whatever. We can take the load you know the stress off the Grid.” Expert 13 Sustainability (Decarbonisation) Cost Security
  7. 7. FLEXIS IMAGINARIES: DECENTRALISATION AS POSSIBILITY SPACE “I think in the future it’s going to be much more on a local scale because you’re going to be generating locally and then it’s those neighbourhoods need to … it’s a bit like back to your ant colony I guess or something like that or a beehive right? Each individual entity has to control its own destiny but on the other hand it’s also there to interact with the next one along so there is a relationship and how big that node is could be ten houses, could be a hundred houses or a thousand houses… it depends.” Expert 6
  8. 8. FLEXIS IMAGINARIES: VARIATION ACROSS THE POSSIBILITY SPACE ‘Interpretive flexibility’ (Pinch and Bijker 1987)
  9. 9. ISLANDING/INTERCONNECTION ISLANDING “I think it’s going to be more localised and I am not talking from an energy expert point of view here, more from a learning on the job if you know what I mean and sort of my involvement in things over the years but not as an expert. I get the feeling it’s going to be more localised where energy is delivered within a region, whatever the size of the region is I’m not sure but rather than it being, and it could be sub regions within the region for instance, very much finding out about smaller communities especially rural communities trying to look after themselves with hydro as well as wind and solar.” “[…] given the right funding it’s not unreasonable to have the whole of Swansea effectively off Grid in ten years.” Expert 8 INTERCONNECTION “Yeah, in terms of flexibility I mean the flexibility in operational aspect of the power system, how to manage the network to make it functional also in the new context of the smart grid what I am going to talk a little more about the flexibility of demand. So normally we consider the demand as inflexible, when you want to consume you consume but in the future probably we are going to use more and more renewables and they have a lot of uncertainties […] So if we can achieve the energy balance in the local area we use the less of the transmission line using less of the assets will mitigate some issues like with elimination in the network they have the issue now we need to tackle.” Expert 16
  10. 10. VISIBILITY/INTANGIBILITY VISIBILITY/TANGIBILITY [on community scale hydrogen storage systems]: ‘Because these guys will have to fill their tanks with water every other day, they will have to manage the system, they will get paid for every litre of hydrogen they produce. Yes, this will be real interesting, I am expecting these type of people to invite their friends around and show them their set-up and to brag about it and to have…to have Green credentials. I have deliberately built my water splitters so that you’ve got bubbles coming up in clear tubes and they look, they look crazy and scientific and it is genuinely the sort of thing that you will invite your friends over to show off, which is something that’s positive.’. Expert 8 INTANGIBILITY [on peer-to-peer energy trading]: “I think one of the key differences is that its self-enacting so if you say in this set of circumstances I will transfer the value of this asset to you then that will happen and it will be done automatically whereas I guess you could do that through sort of traditional contract and some person would be an intermediary somewhere so I guess that’s and then you know to me it’s still an open question as to what is actually better but it’s definitely an interesting thing to say ok you know it’s definitely worth exploring.” Expert 17
  13. 13. Relationships with the public Understanding wider community needs can contribute to de- risking projects Trust may be hard to create, particularly given the nature of some demonstrators Benefits may be hard to articulate in ways that gain trust ROLE OF PUBLIC VALUES & POLITICAL CHOICE EQUIVOCALITY ABOUT VALUES “No, no, I mean that Caerau [minewater district heating project] will only work if you talk to people and you understand what they value, how they use it now […] what is it that’s going to make them think bloody hell I want that in my house.” Expert 3 “I think negative public feedback I think is a massive risk I mean particularly on the Caerau one, largely because you know it only needs a few, it’s a small community, it only needs a few people to say my house has never been as cold and we’ll lose all credibility and any chance of signing anybody else up.” Expert 2
  14. 14. SUMMARY • Flexis experts articulate visions for place-based demonstrators against backdrop of system uncertainties • The possibility space inhabited by these different visions is that of decentralisation • But what decentralisation means (and how different technologies may come to be realised) is open to wide interpretive flexibility. • Experts envisage public values and political choices as being vital drivers, especially • Politics of place • Contribution of energy system to furthering other values • Equivocality around public values suggests emergence of social learning narratives accompanying visions of socio-technical complexity • What effect will this have on the anticipated role of demonstrators as technological niches?
  15. 15. FLEXIS SOCIAL SCIENCE TEAM Professor Nick Pidgeon Professor Karen Henwood Dr Fiona Shirani Dr Erin Roberts Dr Catherine Cherry Dr Gareth Thomas