Interdisciplinarity and internationalization in energy: Insights from my own UK Mission (September 2018)

Energy sustainability is a pressing global issue. There is a growing consensus that addressing the ‘energy trilemma’ on a global scale calls for more transnational, multi-stakeholder collaboration and interdisciplinary research. While this approach comes with its own challenges, it continues to show us how breaking out of our comfort zones can spur solutions for the world’s most complex problems.

My name is Sara Ganowski, and as a Master’s Student in the School of Environment, Resources, and Sustainability (SERS) – and an early career researcher in today’s energy space – I am no stranger to wicked problems. Working with the NSERC Energy Storage Technology Network (NEST) Project 4.6 team, I’ve also come to learn that internationalization and interdisciplinarity are critical to unlocking new knowledge and capacity for sustainable energy change.

I recently decided to dive into this a little further. Following the March 2018 NEST Network Mission to the United Kingdom (UK), I set out – with the support of NEST and SERS – on my own mission to the UK in September 2018. My goal was to internationalize my research, build relationships with UK colleagues, and gain a broader perspective on energy storage deployment abroad. As a world leader in clean energy, the UK makes for an ideal case study and destination for exploring socio-political issues around energy storage deployment – the focus of my Master’s thesis.

My trip was centred around our NESTnet collaboration with Dr. Christopher R. Jones (University of Surrey) on a cross-national survey project on public acceptance of energy storage in Canada and the UK. The project, led by Dr. Jones (based in the UK) and Drs. James Gaede and Ian Rowlands (University of Waterloo), aligns with my own research on media representations of storage in the two countries. So, we took my UK visit as an opportunity to hold several working days and present our preliminary findings at two academic conferences. The events focused on similar energy and sustainability issues, but from rather different disciplinary perspectives. 

Our first stop was the 3rd Annual Conference in Energy Storage and Its Applications (ESA) at the Centre of Doctoral Training (CDT) at the University of Sheffield. With a technical focus, the conference covered various topics related to energy storage applications, as well as social acceptance, market, and policy aspects. CDT students delivered outstanding presentations on the latest breakthroughs in storage technologies. Key UK energy players such as Catapult and National Grid also presented solutions for integrating storage into the national energy system.

Dr. Jones, former Deputy Director and lecturer at the CDT, chaired the social science session. I was keen to learn about similar work taking place in UK on public engagement with storage technology, as there are currently few empirical studies in this space. Dr. Gareth Thomas (Cardiff University) gave an interesting talk on public attitudes toward energy flexibility and storage in the UK. His team found that public awareness and vulnerability in system change are key issues to consider. Indeed, ensuring a just energy transition wherein ‘no one is left behind’ is a critical, yet challenging part of deploying new technologies like storage.

A bit of an outlier in the programme, I concluded the session with my presentation on media framing of energy storage in Canadian newspapers. Standing in front of a room of mostly electrical engineers (and as the youngest and only international presenter), I realized that I had officially stepped out of my comfort zone. I was approaching the energy storage problem from a completely different national context and disciplinary perspective. I certainly had no optimization algorithms on my slides. And yet, I saw nodding heads and thoughtful questions arise from the audience. Several PhD researchers even thanked me for a unique international perspective and acknowledged the importance of social science in technological innovation. It was wonderful to see such an appetite for interdisciplinary and transnational knowledge-sharing at the ESA event.

Later that week, I gave a similar spotlight presentation at the 5th Annual British Environmental Psychology Society (BrEPS) Conference at the University of Surrey. The overarching theme of the conference was “crossing borders and breaking boundaries” to foster sustainable change – how appropriate, I thought, for discussing media’s role in radical energy innovation!

Sara giving a presentationSara giving a presentation

My presentations on media framing of energy storage in Canada at ESA (Sheffield) and BrEPS (Surrey) in September 2018

Presentation topics ranged from environmental ‘spill over’ effects in tourism to ‘nudging’ better recycling habits with visual communication. There were several projects on stakeholder engagement in energy system change and on public perceptions of low-carbon technologies (e.g., carbon capture and storage). It was a pleasure to connect with researchers taking cross-sectoral approaches to explore social issues associated with UK’s transitioning energy sector.

While I received a warm welcome at the ESA conference, I stepped back into more familiar disciplinary surroundings at BrEPS. Speaking to psychologists about people in energy was definitely less intimidating. I reflected on this at our later discussions about the challenges of collaborative interdisciplinary research. Delegates at BrEPS agreed that we have made significant progress in this area, but barriers to transnational, interdisciplinary research remain. Breaking the epistemic ‘glass walls’ between disciplinary actors continues to be something with which academics and practitioners worldwide struggle.

This became even more apparent when I attended the Annual British Institute of Energy Economics (BIEE) conference at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford later that month. The BIEE ‘Consumers at the Heart of the Energy System?’ conference engaged over two hundred researchers, policy, industry, and NGO leaders to tackle consumer-focused energy issues in the UK.

Group shot of speakers and delegates

Group shot of speakers and delegates on Day One of BIEE 2018 in Oxford, UK.

It was fascinating to see a diverse group of problem solvers come together to discuss energy transition strategies. I quickly learned that, despite their differences in electricity market structure and geography, Canada and the UK face similar challenges and uncertainties related to changing energy trends. For instance, the decision to include a question mark in this year’s BIEE conference title was intentional, as it allowed for critical discussion on the evolving role of consumers in today’s ‘smarter’ energy era. Debates on how to engage ‘prosumers’ in this transition and which smart energy technologies will triumph in the next ten years certainly reflected issues we grapple with in Ontario. Discussions on the four D’s of energy change (i.e., decarbonization, decentralization, digitalization, and democratization) were also similar to current conversations taking place at Canadian energy conferences.

The interplay between people and technology was an underlying theme at BIEE. Issues around ‘public trust,’ ‘engagement,’ and ‘communication’ were central to the topic of ‘energy democratization.’ Every stakeholder at the conference was in some way concerned with the role that people will play in the UK’s energy transition. Key actors like Energy System Catapult and Good Energy stressed that the transition will require strong consumer engagement and public acceptance. But, to facilitate this, we’ll need to better understand people in socio-technical change. They pointed to the opportunity for academics and practitioners to tune into the knowledge of sociologists and behavioural psychologists to help ensure that publics are a meaningful part of the energy transition, rather than an afterthought when ‘things go wrong.’ As a social scientist, hearing this was music to my ears.

I also had a great conversation at BIEE with a German researcher on how we can address the disconnect between technological innovation, policy, and public engagement by paying closer attention to media and political discourse. Indeed, we are often so confined to the worldviews of our own industry and academic silos that we fail to engage with the public sphere. This is a problem, since publics are critical stakeholders in energy transitions. The researcher with whom I spoke studied media’s impact on the commercial success of biofuels in the EU and found that contentious news coverage contributed to public opposition toward bioenergy. Ironically, on my train commute home that day, I noticed a woman reading a newspaper article on ExxonMobil’s use of algae as a sustainable fuel source. I wondered, how is the general public making sense of today’s rapid energy innovation? And, how do we ensure our communication strategies help secure public buy-in for potential solutions like biofuels, or energy storage?

Person reading a newspaper on the train

Spotted: a commuter reading about alternative energy fuels in the local newspaper on my  train home from the BIEE conference.

The BIEE conference attempted to unpack some of these issues, but it seems that there is no clear-cut transition strategy. There are, however, measures we can take to help ensure we ‘do it right.’

Dr. Peter Taylor’s (University of Leeds) presentation on the role of UK consumers in the uptake of decentralised energy storage technologies suggested that we need to be proactive with issues such as public awareness, trust, and motivation in our deployment strategies. It was a pleasure to connect with Dr. Taylor and discuss potential collaboration opportunities, as both our teams are investigating public engagement with emerging energy storage applications.

Another highlight of the BIEE conference was the ‘Women in Energy’ breakfast session led by distinguished female energy leaders. In line with the theme of interdisciplinarity and partnership, the speakers shared insight on women’s career advancement in the new energy world, and opportunities for fostering greater gender diversity and collaboration in academia and industry. Prof. Catherine Mitchell (University of Exeter) offered some particularly wise words for women working in energy:

“understand yourselves before making choices, believe in your value, strive for independence early, find a supportive group, and always, always be yourself.”

And of course, “don’t be afraid to be bold.

Women sitting at a table

Prof. Catherine Mitchell at the BIEE ‘Women In Energy’ breakfast session sharing insights on women’s career advancement in an evolving energy sector

Overall, the three conferences revealed that now more than ever, clean energy solutions require us to break new boundaries, cross borders, and step outside of our disciplinary silos. My UK mission certainly encouraged me to break barriers and explore new terrain. It gave me new international insights on my research and a greater appreciation for interdisciplinary knowledge-sharing. Indeed, if we want to pursue solutions like energy storage, we’ll need to find new ways of working together – across disciplines, industries, cultures, and countries. Most importantly, we must not forget that people are truly at the heart of energy system change.