SUSTAINABLE FUTURES

Collec­tive power

Working together to meet the challenges of energy transition

Department of Social Sciences

The transition towards sustainable and renewable energy is a long and windy road — not only because of the technical and economic aspects, but also because of people’s reactions to all these changes. How do you get people to participate in such a transition? Social psychologist and behavioural economist Michel Handgraaf is researching the big questions that we need to get to grips with.

This research contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy.

Many people do not realise it yet, but our energy supply is going to be completely different in the decades to come as the energy transition to sustainable and renewable energy gets under way. We now have a system with large energy companies that supply us with energy and bill us for it, yet we will soon have a multitude of larger and smaller energy suppliers with an equally wide variety of forms of cooperation and arrangements.

Our energy supply is becoming greener, but also much more complicated now that we are moving from a centralised to a much more dispersed generation,” says Michel Handgraaf of the Urban Economics (UEC) group at Wageningen University & Research. “Think of district residents who share a wind turbine and solar panels on the roofs of apartment buildings. This brings forth a wide range of new questions, as all sorts of new dependencies arise between people, for example. How do you ensure that the distribution of energy is fair? That no inequality is created? How do you ensure energy justice and prevent energy poverty? These are big questions that we need to get to grips with now.”

How do you ensure energy justice and prevent energy poverty?

What if the wind turbine breaks down, or neighbours get into a quarrel with each other?

How do you get people to participate in the transition?

UEC is working on the Smart-Beejs project (pronounced: Beegees, after the pop group) that focuses on “Positive Energy Districts”: areas that are self-sufficient in their energy generation. Smart-Beejs is a European International Training Network (ITN) project in which eight European universities and sixteen civil society partners (companies, municipalities, NGOs) work together on the issues and challenges associated with Positive Energy Districts. A group of fifteen PhDs from different disciplines follows a joint training programme and works on their own as well as on joint projects.

Interdependency

“We consider all kinds of aspects within the scope of this project,” says Handgraaf, “so the technical, policy, spatial and economic side, always in the light of behavioural aspects. UEC provides the project with knowledge in the field of spatial and behavioural economics. If, for example, neighbours operate a wind turbine together or if residents of an apartment building purchase energy from solar panels on their roofs, there are all kinds of positive aspects, such as more social interaction and integration. Even so, the interdependency can also lead to problems. What if the wind turbine breaks down, or neighbours get into a quarrel with each other?”

Who determines the price?

The variation in the availability of energy also leads to many questions. Will energy become more expensive when there is less supply during a period with little sun or wind? And cheaper with a lot of supply? And who is going to determine that price? Where will we leave the energy surplus? Electric cars, for example, can act as a buffer in the event of surpluses. But what if cars will soon also generate their own energy? In the event of an energy shortage, will an employer be able to ask employees to generate energy to heat the office? And what kind of compensation would be involved?

The whole energy process becomes much more complicated. We are gathering knowledge that policymakers need in order to manage this transition

What is agent-based modelling?

Agent-based modelling

Agent-based modelling plays an important role in defining processes and questions within the process. Handgraaf: “Together with the Information Technology group, we look for answers to questions like: how do people behave in different situations and what buttons can you press to stimulate developments and prevent undesirable effects?”

Achievability

Handgraaf confesses: “From time to time I do wonder where we will end up if everyone starts to produce or store energy in addition to consuming. The whole energy process becomes much more complicated. Anything can go wrong. How do you get people to participate in the transition? How do you reconcile efficiency, honesty and the cost-benefit of the energy system? Do you want to be condemned to your neighbour when it comes to your energy supply?”

“With this project we are gathering a wealth of knowledge and insights that policymakers and stakeholders desperately need in order to manage this transition. And we are training fifteen important stakeholders who are capable of connecting all kinds of domains — different scientific disciplines, policy, industry — with each other. This project is a celebration of interdisciplinarity, with engineers working with social scientists in mixed teams. That really is invaluable in a transition like this.”

Want to know more about energy transitions? Ask our expert:

Michel Handgraaf

Associate Professor Urban Economics

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