Shaping the future of Europe's energy policy
The transition toward clean, efficient and secure energy will require more than just technological innovation. An EU-funded project is applying research insights from across the social sciences and humanities to help guide European energy policy.
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The EU-funded SHAPE ENERGY initiative is providing a unique perspective on the energy sector, spanning the dynamics of energy supply and demand by probing the social, demographic, geographic, ethical, economic and political aspects of a critical and complex field. From addressing local energy challenges in European cities to advancing the Europe-wide transition to clean, efficient and renewable sources of power, the projects multi-disciplinary approach is generating novel guidance for policymakers, businesses and citizens alike.
Energy-related social sciences and humanities research, or energy-SSH, has traditionally been overlooked as an evidence base for energy policy. Instead, energy policymakers have sought evidence from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines as part of a wider agenda that targets technological progress as the means to address energy challenges, says Chris Foulds, the SHAPE ENERGY co-lead at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK.
However, as Foulds and fellow project co-lead Rosie Robison point out, there is much to be learned and gained from exploring the essential social sciences and humanities dimensions of energy policy.
For example, while technological progress can lead to more energy-efficient consumer goods from light bulbs and TVs to cars and houses focusing on technology alone neglects important considerations about why and how societys use of these goods evolves, and how that impacts final energy consumption.
Perspectives from human psychology and social anthropology, for instance, must be taken into account if energy-saving initiatives, such as the deployment of smart metering devices and smart city technologies, are to be successful. On the energy supply side, economic, sociological and political considerations are also integral to energy infrastructure collaborations, from the placement of wind farms to the installation of cross-border renewable energy supply lines.
Society and the energy agenda
Its important to recognise that there are many differences between energy-SSH disciplines and they bring a diversity of perspectives. Many are under-represented at the EU energy policy level despite being active communities. All energy-SSH work puts society or people at the heart of how we define the energy problem as well as how we seek answers to that problem, which is a vital part of meeting policy aspirations, explains Robison.
In seeking answers, the SHAPE ENERGY project is bringing different energy-SSH research communities together, bridging disciplines as diverse as sociology, psychology and politics to remove the barriers that have often led to siloed and fragmented research. As such, the project is helping to ensure that energy-SSH is no longer seen as an add-on to scientific and technological innovation, but an integral part of energy policy and strategy in its own right.
The SHAPE ENERGY platform is providing a number of freely accessible resources for researchers and policymakers, while enabling multidisciplinary collaborations and supporting in-depth studies addressing societal factors in energy challenges. The project partners, including 13 research institutions and businesses across 11 countries, are providing training to early-stage researchers and organising workshops in 17 European cities in partnership with municipal authorities to tackle local energy challenges. Their work will also feed into energy policy and strategy at the European level.
A core purpose of SHAPE ENERGY is to advise the European Commission on how best to support energy-SSH and to learn from it in meeting the EUs energy priorities, Foulds says. Our results are therefore feeding into a number of policy areas, including advising the Commission on future energy-SSH calls in the Horizon 2020 programme, creating a new energy-SSH forum called Energy-SHIFTS, and connecting with more than 50 other EU-funded energy and transport projects.
SHAPE ENERGY will also contribute to the EU Strategic Energy Technology Plan which aims to accelerate the development and deployment of low-carbon technologies, thereby helping to drive and guide energy policy with a social sciences and humanities dimension for the next decade and beyond.