Scenarios for the development of smart grids in the UK

Lead Research Organisation: University of Westminster
Department Name: Sch of Social Sci, Humanities & Language


Smart Grids (SGs) offer clear potential to contribute to UK policy goals of a transition to a low-carbon economy, energy security and affordability by transforming the ways we produce, deliver and consume energy, and potentially our conception of these services. As yet, there is little in-depth research into what factors might influence this potential, how such a grid can develop from today to 2050 and who might be the winners and losers in this process.

Given the strength of scenarios for organising economic, technological, competitive, political, and societal information and translating it into a framework for decision-making, they are well suited for analysing and informing SG development. Existing scenarios highlight social, economic, policy, and technological drivers of change within energy and related sectors; however little work to date has examined the roles and priorities of different actors, spatial variation (e.g., urban/rural, existing energy infrastructure) or behavioural issues. A significant innovation of this project will be to incorporate these important dimensions into specific SG scenarios, and to include stakeholders' assessments of the uncertainties and key indicators associated with SG development.

This complex, socio-technical topic demands a multidisciplinary team and an innovative combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Accordingly, our team combines expertise from across social, policy and engineering sciences with critical skills in SG analysis, stakeholder engagement, and scenario development techniques. In two interrelated work packages, we will:
1) Identify key steps likely to determine the future shape of SG at the upstream level, together with socio-economic, behavioural, technological and environmental factors influencing the uptake of technologies at the end user level. These will be identified via: systematic review of UK and international literatures; case study analysis of SG demonstration projects (including interviews with key actors); development of initial scenario outlines; and Policy Delphi study to identify and evaluate key scenario dimensions and indicators.
2) Develop a range of SG scenarios (both quantitatively modelled and qualitatively narrated), and subsequently evaluate and refine these through expert and public workshops. This will involve elements of backcasting and forecasting. Our iterative scenario development process involves: devising scenario outlines (broad descriptions of 2050 end point) and pathways between now and 2050; creating narratives and conducting spatial-temporal modelling of pathways; and refining scenarios through stakeholder engagement. The process is underpinned by our attention to i) critical transition points within each scenario, and ii) spatial differences within the UK energy system. Rather than assuming a homogeneous UK energy system, we will take into account differences in demographics, energy service demands, and users' engagement with the energy system. We believe that any scenario failing to recognise these spatial differences and contingencies will have limited value to decision makers.

We will engage with stakeholders at three levels throughout the project: a) the project advisory group (including academic, utility and other business representatives, policymakers and NGOs), b) wider experts (in expert workshops and a Policy Delphi survey) and c) public workshops. This early engagement with the public is vital to understand societal acceptance of path-breaking and potentially controversial technologies as the complexity of SG systems demands that the interaction of different actors be endogenously built into the scenario development, rather than merely part of a validation process. By taking into account specific system actors, their motivations, agency and the networks between them, we aim to add strategic value to our scenarios.

Planned Impact

It is anticipated that Smart Grid (SG) implementation will allow significant changes to management of energy and energy related information which will enable reduced environmental impact and increased security whilst offering opportunities to radically innovate the energy sector, energy services and hence the energy market. Potentially, smart grids offer substantial benefits in terms of enhanced competition and lower costs, with benefits for consumers and the wider economy in reduced bills and international competitiveness.
The UK Government and organisations associated with the policy process (e.g. Ofgem, Energy Saving Trust, Carbon Trust) may also benefit. This research will provide novel and robust empirical findings relating to SG user engagement, including consumer, industry and other perspectives. These will inform policy and support evidence-based decision-making in investment and infrastructure deployment. Our public engagement approach and materials will benefit agencies in implementing public-related activities.
Energy companies engaging with smart technologies have the potential to gain competitive advantage through more rapid adoption of innovation. The research proposed offers greater understanding to utilities of constraints in adopting and applying SG technologies and services. Other potential beneficiaries include providers of new services and technologies. Our outputs will allow more accurate definition of innovation strategies, resource allocation and predict the impact of choices.
We will develop links with other UKERC projects to ensure mutual learning and the alignment with the UKERC programme and will continue to work with researchers from other RCUK energy projects (e.g. Transforming Energy Demand through Digital Innovation).
Consistent with participatory and stakeholder-led models of research, we will engage with stakeholders, publics and experts throughout the project. This engaged scholarship approach will be achieved through the following:
(a) Project Advisory Group (PAG): To guide the research ensuring its salience and timeliness, we will convene a PAG consisting of representatives from policy (e.g. Ofgem/DECC), third sector (e.g. Sustainability First), industry (UPL), DNO (E.ON) and independent academics.
(b) Policy Delphi, Expert and public/community workshops: This iterative expert/community elicitation exercise will enable a range of stakeholders, publics and experts to identify key transition points and evaluation criteria.
(c) Stakeholder Briefings: We will publish bi-annual stakeholder briefings, providing tailored information and supporting timely, evidence-based decision-making by key user groups.
(d) Conferences: Our aim is to present at British Geographical Society, British Inst. of Energy Economics, European Society for Ecological Economics, IEEE Power & Energy Society Meeting.
(e) Academic publications: Articles to be submitted to Journal of Environmental Psychology, Energy Policy (provisional) with a major synthesis paper integrating project findings submitted appropriately.
(f) Internet portal: A web-based portal will be set up at the beginning of the project, which includes details of the project activities, project outputs and briefings, key events and links.
(g) Public dissemination event. We will participate in the British Science Festival (2013).
A key measure of project success (a,b) will be the timely delivery of high-quality outputs to meet the needs of academic and non-academic (stakeholder) communities.
A key measure of the success of (c) will be the usability of outputs by stakeholder organisations in their decision-making.
Success of conferences and academic publications (d,e) will be in terms of audience size & journal impact and citations; and that of the internet portal (f) in terms of number of hits & report downloads.
Success of the public/launch event will be measured in terms of numbers of participants, level of public participation & media coverage.


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