What is FLEXIS?
FLEXIS (Flexible Integrated Energy Systems) is a multi-partner, multi-million pound programme, which integrates social science and technical research to address issues concerning the energy system of the future. It is a project hosted by the Energy Systems Research Institute at Cardiff involving the Schools of Architecture, Engineering, Journalism and Social Sciences.
The scope of the project encompasses energy storage, distribution and demand technologies (e.g. including smart grid management and domestic/industrial consumption management). It features a number of work packages looking at specific technical innovations in these areas and how they need to relate to each other as part of an energy system in Wales and the UK that can incorporate an increasingly renewables-led generation strategy. Specific technologies and infrastructures are going to be developed in demonstrator sites (such as Bridgend and the Valleys).
FLEXIS seeks to address the three axes of the energy trilemma (sustainability, security and affordability) and is specifically focused on Wales. FLEXIS is funded by the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO).
FLEXIS Social Science
The social science work stream sits alongside technical work packages to ensure that development proceeds on the model of ‘responsible innovation’; that is, building responsiveness to wider societal concerns into innovation processes.
There is a significant amount of evidence in social science research on technology assessment to show that the quality of innovation is improved with the aid of public and other stakeholder deliberation, leading to technologies which are more likely to be seen as socially acceptable. So we will be undertaking research around demonstrator sites with the public and community groups to set up deliberative and participatory activities of this kind.
An important aim of the social science work programme is to deliver fundamental advances in our understanding of the ways individuals, families, and communities engage with the complexities of future integrated energy system changes, and the issues, values and framings people will utilise to make sense of these.
Work Package 1: Flexible Systems and Expert Visions
Technical and economic analyses of energy system changes often incorporate implicit assumptions about how people and communities will respond to such changes. We also know from decades of research that the projections of modelled scenarios and technical analyses often do not correspond with how the future turns out. This is usually because assumptions within technical models made about the ‘people component’ have proven either partly or wholly unrealistic.
This work stream will involve expert interviews with some of those leading the technical work across FLEXIS (engineers, project managers, local council employees, and industry representatives) to discuss their visions of energy futures and the technical changes that this will involve.
Work Package 2: System Change and Everyday Life
The introduction of integrated, flexible energy networks will have significant (and currently largely unexplored) consequences for people’s everyday lives. This work-stream will use qualitative longitudinal interviews (where the same participants are revisited at different points in time) and visual methods to track continuities and changes in participants’ lives.
These in-depth interviews allow researchers to examine how emerging and prospective changes to energy systems have implications not only for how energy is used in everyday life, but also for issues relating to identities and people’s relationships with each other. Analysis will investigate how technical change may generate new vulnerabilities and dependencies (but also may encourage new skills and competencies) at household and local community levels. The extended longitudinal case study approach will also allow us to consider how social elements complicate efforts to plan for large-scale technical change.
We are currently undertaking interviews with local residents in Caerau, Nr Bridgend, where FLEXIS engineering colleagues are involved in developing an innovative district heating scheme using heat from mine water.
Work Package 3: Communities, Energy Controversies and Risk Governance
If integrated energy systems are to be successfully developed in Wales, a range of novel infrastructure developments, such as new locally-based energy storage facilities, will need to be first sited and then built.
Perceived threats to local ‘community’ and ‘place’, distrust of government and developers, and concerns about the fairness of siting processes all come squarely to the fore in public acceptance and risk perceptions where siting controversies arise. Among the impacts on communities are safety risks, but also value concerns over e.g. spoiled landscapes, freedom from outside interference in local affairs, threats to existing community cohesion and identities, impacts on local jobs and so on.
Using key demonstrator sites in Wales, this work-stream will use focus-group discussions to examine the potential for place-related concerns and sources of significant controversy to arise in relation to the siting of novel integrated energy system components. A key focus will be the extent to which policy and decision logics for system innovations can be shaped in ways that are responsive to societal and community concerns.