The choices made by individuals are having a significant effect on the evolution of the global energy system. Thanks to distributed renewables, users are no longer only consuming energy – they are also producing it. Shifts in consumer behaviour, such as a move toward electric vehicles, are also creating stresses and opportunities for power systems. Yet in addition to distributed renewables and electrification, one of the most significant, cross-cutting and user-centred trends transforming today’s global energy system is digitalisation.
By joining together all components of the energy system via high-speed digital communications networks, digitalisation provides new opportunities to accelerate the growth of low-carbon and energy efficient energy systems. For example, as the share of variable renewable generation increases, homes and businesses with electric cars and heating and cooling systems can offer flexibility services to ensure the security of our power supply. By facilitating higher levels of automation, digitalisation also promises efficiency gains across the energy system: from individual appliances to buildings and power plants.
For consumers, digitalisation is changing expectations of service and value. People no longer need only to be passive energy consumers; digital technologies are already supporting people to more actively participate in energy markets, and will soon allow users to produce, consume, store and trade an even wider range of energy services.
The IEA is at the forefront of research on each of these trends, tracking technology change and supporting its member governments understand how to leverage the digital revolution for greater energy efficiency, and how infrastructure, markets and institutions can adapt to the evolving challenges of electricity security in the 21st century, amongst other topics.
One of the key takeaways from this research is that energy users are now more central to the energy system than ever before, with consumer purchasing decisions and behaviour determining the pace of technological change, whether digitalisation becomes a force for greater efficiency or just more energy use, and how much distributed storage and flexible load resources become available to balance variable renewables.
Yet paradoxically, a major unknown factor in future energy transitions is the human element. For example, research has consistently revealed mismatches between how technology providers, techno-economic models, and policy makers expect technologies to be adopted and used, and reality. These discrepancies play out in contrasts between the expected and actual impacts of policy measures and observed uptake of technologies – through to the ‘performance gap’ between designed and in-use efficiency of vehicles and buildings.
A failure to properly understand the role of energy users in the energy transition is worrying in a world where governments have set ambitious climate goals that depend on a rapid increase in demand-side energy efficiency, alongside an acceleration in the growth of intermittent renewable generation. If the world is to succeed in this mission, it is imperative that policy makers and technology providers properly understand how and why people adopt and use new energy technologies.
With this in mind, 16 members of the IEA family and three sponsors launched a new collaboration under the IEA’s Technology Collaboration Programme (TCP) in October 2019: User-Centred Energy Systems, or UsersTCP. This initiative brings together the world’s leading socio-technical researchers and policy makers to provide the evidence base needed to make better energy policy decisions that place energy users at the heart of the policy process.
UsersTCP was created with the recognition that people use technologies to convert energy into the services they want. To do this, technologies must be useable, and their services must satisfy user needs. This ‘socio-technical’ approach is becoming more and more central to policy making and lies at the heart of the work of the collaboration.
Announced at the All-Energy Australia Conference in Melbourne, UsersTCP has adopted a systems perspective in which people, such as technology designers, policy makers, intermediaries and end users, are as integral as hardware and software to delivering an energy system that meets our wider social, environmental and economic goals. As such, the work programme focuses on business models, peer-to-peer energy trading, hard-to-reach energy users and the social licence to automate, with new work to begin shortly on the application of behavioural insights in energy policy making , in collaboration with the IEA’s Energy Efficiency Division.
To help disseminate the outputs of the UsersTCP and connected work, the User-Centred Energy Systems Academy has begun holding monthly webinars on key topics. Building on the success of the DSM University, the first webinar looked at on the grid integration of electric vehicles.
The IEA will be working closely with this new research collaboration, and looks forward to using the results of its research to inform its modelling capacity and policy guidance.