Social Science and the Fragility of our Energy Systems
By Heather Lovell, author of Understanding Energy Innovation
There are currently many energy problems that are top of the policy agenda across the globe. Rising prices, energy poverty, and supply shortages have all hit the headlines, driven by a combination of post-Covid recovery and the war in Ukraine. These kind of problems serve to highlight the inherent fragility of our energy systems. Energy systems, although vital to the everyday modern society, are typically overlooked unless they break down. The fragility of energy networks is one of the topics I explore in my open access book Understanding Energy Innovation: Learning from smart grid experiments. The social science research I did on smart grids showed how much work goes into keeping electricity networks stable and functioning. Seeing our energy systems as intricate finely-balanced networks of people, things, organisations, and resources helps us to better understand how change and innovation occurs. Social science research shows us that innovation is sometimes planned, but often the most radical changes are driven by unforeseen events external to energy networks, such as pandemics and wars (Hughes, 1983).
For the island state of Tasmania in Australia, where I live, rapidly rising energy prices might be the catalyst that leads to a rethink on plans for Tasmania to build a second electricity cable to mainland Australia. Tasmania produces enough electricity to meet its needs from thirty hydroelectricity power stations, developed in the period 1930-1960. The cost of producing hydroelectricity has not gone up like fossil fuels have, so in theory Tasmanian power prices should not be rising. However, Tasmania is already connected via an undersea cable to mainland Australia’s electricity network, and has plans for another one (‘MarinusLink’). Prices are going up in Tasmania because the state can sell its hydroelectricity at a high price on the mainland – the markets are all interconnected (with Tasmanian prices linked to the State of Victoria’s wholesale price). Decision-making around this is fraught, with the Tasmanian government pledging several years ago that it would break its power price link with the mainland, essentially exiting the Australian national electricity market. But this still hasn’t happened. It is one example of how the past influences energy systems in all sorts of ways, including cultural and emotional attachments to ways of seeing things and making a call on what is important.
The situation in Australia is an illustration of another topic I delve into in the book Understanding Energy Innovation – nostalgia. Why nostalgia, I hear you ask? Although it is pretty much the opposite of innovation, and therefore perhaps does not immediately seem relevant, nostalgia is actually a central part of understanding social responses to energy sector innovation. Nostalgia is about a longing for the past: the way we remember how things used to be done and a wish for things to stay the same. And once we start to look, it is not hard to see the layered influence of the past, not just in terms of the technical legacy of infrastructure, but also cultural and emotional attachments to particular practices and ideas. This influence affects what problems are identified and the types of solutions proposed.
These are just a couple of illustrations of how and why social science matters, even to the study of seemingly technical sectors like energy. By taking a social science approach it is possible to see this current period of energy sector flux and change as an opportunity to do things differently, including to enact policy changes that may have been “waiting in the wings” for such a moment when politicians need well worked-out policy solutions fast (Kingdon, 2003).
Heather Lovell is Professor of Energy and Society at the University of Tasmania, Australia. She is a human geographer with research interests in energy, climate change and the environment. Her research concerns the politics, policies and practices of innovation in response to environmental problems, focused on three empirical strands: smart grids, low energy housing, and carbon markets. Heather has previously held positions at Edinburgh, Durham and Oxford Universities in the UK.
Hughes, T.P., 1983. Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society 1880-1930. The John Hopkins University Press, Maryland.
Kingdon, J.W., 2003. Agendas, alternatives and public policies, Second ed. Harper Collins College Publishers, New York.