Recent research activities from the interdisciplinary Flexis team

by Karen Henwood

The original Energy Biographies research team (Karen Henwood, Nick Pidgeon, Chris Groves, Fiona Shirani) has grown and now includes Erin Roberts (part time), Catherine Cherry, Gareth Thomas.

We are working on a range of socio-technical issues and social science questions arising from efforts that are being made to transform the UK’s energy system. Our approach is both investigative and problems focused. At the same time we seek to identify – and where possible elucidate – the kinds of socio-cultural issues and psychosocial dynamics that usually may not be considered important but nonetheless merit our attention. We continue to work on the Flexis project, and were successful at the beginning of 2018 in winning £100K funding from the Welsh Government to undertake work in partnership with the Energy Systems Catapult under the title of Fair Futures.

Flexis

In our Flexis work we are collaborating with engineering colleagues at Cardiff University and other South Wales Universities to investigate national and localised changes that are, or may, be occurring in energy infrastructure, as part of efforts to decarbonise the energy system. Other key concerns are with the social and technical initiatives that are increasingly moving in the direction of decentralised systems, shaped by the digital revolution. As social scientists, we have an established interest in exploring the implications of such changes for people in their everyday lives (including across the lifecourse) and for the communities they live in. Our work also involves other stakeholders including local authorities in South Wales, especially Bridgend and Neath Port Talbot, the Tata steelworks, large public utilities and district network operators (combining commercial with public service interests), and NGOs (such as National Energy Action and the Energy Savings Trust). We continue to develop methodologies for investigating change dynamics that involve making sense of our intangible dependencies on energy. In particular, we are designing community workshops in Neath Port Talbot so that it is possible to investigate how local publics understand the potentials offered by particular technical programmes, without losing sight of any emergent vulnerabilities that might become apparent as particular energy futures are made more tangible within local infrastructures and wider energy systems.

  • On Tuesday 18th December 2018, we presented an overview of this work at the Energy session at the Science in Public Conference, “Encountering energy in systems and everyday spaces: Implications for science and public engagement” at Cardiff University. The conference provided a fitting opportunity to situate our work within academic debates about ways of valuing investigative, social scientific work within participatory culture.
  • At a one week event at the Lorentz Centre, Leiden University, 6th-11th January 2019, we took forward a key international collaboration with colleagues at Delft University Institute of Technology. The event “Exploring the role of values in Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) for energy systems program” was co-organised by TUDelft, ourselves, and SPRU at Sussex University. It was a way to retain strong connections between our work in the UK and developments in international governance with reference to energy research and policy making. Discussions at the event aimed to promote newer developments in RRI based on values philosophy and more empirically grounded social science initiatives (such as Flexis).

Fair Futures

In our Fair Futures work, we have been collaborating with the Energy Systems Catapult and Welsh Government to identify problems experienced by the fuel poor, albeit that we are reticent to fully embrace the terminology and prefer to say that we are focussed far more on understanding lived experiences of energy vulnerability. The Welsh Government has a particular interest in understanding the difficulties people have as a result of energy’s unaffordability for those living in poorer communities. We have undertaken an in depth analysis of the circumstances under which people move in and out of “energy poverty”, bringing together in one document a set of key insights that are possible when taking a more dynamic approach to studying the problem. This document also contains more socio-culturally specific insights, as this research was conducted as a case study of a community minewater scheme recently used as a test-bed to establish whether it will be possible to utilise the minewater in the future as part of a local district heating scheme. Thus far, we have shared the document with colleagues from the Energy Systems Catapult who derived their own set of key insights about the disabling conditions that would need to be avoided, or enabling ones put in place, to achieve a fairer energy future for this community. On January 16th, in Cardiff, we participated in a workshop designed by the Catapult to establish whether it is possible to develop a set of “innovative design solutions” for those who otherwise might face being left behind by their non-participation in future energy systems, including the smart energy revolution. Further work is outstanding, reflecting on these workshops and project aims, and the project is due for completion by end of March 2019.