A family on grassy verge in front of the ocean.
Photo credit: Gillianne Tedder

14 December 2021

The technology’s available. We just need to roll it out. It’s a common theme, and one that the government has embraced (if imperfectly) at both state and federal levels. But decades of research into the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of technology uptake shows us that neglecting the social dimension of technology design and roll-out results could result in two things.

Firstly, that the technology is resisted or simply not used because people don’t like being disenfranchised from technologies and issues they care about. Second, that it creates new types of inequalities, or negative environmental side effects which further risks alienating people from seeing the energy transition as a force for positive social change.

We need optimism, but techno-hype is unhelpful.

Working within the Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program at the Australian National University, we research the views, experiences and expectations of people around emerging energy technologies. We’re also interested in how transitions actually happen (and that doesn’t just mean cost curves).

Our research reveals a wide range of different ways people already participate and might like to participate in the energy transition. But a consistent theme is that people’s needs, and ideas are usually ignored. And the frustration is real.

A major finding of our research with householders is that trust in the energy “system” is low. Reasons that come up include poor customer service, a slower than desired transition to renewables, underinvestment in the energy system (particularly maintenance and operation) and a shedding of capacity for long-term planning in the public interest.

We hear comments like; “All they [the energy industry] are interested in is profit. We need to bring it back from the profit makers to the users.”

In the energy media, we often hear – in great detail – the technical requirements of an emerging grid with more variable generation. But much less attention is paid to how the sector can include users in the possible solutions in these requirements for system flexibility.

The dominant vision is that householders will participate via “smart” seamless platforms that reward prosumers (financially) for providing flexibility to the system. Smart widgets and aggregators are supposed to take the complexity and hard work out of this integration for the “customer.”

In framing participation in such a narrow way, the same logics and capacities held by the national electricity market (the one made of large generators and gen-tailers) are now being transferred to everyday people who, we know, have very different motivations and interests than the likes of the big gen-tailers.

So, before we’ve properly stopped to genuinely ask people what they think of the current system, or what sort of energy system they would like, many energy sector professionals are already moving forward with a technology vision that risks leaving many people behind.

Our work – together with other researchers in Australia – has found that distrust of the energy sector is a key driver for people’s purchase of solar PV and batteries, as they see these as offering a way to do things differently.

Part of this is about demonstrating to those in power that a different energy future is possible. Many householders are sceptical of ‘smart’ technology, and don’t intuitively relate to the idea of sharing energy as a ‘for-profit’ exercise.

Our research also indicates that scepticism of third-party control of home devices actually stems directly from experiences with retailers.

Also, users are also increasingly aware that smart technology, rather than making life simpler, requires digital housekeeping (set up, configuration, monitoring) that many simply don’t have the time or interest in doing.

We know that the existing system doesn’t sufficiently meet the needs of all Australian energy users, with many customers struggling to identify the best retail deal and being exposed to financial penalties for late payment.

We also see similar issues with the purchase of technologies like rooftop solar.

This is a common finding elsewhere, like in the UK, where the Smart Meter Implementation Program was found to exclude groups like the poor, elderly, ill and rural people from benefits.

There are genuine risks that many of the demand-side markets simply won’t be used by people; or if they are, that they will increase already existing energy inequalities between the haves and have-nots.

What does involving people in the energy transition look like?

The most important first step with thinking about involving users is to create spaces that are open ended that don’t force preconceived ideas of what participation should look like.

Deliberation over options and design shouldn’t happen in an information vacuum though. We need integrated socio-techno-economic analyses that clearly show what the different options are and the trade-offs associated for each.

These require expanding the traditional cost-benefit analyses to include the social impacts (like the time it takes for a householder to purchase, monitor and repair the tech) as well as the resources required to properly regulate any activities associated with that technology.

Identifying these considerations early is what prevents the shock moment when a developer realises that no amount of compensation will get people on board who are angry about having their values steamrolled.

We need participation from diverse users – and not only topic enthusiasts – across all areas from system planning, to regulation, and from technology design to early conception at the research stage. We also need it in our everyday lives.

The popularity of place-based community energy groups and online forums like My Efficient Electric Home, not to mention RenewEconomy shows how enthusiastic many Australians are about the transition. How about we start listening?

Written by Dr Hedda Ransan-Cooper, social science research leader at the Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program, ANU. This article originally appeared in Renew Economy.