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Why social sciences matter for the energy transition

By Martin Freire on 5 April 2018

Energy has become an intrinsic part of modern life. It is what allows us to connect with each other, move around, cure diseases, produce, learn, and it has enabled rapid development around the world. It affects everything, from culture to the economy, education, health, transportation, and human interactions. Efforts to achieve the energy transition require an approach that goes beyond technology and includes the social sciences and the humanities.

Although energy and technology were the key enablers of the industrial revolution, its impacts were, for better or worse, felt in all sectors of society. Energy transcends technology, from psychology to politics, economics, law, ethics, and religion. It influences and is influenced by the complexity of human behaviour and social architecture.

Jeremy Rifkin, a US economist and advisor on energy issues, argues that we are now undergoing the Third Industrial Revolution, and energy, once again, is playing the main role. The sprouting of decentralised, clean and renewable technologies is changing the game. Rifkin points out that the “democratisation of energy will bring a fundamental reordering of human relationships, impacting the very way we conduct business, govern society, educate our children, and engage in civic life.” Examples around the world, from Germany to Bangladesh support Rifkin’s argument.

Germany and its ambitious energy transition plan (Energiewende) embrace micro-generation and micro-ownership, which is transforming business models. Farmers across the country have diversified their income, producing and selling not only milk, carrots or apples but also energy. Many farming regions actually earn more from their “energy harvest” than from their agricultural produce. Further east, Bangladesh is effectively cutting poverty levels through its national off-grid electrification scheme, the Solar Homes System (SHS) programme. More than 497,000 solar home systems have been installed, providing access to energy for over 2.2 million people.

The rapid shift towards renewable technologies and the job opportunities that come with them is changing the face of the educational landscape as well. Universities across the world are catching up, offering a growing number of sustainability and energy programmes. Gender equality and women’s leadership also have a direct impact on and are impacted by the energy transition. A study has argued that more women in leadership positions increases a company’s willingness to measure and reduce its emissions, invest in renewable energy and reduce its overall environmental impact.

There are various examples and studies that explore the energy transition’s impacts on economic, cultural, and social aspects of our communities. New opportunities bring new challenges with them, and we need to prepare accordingly.

Many challenges that arise along the way towards a sustainable energy system are not linked to technology, but to users’ behaviour, decision-making processes, governance, or legal contexts. To overcome these issues, Energy Cities is taking part in the Europe-wide project, SHAPE Energy, which approaches the energy transition from the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) perspective. Shaping a European research agenda in this field is key to making sure that the energy transition develops in a holistic manner, and successfully.

Cities and local authorities are where the implementation happens. They are the closest to the people and know what needs to be addressed. The role of Energy Cities is to ensure strong participation by local authorities in the project and facilitate knowledge transfers that inform the research. A holistic approach to the energy transition has to be complemented with strong participation from cities and local authorities.

Read more about SHAPE Energy.

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In February, the ENLARGE project participated in the sandpit organised within the Shape Energy project.

ENLARGE aims to generate and disseminate knowledge on participatory governance with a focus on sustainable energy, through a process of dialogue and exchange involving policy makers, civil society actors, and practitioners. Our friends from ALDA, the European association for Local Democracy, are a partner in the project.
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