News & Views Blog

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.


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.

SOCSI ESRC Wales DTP General Studentships 2018

by Chris Groves, 15 January 2018

Apply by 1 February 2018

SOCSI ESRC Wales DTP General Studentships 2018 FLEXIS [PDF]

Cardiff University, School of Social Sciences, supported by the ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership for Wales (Wales DTP), invites applications for funded doctoral studentship awards to start in October 2018. Within the ESRC Science & Technology Studies pathway sits the major research challenge of new energy technologies. The School of Social Sciences works in collaboration with FLEXIS (Flexible Integrated Energy Systems) a £24 million research operation designed to integrate social science and technical research to investigate social, psychological and environmental aspects of the complexities and issues concerning future integrated energy system changes. Possible topics for a doctoral studentship include:

  • Potential social impacts of energy system change in communities surrounding the Port Talbot steelworks
  • Social legitimacy and acceptability of CCU and socio-technical change
  • Smart living and vulnerable consumers
  • Decarbonisation and digitisation of energy systems change
  • Intelligibility of problems of energy use and demand: How experts and members of the public construe contemporary logics of energy demand reduction
  • Understandings of materials use: Exploring divergent notions of waste, efficiency, abundance and excess in the context of energy systems change
  • The UK’s industrial strategy – Is there a place for environmental stewardship and psycho-social citizenship?
  • Creative designs for investigating relationships between air quality, environmental risk controversy and quality of life
  • (Inter) generational encounters with energy systems change

We would be interested to discuss possible PhD projects with students on these topics or other related topics of interest prior to the submission of an application. Students with backgrounds in sociology, human geography, social psychology and with interdisciplinary interests are welcome to apply.

Cardiff University, School of Social Sciences values diversity and equality at all levels and encourages applications from all sections of the community.

For further details, contact Professor Karen Henwood:

Methods for exploring affective sense-making

How do social scientists draw on methodological approaches in their data analytic work? On July 3rd 2017, the FLEXIS social science team hosted a small workshop organised around the work of two postgraduate researchers (Maree Martinussen [Auckland University] and Alice Dal Gobbo [Cardiff University]) who talked through how they were approaching their own data analytical work. Although the two speakers are working on distinct topics (personal friendships and the ecological/energy/economic crisis), it was illuminating to consider their ways of working which drew on two divergent research approaches that are currently contributing to the affective turn in social research methodology – the study of affective assemblages and discursive-affective practices. Both speakers’ data analyses showed how it was possible to elucidate aspects of what usually remains hidden in plain sight. This prompted interesting questions about their own and other established methodological reference points. Both presentations clearly involved working with theory in ways that took into account well known approaches to the study of everyday life (ethnomethodology, conversation and discourse analysis, ethnography etc). But, mainly, they highlighted a relational, psychosocial understanding of affective sense making (Maree) and desire (Alice). For the audience, it was interesting to consider how such work might build on methodological insights developed by research teams that have already found ways of investigating problems of personal and wider social life in ecologically challenging and changing times.

The students’ work was discussed in the context of methodological insights from recently completed work by the Energy Biographies project. Energy Biographies developed ways of elucidating the dynamics of everyday energy use and demand reduction in ways that differ from behavioural understandings, although such behavioural understandings remain influential in policy-led analysis and efforts to promote change (e.g. currently towards a smart energy future). Energy Biographies’ published research has brought to light psychosocial aspects of investments and attachment with everyday energy using social practices, yet understanding the implications of psychosocial change dynamics remains a live challenge. More interdisciplinary and collaborative work is also needed to understand relationally embedded and entangled ways of living with resource depletion, decarbonisation, and environmentally changed futures. For the FLEXIS social science team, initiatives are underway to continue such work as part of its programme of research investigating the energy system of the future. This programme involves working alongside engineers, with the aim to decarbonise the energy system of the future in line with security and affordability as technical-economic policy concerns. As social scientists, we will be adopting, adapting and generating bespoke methodological approaches in our research, and this will be part of our ongoing research strategy – of finding ways to engage with all that matters to people in their lives and worlds.

Download a free copy of our paper in Families Relationships and Societies – Relationality, entangled practices and psychosocial exploration of intergenerational dynamics in sustainable energy studies here

Sensing Energy at Cardiff Stemettes Event

Last month, members of the Energy Biographies/FLEXIS team attended an event organised by Stemettes aimed at encouraging young women to think about careers in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). At the event we exhibited some of the materials from our ‘A Sense of Energy’ exhibition with the aim of showing attendees that technical issues surrounding energy and sustainability can also be addressed from a social science and creative arts perspective. These are issues that continue to be at the forefront of our thinking now that we are working as part of a large interdisciplinary network, FLEXIS. The event provided a great opportunity to re-use some of our fantastic interactive exhibits, which we hope to do more of in future.
Pictures from the event are available here and a short film about the event was made by BBC news

FLEXIS at the Policy Forum for Wales

by Chris Groves, 18 July 2016

Professor Nick Pidgeon attended the Policy Forum For Wales Seminar, ‘Realising Wales’ Energy Potential’, held in the Park Inn hotel in Cardiff on 14th July 2016. Delegates discussed recent EU and Welsh Government investments in energy research in Wales, the practical near-term prospects for progress with new technologies in fields of energy storage and energy efficiency, as well as the future for marine energy including the tidal lagoon at Swansea Bay and alternative marine energy projects in Pembrokeshire and Anglesey.

Also central to discussions was Wales as a destination for inward investment in energy, the potential for building major wind, solar, nuclear and gas infrastructure in Wales and the next steps for delivery. Sessions also examined how to encourage further community renewable projects and overcoming the challenges such projects pose for the grid. All these topics are central to the work programmes of the FLEXIS project, and Prof. Pidgeon described to attendees how it will tackle these challenges, and how social science work on FLEXIS will build on the Energy Biographies project.

Energy Challenges for Wales: The Flexible Integrated Energy Systems (FLEXIS) Project from energybiographies

From Energy Biographies to Flexible Energy Systems

by Chris Groves, 19 May 2016

Flexis logo

The Energy Biographies team are now working as part of the FLEXIS project, which is part of the new Energy Systems Research Institute at Cardiff University. This project brings together academics from Cardiff, Swansea and the University of South Wales, and benefits from expertise in engineering, architecture, geography and social science.

How we all use energy is likely to change in coming years, against the background of the ‘energy trilemma’ – the need to provide secure access to energy for all, to keep it affordable, and last but certainly not least, to decarbonise the energy system. But introducing new renewable sources of energy has big implications, which will require new innovations in energy storage and in the infrastructure through which energy is distributed. In turn, these have potentially significant social impacts in terms of their benefits, where they are sited, and how they are paid for.

  • Will we see an upsurge in community ownership of energy infrastructure?
  • Will tidal lagoons or other sources of hydropower play a big role?
  • Will heating be provided to whole communities by waste heat from hospitals or factories, or from geothermal sources, such as minewater?

The Energy Biographies team are leading on social science research under FLEXIS which will draw on key themes explored on the Energy Biographies project to help assess the social acceptability and viability of new innovations for flexible energy systems. Energy Biographies themes – such as how people make sense of energy in their everyday lives, how using energy in different ways contributes to the living of worthwhile lives, and how community experiments with new ways of using energy can open up different futures – will play a major part in helping to shape energy innovation in Wales in socially and environmentally responsible ways.

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.

Climate Change: Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics – Launch conference of the new research centre, 28 April 2016

by Alice Dal Gobbo, 16/05/16

A new multi-disciplinary centre on Climate Change is taking form at Brighton University. The scholars taking part at the centre come from such different backgrounds as the social sciences, art and urban design. The launch conference reflected such diversity of research interests, and especially the three areas in which the group’s projects are divided: spaces, power and justice; environmental futures, communication and sustainability; embodiment, performance and process. The number of participants and speakers have been kept to a minimum in order for everybody to be able to listen to all of the engaging presentations.

In their diversity, the talks reflected the diverse issues that many climate change practitioners and researchers find themselves dealing with: how to communicate climate change? what are the barriers to behaviour change? what does it mean to act against climate change, and how to be more effective? what are the power issues that are necessarily involved in the politics of climate change? There were also reflections on the philosophical meaning of environmentalist discourses, such as an interesting Nietzschian interpretation of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything; as well as more psycho-social reflections on ecology.

I presented at the conference in a panel focused on “Communities of Resistance, Marginalisation and Change: Exploring Grassroots Voices and Everyday Practices”. I brought with me, by way of presentation, one of my participants’ photographs of their fridge of. I tried to show the ways in which it is possible to talk about desire, libidinal investments and enjoyment without talking about the psyche and interiority. Based on Deleuze and Guattari’s writings, I proposed a reflection on that fridge as part of a desiring assemblage that reaches from the present to the past and the future: connecting and dis-connecting materialities and expressive contents, the fridge became the focus for a reflection on dissidence and resistance practiced at the level of the everyday towards alternative, less consumption-intensive, life-styles. The presentation has very much interested and engaged the audience, who asked many thoughtful questions. This good response, I believe, is also related to the need to re-think small and banal practices not in terms of individuals and subjects (as often happens) but as part of wider societal assemblages.

To discover more about the centre:

Energy Biographies Final Report Available

by Chris Groves, 23 November 2015

Summarizing four years of research, the final report from the Energy Biographies project can now be viewed/downloaded (see below). The report sets out key findings, policy recommendations and also how the project has contributed to both substantive scholarship on dynamics of energy demand and to methodological development.

You can download a copy by clicking here [PDF], or view it below, via .

Energy Biographies Final Research report from energybiographies

Energy Biographies goes to 4S

by Chris Groves, 23 November 2015

The Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) annual conference is the largest international meeting for researchers working on the social impacts and aspects of science and technology. Held in Denver this year between 11 and 14 November, it brought together over 1000 researchers from around the world. Chris Groves presented data from the Energy Biographies project that show how the kinds of involvement people have in everyday practices and with specific technologies affect the value they place on them. Biographical interviews reveal that, while people often value convenience, they also feel ambivalent about it, particularly where it is associated with increasing ICT-enabled automation or ‘smartness’. Many interviewees value much higher than convenience activities that elicit emotional, imaginative and/or physical effort and bring a sense of accomplishment and connection to others. When viewing films which depict ‘future homes’ and feature lifestyles of increased convenience, poeople often drew unfavourable contrasts between these forms of life and more ‘effortful’ ones.

The presentation from Dr Groves’ talk can be viewed below. A draft paper on which the talk is based can be viewed or downloaded here.

The grit in the oyster: from energybiographies