Headline: “Socialising” energy models: It’s time to put social concerns in energy models

There is far more to the energy system than technical infrastructure.
There is far more to the energy system than technical infrastructure. Shutterstock/viki2win

On the 7th of October, the European Parliament voted to adopt a more ambitious climate target to reduce EU emissions by 60% in 2030 compared to 1990, up from 40% currently. Policymaking and planning decisions towards this target are not straight forward, and it bears the question: How can we foster the societal and political acceptance needed to completely decarbonise our energy systems? While energy models can be used to study the pathways towards a decarbonised energy system, they largely neglect the social and political dimensions of the energy transition. To provide more realistic, relevant, and sustainable decision-advice, it’s time for energy modellers to integrate social concerns in their models.

Societies are the drivers and constraints of energy transitions

Future renewable energy-dominated energy systems are expected to be much more decentralised, and will involve more local actors as well as infrastructures closer to people’s homes. While we see that citizens engage in and benefit from being producers and consumers of electricity – so called prosumers – we also find strong public opposition towards renewable infrastructures, such as onshore wind farms and grids. Society, it seems, is both a driver and constraint for successful energy transitions.

Current energy models are mostly techno-economic models and largely neglect social aspects of the energy transition. However, cost optimisation alone cannot approximate the real-world transition, because it ignores the essential environmental and social dimensions of the energy transition. Landscape impacts, social acceptance, co-benefits of prosumerism and community energy, energy sufficiency, as well as energy poverty are essential elements of a just, sustainable transition. By neglecting those aspects, models may lead to erroneous political decision-making. One example is the stagnation of wind energy deployment in Germany. None of the existing models could have predicted this strong decline, which is partially due to changes in renewable-energy policy instruments and failed acceptance policy. Energy models that better understand and account for the social dimensions of the energy transition would facilitate decision-making and planning to advance the energy transition without undermining public and political acceptance for the necessary measures.

Demand for the consideration of social aspects in energy models

The Energy Modelling Platform for Europe (EMP-E) conference, which took place from the 6th-8th of October, revealed considerable demand for the improved integration of social impacts of the energy transition in energy models. A live poll during the conference’ plenary ‘Socio-economic impacts of the transition’ showed that social justice, lifestyle changes, and impact on growth were the top three challenges facing decision-makers in the context of the EU Green Deal that energy models must be addressing.

In an online survey sent to the participants of the conference, 86% strongly or somewhat agreed that social impacts are not sufficiently integrated in energy models, and half of the participants strongly agreed that they should be better addressed in energy models (see Fig. 1)

Fig. 1: Response to the question: Do you think that social impacts should be more integrated in energy models?, N=38, EMP-E survey, October 2020, CC BY 4.0

Stakeholders especially requested that models should be able to address energy poverty, consumer behaviour, social drivers/constraints, as well as the social acceptance of technologies and infrastructure (see Fig. 2). This finding is in line with the results from our survey for the SENTINEL project, which found that energy models should be improved to address consumer behaviour and lifestyles as well as social impacts of the transition.

These aspects barely feature in existing energy models. One third of the surveyed energy modellers indicated that they account for consumer behaviour in their models, while energy poverty, social acceptance and social drivers/constraints are only considered by a minority (0-12% of the participating modellers). In light of this, energy modellers should consider whether their models or others exist that could adequately integrate these aspects and identify potentials for further integration.

Fig. 2: Which three social aspects would you like to see integrated into energy models? (multiple choices, up to 3) N=38, EMP-E survey, October 2020, CC BY 4.0

Perspectives for tackling social drivers and constraints in models

Social aspects are essential for the success of the energy transition and there is a clear need for models that can address relevant issues, such as: Which decarbonisation scenarios enjoy greater social acceptance? How would energy landscapes and energy mixes look like if they were driven by regional technology preferences? What drives opposition and how can it be described in models? How can we better measure regional implications, such as employment effects?

The consideration of such questions is still rare, but there are some approaches to define and quantify social matters to be included in social storylines, as narratives in scenarios, or as input parameters. This allows, for example, researchers to model different social acceptance pathways for wind energy development, or to simulate the employment effects of different renewable energy developments.

Recent IASS research by Tim Tröndle et al. has shown that small-scale solutions for renewable energy production, which are often more favoured by citizens, are affordable, and land requirements for renewables can be reduced at relatively low costs, potentially reducing land use conflicts. Lombardi et al. used alternative configurations for the decarbonisation of the Italian energy system to better balance techno-economic feasibility with social and political goals in energy planning.

At the EMP-E conference, Jan-Philipp Sasse highlighted the trade-offs among the scenarios that minimise system costs, maximize regional equality, and maximize renewable electricity generation, and showed that limiting emerging regional inequalities could foster successful implementation. Johannes Emmerling presented his recent, unpublished work, in which he concludes that climate change could increase domestic inequality, and renewable job gains from climate policies would outweigh fossil fuel job losses.

The availability of quantified data on social aspects and their integration in models remains a key challenge. Closer collaboration between social scientists and energy modellers is crucial to facilitate learning and securing advances in the quantification and representation of the social and behavioural dimensions of the transition in energy models.

Within the SENTINEL project, we are developing a modelling toolbox to support the improved integration of social acceptance and opposition, as well as policy preferences in energy models. Please get in touch with us, if you want to learn more about our work, or collaborate with us.

Models are not the one and only solution

Finally, not all social aspects can and should be included in models. Thus, it remains essential that policy decisions are not based on modelling results alone. Rather, the results must be discussed in the context of unaccounted social and environmental concerns and with different stakeholders affected by policy and planning decisions.

 

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