ENERGISE project in top gear as it hooks into 1,000 best practice energy models across Europe
20 February 2018
Diagram of Social Practice Theory (Shove et al. 2012)
The ENERGISE project, funded under the EU Horizon 2020 programme for three years (2016-2019) and led by Dr Frances Fahy from National University of Ireland, Galway, is a pan-European initiative that aims to reduce energy usage in households and communities across Europe and contribute to European policy-making on energy.
ENERGISE develops, tests and assesses options for a bottom-up transformation of energy use in households and communities across Europe. It stands for the European Network for Research, Good Practice and Innovation for Sustainable Energy.
Living Labs directly observe existing energy cultures
ENERGISE’s research techniques – an example would be its Living Labs – are used to directly observe existing energy cultures in a real-world setting and to test both household and community-level initiatives to reduce energy consumption.
The project includes a comprehensive review and classification of household and community energy initiatives from 30 European countries and provides the foundation for the development of two prototype ‘ENERGISE Living Labs’ designed to capture influences on individual and collective energy consumption.
Data collection before, during and after the implementation of 16 Living Labs in eight partner countries will be instrumental in contributing to the design and assessment of future energy consumption initiatives across Europe.
Although 200,000 houses in Ireland have been retrofitted by the SEAI since 2011, unfortunately, residential energy use is still on the rise. A recent SEAI report has highlighted how residential energy use increased by 5.2 per cent in 2015 relative to 2014 (3.5 per cent when corrected for weather effects).
Considering the long-term success of measures
Indeed much of the scientific research and public policy in the field of energy has primarily focused on drives towards greater carbon efficiency employing technological and economic initiatives. However, many of these approaches do not consider the long-term success of such measures within the existing energy culture where short-term efficiency gains may be wiped out by simply increasing overall consumption over time.
Benjamin Sovacool, and other social scientists in the field of energy, argue that a broader pool of expertise is needed to understand how human behaviour affects energy demand and the uptake of technologies.
Sovacool argues that omitting social science from the energy research agenda leads to the neglect of topics related to the social impacts of energy demand an energy transitions. To complement and extend existing work in the field of energy the ENERGISE research hopes to draw attention to socio-cultural factors that shape collective energy demand and create variations in how energy is generated, distributed, viewed and used both within and between countries.
Cultural change a key ingredient in successful energy transitions
ENERGISE recognises that cultural change is a key ingredient in successful energy transitions and contends that without a comprehensive understanding of different ‘energy cultures’, public policy initiatives targeting behavioural change to reduce consumption at the individual or household level are likely to fail.
“Individual energy use is a function of who we are, where we come from, and the socio-cultural contexts in which we live,” said Dr Frances Fahy, NUI Galway and lead investigator on the ENERGISE project. “If we think about it, our regular norms and routines in the spheres of work, family and recreation significantly determine our patterns of energy use and also our ability and willingness to change those patterns.”
The ENERGISE team maintain that people do not use energy for its own sake but to undertake their daily activities and as such the research considers the prevalence of, and interactions between, social practices that initiate energy use in households, communities and organisations.
Practices are characterised by ENERGISE as more or less routinised activities that incorporate meaning (for example, perceptions of what it is used for), skills and competences (for example, the ability to use it) and material and technological elements (for example, infrastructure).
The project team argue that energy use can be understood as one of the main outcomes of everyday practices that people engage in, including heating their homes, cooking, or moving between their home and their workplace.
These practices consist of different elements, fusing meaning, skills and competences, and material conditions and incorporating wider societal conditions. Social conditions incorporate diverse cultural norms and conventions that regulate people’s everyday activities and related ways of consuming natural resources, including energy.
Societal and cultural influences on household energy consumption
The ENERGISE project describes energy use as collectively shared and culturally mediated. In that vein, it departs from individualistic views of energy choices and behaviour to investigate the societal and cultural influences on household energy consumption.
Importantly, it covers both social and material dimensions of energy use in households and communities and their impacts on society and the environment. Much like an iceberg, energy practices contain elements that can be observed above the water, and other, hidden elements, that remain below the surface.
The visible elements include directly observable behaviour as well as infrastructures and technologies that are crucial to the performance of an energy practice. Those that are not visible include elements that are difficult to access or comprehend.
These include taken-for-granted cultural norms and conventions concerning the desirability of certain practices, prevailing political and economic conditions, or the availability of particular technologies. Importantly, people’s engagement in a particular practice both shapes and reflects the social environment that they are embedded in, ranging from family relations and household structures to wider societal conditions.
To date, approaches within the growing body of energy research have focused on the visible parts of practices which can be directly observed. For example, approaches have been developed to assess directly observable elements of daily mobility practices, including people’s modal choice or the number of kilometres travelled per annum.
Systematically unearth the hidden elements of practices
Arguably, a more challenging task is to systematically unearth the hidden elements of practices such as the meaning people attach to using particular transport modes, or the skills and competences necessary for people to engage in multi-modal commuting practices.
In addition, more attention needs to be paid to the material elements of practices that may or may not be open to direct investigation. Here, social scientists frequently use well-established parameters and indicators that have been developed by natural scientists and engineers. Accessing the hidden parts of practices thus requires the design and application of more innovative forms of empirical inquiry.
For example, the ENERGISE team are currently developing specific ENERGISE Living Labs. A Living Lab approach frequently describes a process, initiative or ‘real-world experiment’ that is spatially defined and brings together diverse social actors (for example, academics, municipalities, communities, NGOs, committed individuals), with a view to fostering innovation, research and development.
Living Labs explicitly encourage innovation
Within the ENERGISE project it is anticipated that Living Labs explicitly encourage innovation through the application of both lay and scientific expert knowledge to real-world problems (for example, excessive energy use).
Acknowledging that there are a lot of people and organisations that have taken significant steps towards more sustainable, low-energy living, the ENERGISE team is keen to showcase and learn from as many different initiatives as possible.
The project has already identified more than 1,000 initiatives that have been ongoing across Europe and are drawing on good practice examples to inform the design of their Living Labs. These conceptual and methodological approaches to energy use were presented to and discussed by the panel of international experts during the two-day workshop in Dublin.
According to Dr Frances Fahy: “The entire team are looking forward to rolling out these innovative approaches and working with households and communities to uncover the social and cultural drivers of domestic energy use and exploring the potential ways of changing energy use into the future.”
The ENERGISE consortium includes 10 research partners (universities, research institutes, enterprises and NGOs) from Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Slovenia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. For further information about the project visit: http://www.energise-project.eu/. For more information about ENERGISE, contact Dr Eimear Heaslip, ENERGISE post-doctoral researcher, School of Geography and Archaeology, NUI Galway at 091 492171 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SEAI (2016), Achievements 2011 – 2016 Since We Last Published.
SEAI (2016), Energy in Ireland 1990 – 2015, 2016 Report.
Sovacool, B.K., 2014. Energy studies need social science. Nature, 511(7511), p.529.
Shove, E., Pantzar, M. and Watson, M., 2012. The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes. Sage.