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Foregrounding the social in decentralised energy systems: evidence and oversights
The role of the ‘local’ in the transition to low carbon energy systems is increasingly being recognised. Mini/ micro-grids, peer-to-peer trading via blockchain, community owned renewable energy systems energy, for example, promise the ability to match local low carbon supply to local demand. The expectation is that these decentralised solutions avoid large infrastructure sized for peaks or offer modern energy access to communities for whom the promise of centralised state infrastructure is unfeasible. Hopes and expectations for these new energy configurations are often centred on the technology, and their potential to disrupt embedded highly resource-intense or polluting ways of living. However, the implementation of these technologies depend on context specific configurations of state, market and civil society actors. Through pilot projects, research has demonstrated the role of the social in getting technologies into local areas and making them provide the energy services needed by the local people. This body of literature often constrains the social into established and unchallenging roles. People are expected to embrace new technologies as ‘prosumers’, correctly responding to market signals, or passively adapt as end-users upgrading systems. There is less understanding of the more fundamental roles people can play in putting low carbon technologies to work and creating new forms of micro/mini energy systems. In this project we will bring together the evidence on the role of the social in actually existing cases of new energy configurations and identify the gaps in understanding. This means identifying how social structures (e.g. peer-to-peer trading, sharing economies, reciprocity) support the operation of energy technologies (e.g. RES micro-grids). It also means looking at where the social is poorly conceived or overlooked inorder to understand the impact for the adoption and performance of these types of energy technologies. We will carry out a rapid review to identify and analyse such socio-technical configurations. We will look at global evidence to include what is happening in developed and developing country cases and consider the very different forms of state, market, civil society and technical infrastructure in each case. We will structure our analysis to answer: • What is the role of the technology, the state, market and consumer as described in the evidence? • How is agency distributed through decentralised energy systems and where does social power lie? • How do these understandings and expectations of social agency impact the implementation and future roll-out of the identified technologies /micro /mini girds? • What risks are there in not effectively taking into account the human dimensions?
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