In the story of how energy is made and used to keep a country functioning, you don’t get a starring role. You are the passive receiver and consumer of electricity or gas in a tale dominated by governments, corporations and the media. We put the kettle on, we set the thermostat but we don’t take any heat for shaping or challenging the status quo.
In truth though there are distinct, if overlapping, types of energy users which together tell a different story. Most likely without realising, they play a crucial role in creating, altering and establishing new energy systems.
People power and energy transitions
Knowing which consumers are which gives policymakers an opportunity and a reason to get out of the rut of only providing information or raising awareness. Knowing which type you are will give you an understanding of your potential to encourage innovation and aid transition to a new sustainable energy system.
Policies should assist consumers to become active users who experiment and produce new forms of energy; who develop new visions; who campaign for sustainable provision; and who make the links between production, consumption and regulation.
It might sound ambitious, but there are three clear stages to creating sustainable energy production systems.
Making the transition
Research conducted by Sussex University, University of Tartu in Estonia and by Eindhoven University of Technology, in the Netherlands, has taken a long-term perspective spanning 80 to 100 years and describes how individual energy users can impact, change and validate society’s dominant energy approach.
The first stage identified in this research is the start-up phase, when niche, sustainable visions of energy production spring up. It is also when user routines – we can also call them rules or norms – are challenged and new ones are experimented with. It’s where most of Europe sits right now.
Germany, however, looks like it is moving into the acceleration phase, when the old system is weakened and hollowed out. New collective routines emerge and niches become small, yet mature, markets. Solar and wind energy in Germany might be having a tricky time at the moment, but only because they are genuinely challenging the incumbent system and so subsidies are being removed.
Finally, a changed, dominant set of shared routines for energy that we can call a socio-technical regime become mainstream during the stabilisation phase. These day-to-day practices are not just collective, they are embedded in the infrastructure; the products and services; the organisations; and the culture of the reformed energy system. Wind energy in Denmark has reached into this phase. It is a relatively mature market and no longer a small player.
In this progression, you the users play a dynamic role in creating, altering and establishing the energy system. You might adopt different roles as you slowly shape these new energy systems, but you can identify where you and others sit right now by shared approaches and key characteristics. The roles are not static or exclusive; you may flow between groups. And overall we get a shared, deep learning which redefines accepted routines, rules and norms.
Which user are you?
So it is time to decide which user you are. There are five main types, each with their own roles and impacts which help to shape a new story for energy.
User producers do the constructing, tinkering, amending, modifying and improving of technologies by engaging in extensive thinking and learning around the product, process or system. User producers are key to the innovative start-up phase. The history of technology shows this to be pertinent time and time again. Examples such as special solar collectors (tubes rather than flat panels), combi-systems for space heating or advanced safety systems for biomass heaters saw significant developmental input from user producers. These advances were then adopted by corporations and enterprise.
User legitimators are intrinsic in creating belief in the fresh technology, system, product or method. They positively inform, both influential collectives within the arena, and wider societal beliefs. They help provide knowledge to aid cultural acceptance and assist in stability and growth. Look at the high level of legitimacy provided by user legitimators to renewable energy options in Germany, which significantly accelerated their take-up. Or look at people like Amory Lovins, whose Rocky Mountain residence in the US is a showcase for his ideas on renewables and efficiency.
User citizens are the activists, challengers and agents of social change against the incumbent system. They mobilise and challenge. They carve out of the existing structure an appetite for the adoption of the new methods in the acceleration phase. You might be one if you are active in getting people involved ahead of September’s zero waste week alongside Rachelle Strauss. If so, you are helping show how new routines and norms are being created to think about consumption and the knock-on effects for energy and sustainability.
User intermediaries create, influence and nurture networks, particularly in the acceleration phase. They can help align the producers, users, regulators and organisations. They create credibility around specific knowledge and practices which help make the niche mainstream. So if you are part of the the European Climate Action Network, or part of hundreds of community energy groups in the UK, this is where you fit in.
User consumers are “lead consumers”. This is where most of us might sit, or at least can aspire to sit. User consumers can choose to adopt the niche developments early, embedding them into daily routines. They might have been the ones who started walking or cycling to work and got others to think it might be for them too. By attaching meaning, significance or status, user consumers contribute considerably to the positive construction of ideas about the niche within wider society. They aid activation for mass take up, which can push us all into the stabilisation phase where the transition from niche to new energy regime is complete.
For further reading view the full paper: The Role of Users in Shaping Transitions To New Energy Systems, Johan Schot, Laur Kanger and Geert Verbong, Nature Energy (2016)