While energy might seem like an abstract or a rather technical matter, which primarily requires innovative technological solutions to enable the transition to a sustainable future, it is people who use energy – in many different ways – and its impact on our daily lives is immense. We might individually make some of the decisions on how we use energy in our homes, but there are also a number of factors which can influence, support, encourage or limit the opportunities and decisions that are available to us in the first place. Some of those that may pave the way to a carbon-neutral future are more straightforward: such as the availability and affordability of energy efficiency and renewables technologies, enabling legislation, financial incentives, or the state of the energy market and infrastructure.
On the other hand, there are subtler factors that may support or stand in the way of societies’ smooth energy transitioning, and these are often more difficult to capture, address or mitigate. For example, the common bathing routine in Japan might seem an excessive waste of energy until we understand that the elaborate practice is intertwined into the everyday social fabric, nurturing bonds between family members and signalling one’s belonging to a society, among other things (see Westrom, 2018). Understanding what energy is for (Shove and Walker, 2014) is therefore one of the key initial steps for designing impactful interventions for sustainable(r) energy futures. The most energy efficient building is one without people in it, after all – but then, we would not call it home, office, or gym.
For energy technologies and services to be efficient, adopted widely and properly, they therefore have to respond to the needs, requirements as well as capabilities of the diverse social groups they are addressing. Anthropologists aim to understand practices, values, meanings, relationships or behaviours, by immersing into the everyday lives of the people they study. Through participant observation, open-ended discussions, or semi-structured interviews, ethnography helps us to find answers to the questions we have, but also allows us to find new questions that we did not know need asking in the first place; what is relevant and important to our research participants? In this manner, ethnographers have been focusing on energy as well, exploring how energy is conceptualised, understood, generated or used in diverse contexts across the world. If we understand the energy-related practices and values, we improve our ability to design customised tools, services, or policies that can better support the energy transition.
In the case of (renewable) energy communities, the social and cultural dimension of energy is particularly relevant as it encompasses elements of cooperation, individuals’ and communities’ agency (ability to act, engage actively in the energy markets), resource sharing, and forms of social organisation, which have historically been part of the ethnographic gaze. Ethnographers studying energy communities may explore what changes in communities when they become part of a flexible, decentralised energy network where households can jointly generate, store, share, or even sell energy. They look into the “everyday lives” of existing and emerging energy communities – including the way these are organised, how they collaborate with energy market actors, the kinds of know-how their members need to obtain, what they use energy for, how, and why, what kind of flexibility they can offer, how they navigate the technologies or make energy-related decisions. Ethnographers thereby make energy “tangible” by looking into the everyday elements of life, which are “powered by” it, striving to gain an understanding of how specific cultural, social, energy policy, or market contexts can impact the nature of energy communities across different regional, national, or local contexts.
An analysis of the so-called “thick data” that ethnographers capture, provides an important insight into how energy communities are being formed, organised, and operated. While quantitative (“big”) data can offer researchers answers to questions such as Who, What, When, and How of the energy (generation, demand, storage etc.), ethnography offers a glimpse into the Why and What for (see also Tricia Wang’s blog post on Why Big Data Needs Thick Data, 2013). The energy transition is in a large extent also a social transformation, requiring a shift in social practices, norms and values, which impact the energy demand and perceptions.
An understanding of these social and cultural elements of energy communities through a people-centred, holistic, interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder approach – one which is also undertaken in the Horizon 2020 project NRG2peers where ethnography-inspired research is integrated into the research and development process – can help communities, researchers, developers, energy actors, or policy-makers to tackle existing barriers and better support the development of future energy systems that are people-friendly, but also inclusive and equitable.