For many experts, Smart local energy systems (SLES) are crucial to the UK’s transition to a Net Zero energy system. Over the last two years, a research team led by Professor Adrian Smith at the Sussex Energy Group has analysed developments in smart local energy systems (SLES) in the UK, as part of an ESRC-funded research project called ROLES.
Smart local energy systems are connected systems made up of technologies that generate, store and manage renewable energy. For example, a smart local energy system might be a household with solar panels, battery storage, smart appliances and smart meters, that could be be integrated with the local energy network to feed back energy when it is needed elsewhere.
Powered by people
Interestingly, though, this particular research project is not about the technologies these systems use. Instead, it focuses on a different component: people. It explores how policymakers could design and govern smart local energy systems that are fair to everyone who uses them.
For Professor Smith, the UK’s energy transiton cannot succeed unless it is done fairly. Public surveys suggest people have little trust in their energy suppliers. This lack of trust is slowing the uptake of some of the technologies the energy transition requires. For example, the UK’s rollout of smart meters has been much slower than anticipated, partly because people fear that smart meters will be used to switch them to a worse tariff, or to switch them off entirely. To get people to actually use theses crucial new technologies, then, it is important to repair trust between energy suppliers and customers. And to do that requires creating a fairer and more inclusive energy system.
So to solve today’s most pressing energy policy challenges, and to facilitate the transiton to net zero energy systems, its really important for policymakers to listen to insights from the social sciences – and especially those that touch on issues of fairness.
But how can researchers communicate those insights effectively?
The power of imagination
Addressing questions of fairness often involves exploring alternatives to social strucutures that are deeply entrenched, and seen as intractable by journalists or policymakers, who are often more interested in talking about technology than people. Cutting through sometimes requires out-the-box thinking.
That is why Professor Smith and his team commissioned a comic book to make their research findings more accessible to policymakers across the UK.
The comic book, which was written and drawn by Tim Zocco, highlights the importance of more inclusive, participatory approaches to designing Smart Local Energy Systems. That means approaches that consider a wider range of households’ energy circumstances and priorities. It also means apparoaches that understand that people in a smart local energy system aren’t just energy customers; they are energy producers in their own right. It also is able to explore these ideas visually, in a way that makes these broad, sweeping ideas tangible as well as possible alternative ways of owning, organising and sharing in new systems.
As Professor Smith puts it: “Working with Tim enabled us to illustrate complex issues and imagine systems in which absences of inclusion are remedied in a visually stimulating way. We worked closely with the artist to develop a storyline that includes paths-not-taken for these new energy systems, and develop images of people using future systems otherwise absent in demonstrations on the ground.”
The comic book will be given to interested policy makers in both Houses of Parliament, as well as to interested policymakers in the devoled parliaments in Scotland and Wales. We will also be sharing the comic with energy professionals and citizen associations. You can read a digital copy here.
The comic book was written and drawn by Tim Zocco, and was developed at the Science Policy Research Unit and relies on research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council under the JPI Solstice 2020 Programme (Grant Agreement No. ES/V01403x/1).Follow Sussex Energy Group