Delivering on net zero energy requires the radical transformation of our whole energy system from supply and distribution to demand. In this blog, Charlotte Brown, Hannah Charles and Rob Bellamy explore three topics that illustrate the importance of mapping in relation to low carbon energy transitions and their implications for policy.
- Policymakers should go ‘beyond consultation’ and widen participation in energy policy development by engaging with groups and communities already working and invested in local energy systems.
- Energy policy should become decentralised and place-based. Local communities involved in energy systems should be included as stakeholders in developing local plans for energy systems, as they are likely to understand local contexts and place-based needs for the communities.
- Local energy policies should be informed by data collection and mapping to provide a robust basis for decision making on what policy should look like.
Procedural justice and energy anxiety
Procedural justice refers to how energy justice depends on inclusive and fair consultative engagement, with high quality information provided and opportunities to revoke unjust decisions. It can be ensured when policymakers consult and map the perspectives of those affected by suggested policies. Without these engagement opportunities to gather knowledge from a range of backgrounds, policymakers run risks of worsening equality issues or embedding marginalised groups in poor conditions.
Understanding and engagement with the energy system is impacted by multiple locational aspects on varying scales. Understanding the characteristics of local areas is also essential to understanding users and interpreting results of engagement.
One example of procedural justice being overlooked in the UK’s shift to net zero is the push to include smart meters and heat pumps in homes. Heat pumps use electricity to heat homes, and smart meters make visible the amount of electricity used in homes. Together, these pieces of technology are meant to enable individuals to reduce their energy usage, and empower citizens to take environmental action through reduced electricity use and carbon emissions.
However, in practice, heat pumps can use lots of electricity, particularly when homes are poorly insulated or when pumps are improperly fitted. Smart meters have also been shown to increase anxiety and stress amongst people who are financially precarious when paying energy bills. When stress associated with energy use is compounded by increased energy use, this can cause individuals in precarious financial situations further anxiety. As energy costs soar during a cost of living crisis, this anxiety is only expected to get worse.
Mapping engagement: beyond consultation
The success of any transition to a low carbon energy system depends on society’s engagement, from examining support for particular policies and changing energy behaviours to underpinning deeper forms of citizenship in energy governance. Much like the transformation of technical aspects of energy systems, meaningful engagement must take a whole systems approach. This means mapping diverse ways in which people engage with the energy system on an ongoing basis.
Crucially, it means mapping citizen-led engagements with issues and actions relating to the energy system, as well as those led by institutions. Comparative case mapping can help in this process by accounting for uninvited communities such as activists, protesters, energy poverty action groups, energy cooperatives, and community energy groups, as well those typically engaged via consultations, opinion surveys, deliberative processes, behaviour change initiatives, and smart meter trials.
Using approaches like this can open up a variety of ways people can engage and develop new methods for evaluating sustainable energy futures. For example, distributed deliberative mapping sees typical ways of engaging the public joined by activist, grassroots innovator, and consumer-based engagements. The results are very different to conventional ‘top down’ approaches to engagement. Across different groups, a variety of problem definitions go far beyond common energy problems and a greater diversity and range of technical and social criteria with which low-carbon energy futures are appraised.
The study shows centralised energy systems, such as business as usual and large-scale technologies, perform much lower than decentralised alternatives, such as a smart-tech society and local energy partnerships. Rather than focusing on getting views of ‘representative’ mini-publics to inform centralised decisions made by those managing ‘the transition’, distributed deliberative mapping method can support much more distributed modes of governing and democratising sustainable energy futures.
Spatial mapping and data informed decisions
Understanding a locations impact on user views and interactions with the energy system is also important. Spatial mapping of influencing factors is one example of this, which includes consideration of anything from local climate, to socio-demographic characteristics, and cultural information about local areas.
For example, geo-referenced data about whether houses retain heat well in winter and keep cool in summer could help smart meters to be installed in suitable homes with the suitable thermal characteristics. The data could also be used to avoid installing smart meters in unsuitable homes, or to flag households where additional financial or educational support might be needed post installation.
Individual’s assessments of homes can provide this information on homes thermal characteristics however, this is costly and time-consuming. A method developed using data from Greater Manchester, and later applied to Bristol as part of investigating heat vulnerability and focussing on summer overheating in homes and the need for cooling, has mapped homes and their thermal characteristics across entire cities using open source data. This has allowed individual addresses to be scored on their comparative risk across the city’s housing stock. It has also allowed specific neighbourhoods which are ‘at risk’ to be identified.
Though this work focussed on summer overheating, the method and data could be used to understand spatial distributions of winter energy poverty. These maps can be overlain with other geographic data sets and can be useful in prioritising energy policy, understanding impacts of energy policy and indeed interpreting outcomes of comparative mapping and other engagement activities by offering insights to drivers of variations in opinions.
So what are the policy implications of mapping citizen perspectives in support of procedural justice, societal engagement in support of more democratic, robust and acceptable transitions, and spatial mapping in prioritising energy policy and understanding the impacts of energy policy?
- The likelihood of achieving procedural justice within energy policy is low without data collection on needs and perspectives, so citizen perspectives and spatial information must be gathered. Without proper engagement, energy systems developed by policymakers could be inefficient and ineffective, or worsen access to energy justice.
- Policymakers should go ‘beyond consultation’ and widen participation by engaging with local energy groups in energy communities meeting spaces, and reaching out to people in community hubs such as faith centres, or schools. Once a wider variety of participants have been found, their responses can be mapped more effectively. Energy systems should not be developed by policymakers without taking proper consideration of local contexts and people’s needs, as without this, energy systems may remain ineffective and underused by local citizens.
- Energy systems should be decentralised. Local communities working towards developing a decentralised energy system (such as energy communities who are working towards local power production) should be included as stakeholders in developing local plans for energy systems, as they are likely to understand local contexts and place-based needs for the communities. Energy policy should be included in wider levelling up policy, with more powers being awarded to local authorities to build place-based energy strategies that address the specific energy needs of local communities.
- Data collection by local authorities should be innovative. For example, comparative case mapping and distributed deliberative mapping can provide a more socially robust basis for decision making on what our collective energy futures could – and should – look like. Local authorities should, if the skills do not already exist in their in-house data teams, seek the help of experts such as academics who are practised in these data collection methods.
- Superior spatial mapping of influencing factors, and more holistic and informative views of their individual interactions with the energy system, can be developed to help prioritise and tailor policy to a very local level.
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