Energy Transition from a Social Science point of view

CU Awards - Essay Competition 2021

FIRST PRIZE :  Shilpa Bindu, Alumna, MSc Energy for Smart Cities (2017)


"Fish may die or human beings; drinking water or swimming in rivers or lakes may cause diseases; we may run out of oil; the global temperature may rise or fall; all these effects will not cause any societal effects unless society communicates about it.”
- Niklas Luhmann

In 2009, the Third Energy Package was released in Europe. Unlike the previous Directives on energy, this package was not aimed at large industries or big generators. The Third Energy Package was ‘citizen-centric'. To understand why we need to look at the magnitude of the task in front of us. The energy transition is driven by an urgent requirement to act against climate change. The effects of climate change are in front of us already, as extreme winters, floods and other natural disasters. Climate change is not an alarm that we can snooze for later, it is a ticking bomb that we need to disarm. Climate change remedies are facilitated by R&D, economics and regulation. But, in order to make an impact in a short amount of time, large-scale adoption of these remedial actions is essential across societies.
Regulatory bodies have taken different policies to nudge citizens to adopt climate-friendly actions. Schemes like time-of-the-day pricing lead consumers to shift their loads from peak demand periods, essentially enabling passive demand response. Subsidies for electric vehicles, feed-in tariffs for rooftop PVs, financial support for energy communities are some ways in which the citizens are incentivized to take part in the energy transition. A large number of cities are taking measures to encourage public transport use and biking. The number of energy communities is rising in different areas. Do all these mean that societies are completely onboard with the energy transition plans? Well… not yet.

Large-scale adoption of electrification and decarbonization methods demands behavioural change. A popular study from the US shows that people support global warming change initiatives as long as it does not affect their current lifestyle [1]. This attitude can be identified especially during the commissioning of new wind energy plants. Although the support for wind energy is positive in general, when a wind energy park is commissioned in their neighbourhood, people tend to start protesting against it. This movement called ‘Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY)’ has been seen in countries like Sweden where wind energy has a support rate of 74% [2].
The underlying cause of this deviation is the difference between self-interest and perception of the common good. For wind turbines, the common good (i.e. produced energy, reduced emissions) is benefited by everyone whereas the costs incurred (noise level, visual impact, environmental impact) affect only the local population. Hence, the opinion of people about wind energy changes depending on who’s backyard the turbine is getting installed. Understanding the presence of the biases behind the survey data is important for analysing the societal impact of energy technologies. The self-interest of people can be aligned to the projects by adding the local communities and small businesses to be stakeholders of the project. Awareness about the positive local impact of these technologies like the creation of new jobs can also help to improve public opinion.

Accounting for socioeconomic factors is also the right step towards ensuring a successful energy transition. The progress of the integration of renewables and electrification of sectors is non-uniform. The disparity in income is the main factor that affects the mass implementation of novel technologies. Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Figure 1), underdeveloped and developing countries need to solve basic problems like food and water before they can focus on larger issues like energy efficiency and a green economy. Most of the infrastructure in these countries are currently being developed, which implies that, unlike developed countries, these countries have a chance to invest in green infrastructure from the beginning. A huge undertaking like that would require the support of developed countries. This is not to say that energy transition is not accessible to underdeveloped countries. The motivation behind the energy transition takes a different form in those countries, like PV panels for rural electrification, biomass energy for heating or bikes for public transport.


Also, it is not necessary to start with decarbonization or climate change in mind to reach a green solution. This can be cited from my personal experience. During a volunteer experience for an electrification project in Papua New Guinea, we were assigned to design a hybrid solution to meet the local energy demand. In the absence of an electric grid and no transportation, the design had to be local and stand-alone. The final solution was based on PV panels, batteries and micro-hydro. Although the solution turned out to be green, clean and locally procured, the emissions or fossil-fuel elimination was never explicitly mentioned during the task objective discussions. From my perspective, it feels like an indirect effect of the energy transition. The developments in the energy sector reduced the renewable capital cost (especially PV) and gave high visibility to the advantages of renewables.

No matter how good a piece of legislation is or new technology is, the acceptance depends on who is on the receiving end. The same laws can create different effects in different demographics. Demographic factors like religious and political beliefs, age, education level and income range have a severe impact on the reception of a change. Although it sounds straightforward, it can be tricky. For example, in 2015, Pope Francis expressed the global need to address climate change. Later, surveys analysed the effect of Pope’s opinion on the climate change beliefs of Catholic Christians. Rationally, the expectation would be an increase in the percentage of respondents believing in climate change after Pope’s statement. In reality, the statement backfired with conservative Catholics rejecting the message, polarizing even further and discrediting the Pope [4].

Therefore, a defined answer to what works for society and what does not work does not exist. Kangas says in his paper on self-interest and the common good, ‘man is a Faust, torn by conflicting desires and wants’ [5]. Now, a society is made up of thousands or millions of conflicting wants and needs. Predicting the behaviour of society is nearly
impossible. But, by taking the citizens to the centre of the transition (as Third Energy Package did) and making sure their voice is heard, we can find the middle ground between the needs of the society and the needs of individuals. As quoted at the beginning of the essay, none of the environmental effects will cause a societal effect unless society communicates about it. Let the societies communicate.

[1] R. J. Bord, A. Fisher, and R. E. O’Connor, “Public perceptions of global warming: United States and international perspectives,” Clim Res, p. 10, 1998.
[2] E. Devlin, “Factors Affecting Public Acceptance of Wind Turbines in Sweden,” Wind Eng., vol. 29, no. 6, pp. 503–511, Dec. 2005, doi: 10.1260/030952405776234580.
[3] A. Bhatnagar, “Mitigating Greenhouse Effect in India through Gradual Shift to Renewable Energy,” Curr. Sci., vol. 111, Oct. 2016, doi: 10.18520/cs/v111/i11/1765-1772.
[4] N. Li, J. Hilgard, D. A. Scheufele, K. M. Winneg, and K. H. Jamieson, “Cross-pressuring conservative Catholics? Effects of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the U.S. public opinion on climate change,” Clim. Change, vol. 139, no. 3–4, pp. 367–380, Dec. 2016, doi: 10.1007/s10584-016-1821-z.
[5] KANCAS, Olli, “Self-Interest and the Common Good: The Impact of Norms, Selfishness and Context in Social Policy Opinions”.

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