Columnists: David Shipworth, UCL

Published on: 22 Oct 2019

Launch of the User-Centred Energy Systems TCP by IEA

Solving the global climate crisis requires changing our relationship with energy. Decarbonisation will need to see both a rapid increase in demand-side energy efficiency, the widespread harvesting of low-density, intermittent energy resources such as solar and wind, and much more flexibility in the way in which we use energy. The pieces of this jigsaw are distributed throughout where we live, work and play – they are central to people’s lives.

To put these pieces together efficiently requires digitalisation to balance demand and supply at scales from within the home to across continents, and automation to reduce costs and manage assets in real time. Far more consent and engagement of energy users will be needed than ever before. From gaining planning permission for new distributed assets, through consumer investment in behind the meter generation and storage, to consent for automation and trust in the responsible collection and use of energy data – the energy transition is driving inevitably towards more user-centred energy systems.

These forces reshaping the energy system are increasingly linked to wider socioeconomic change. The information revolution is changing both consumers’ preferences for purchasing services over goods and their expectations of quality of service, value and product usability. People no longer need to be passive energy consumers – digital technology platforms allow users to produce, consume, store and trade energy services with multiple parties constructing new forms of value for communities and businesses.

In parallel, the climate crisis is now also mobilising generational change – today’s school climate strikers will be tomorrow’s graduates choosing careers and founding companies, and by 2030 will be reshaping society economically and politically. Motivated by environment, equity and justice – they will hold us to account for the decisions we take now which will shape our relationship with this generation for decades to come. If the world is to succeed in its decarbonisation mission, it is imperative that policy makers and technology designers properly understand how people permit, adopt and use new energy technologies, and hold issues of energy access and equity central to their mission.

Recognising the increasing importance of the nexus between people, energy and technology, the User-Centred Energy Systems Technology Collaboration Programme (Users TCP) is being launched in October 2019. Consisting of 16 countries and three sponsors, this initiative brings together the world’s leading socio-technical researchers and policy makers to provide the evidence base needed to make better energy policy decisions.

Launching at the All-Energy Australia Conference in Melbourne (23 October), Users TCP has adopted a systems perspective in which people – technology designers, policy makers, intermediaries and end users – are as integral as hardware and software to delivering energy systems that meet our wider social, environmental and economic goals. Building on the success of its predecessor, the Demand Side Management TCP – the Users TCP recognises how individual behaviour is shaped by the suite of technical possibilities to choose from, as well as individual preferences or the energy services those technologies offer. It also recognises that both the technical possibilities and individual preferences are themselves shaped by wider social structural issues – from technology path dependence through social practices, to wider issues of culture, race and gender. In turn, these social structural issues are reinforced and reshaped by individual behaviours in aggregate.

We believe that understanding the interdependence between the social and the technical, and identifying points of intervention through which to reshape energy demand, will be crucial to the success of the energy transition.

The initial work programme has activities focused on: energy service business models; how to influence hard-to-reach energy users with behaviour change programmes; peer-to-peer energy trading and community self-consumption models; and on utilities’ social licence to automate flexibility services. Further new work is planned this year on the application of behavioural insights to energy policy making and the development of “Energy Efficiency 2.0”. We are actively seeking to grow both participation in these research areas, but also identify new areas and collaborations where there is a demonstrable need for international comparative analysis of policy relevant research that has the potential to scale rapidly and deliver impact to the benefit of energy users and the energy system.

To help disseminate the outputs of the Users TCP and related work, the User-Centred Energy Systems Academy holds monthly webinars on key topics. The first webinar, to be held on October 24th, focuses on the grid integration of electric vehicles . If you feel your work has the breadth and scale to impact policy internationally, and you would like the opportunity to present through the Academy, please do contact us.

People use technologies to convert energy into the services they want. To do this, technologies must be useable, and their services must satisfy users’ needs. This ‘socio-technical’ approach is becoming more and more central to policy making and lies at the heart of the User-Centred Energy Systems TCP.

The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by David Shipworth