Launch of the Energy Systems Catapult

by Karen Henwood, 16 May 2016

The Energy Systems Catapult launch event in London on 9th May 2016 was useful in clarifying for its audience the perspective the Energy Systems Catapult is taking on energy systems change and its own role in this. The focus of the opening talks by speakers from outside the Catapult itself was mainly on technical innovations and, most particularly, with making them low risk enough for commercial funding to take off – thereby bringing services and products to market.

The Questions and Answers sessions, and the second session where presentations were given by members of the Catapult team, gave further insight into the Catapult’s own worldview in terms of its problem orientation, assumptions it is making about political and material realities, and what needs to change for energy systems functionality. One suggestion was that there is currently limited understanding of markets, but markets will unlock what works for people, and the risk is for government and industry that will have to catch up.

Similar points were picked up on in discussion of the Catapult’s Future Power System Architecture Project. Here it was argued that power systems will undergo transformative change, not gradual or incremental, but that this will involve development of new value propositions. The approach taken stressed the need to enable anticipation of the development of such value propositions and to be ahead of transformation rather than reacting by just responding piecemeal to systems change, which would not be efficient. There was some gesturing towards new functions around big data, data rich environments and cyber security.

For the Future Power System Architecture Project, consumers will be active participants in the system; and the point was made again that consumers will drive change by picking up fashions demanding change. Sub-optimal solutions would follow if there was not enough thinking ahead holistically about problems arising hindering the need for change and functionality in slow change systems.

Grant Bourhill, Director Smart Systems and Heat, spoke about enabling transition to low carbon homes. The UK has 10 years to prepare so it can meet carbon targets and there needs to be much greater increase in decarbonisation of homes. There will be hassle for homes changing their heating systems and concerns are not just about costs but aesthetics, size, noise and what it means for the household. What and how does the customer have to pay – a leasing model? They are developing energy path options for next year. Smart Systems and Heat will establish foundation stones for delivery of services that will be valuable for consumers.

For a social scientist, a number of the aforementioned points sounded short on evidence. For example, regarding assumptions about the relationship between people and markets, and as we take forward our previous work within Energy Biographies into a new interdisciplinary research programme (FLEXIS), we will need to review published literature to evaluate claims about consumer-drivers of technological change (e.g. in uptake of domestic heating infrastructure).

Jan Webb, the only social scientist on the programme, asked some important questions: if technology drivers are in place, why is action so fragmented? Her work has paved the way for a focus on governing innovations and changes at city level to get a valued slice through energy systems and with a focus on energy supply. But she also stressed the importance of human factors shaping demand and usage, which our own energy biographies research has illuminated though its focus on energy usage in everyday life, across the lifecourse, and psychosocial dynamics involved.