Consumers, energy justice and social licence: Broad themes at SoERC 2021 21 December 2021

Written by Julianne Tice, Senior Project Officer, Energy Efficiency Council

On 8-10 December, I was lucky to be able to attend the State of Energy Research Conference (SoERC) hosted by the Energy Research Institutes Council for Australia (ERICA). The conference was an incredibly important means of disseminating recent research amongst Australian energy researchers.

Energy is a wildly complex issue, and the range of topics covered during the SoERC reflected this complexity.

The scope of topics covered during the conference means that distilling three days of sessions into a summary is a challenge, so I will cover some of the broad themes:

  1. Consumers must be at the centre of the energy transition;
  2. Energy justice is a vital component of the energy transition; and
  3. Social licence is essential to ensuring positive social outcomes.

 1.   Consumers must be at the centre of the energy transition

In her keynote address, Lynne Gallagher, CEO of Energy Consumers Australia, stated that 'consumers are not an unfortunate glitch in the system' and rather must be at the centre of the energy system and related research. I wholeheartedly agree: the energy system exists because people use it, and it impacts them in return.

The challenge with placing consumers at the centre of solutions is that they increase complexity. As Dr Declan Kuch of UNSW said, there is no 'one size fits all' solution to shared problems. Instead, we’ll have to enable consumers to engage in a way that suits them best.

In my view, however, consumers cannot be expected to actively engage in energy issues at all times. For this reason, we must make sure that the solutions that we put in place can work without consistent consumer engagement. The good news is that this view was shared by many of the participants at SoERC.

 2.   Energy justice is a vital component of the energy transition

Energy justice – or ensuring social and economic equity is achieved through the energy transition – was another central theme of the conference, and one that is becoming increasingly prominent in the way we talk about the energy transition.

Dr Chris Briggs of University of Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures pointed out that jobs in renewable energy tend to pay less and have less clear career progression than conventional energy jobs. As energy generation jobs shift from conventional to renewable, it’s imperative that we don’t make workers worse off.

To ensure energy justice in the transition, investment is needed from both industry and governments, as well as a timeline for developing the skills necessary to deliver the infrastructure necessary for the transition. The EEC and its partners have identified similar requirements in regards to energy efficiency measures including insulation and heat pumps.

A couple of interesting examples of efforts to achieve positive energy justice outcomes were highlighted. For example, the energising Tasmania project, which supports skills development in the renewable energy sector, was mentioned as an example and a potential model for other states to follow. In NSW, renewable energy zones (REZ) create the opportunity for energy to be generated within farms, which can create jobs in regional areas that may otherwise have limited income generation potential.

The repeated references to workforce development and just transitions at the conference demonstrated that awareness in the concept of ‘energy justice’ is steadily increasing, and solutions are beginning to be identified.

 3.   Social licence is essential to ensuring positive social outcomes

Finally, a recurring concept that came up at the conference was the idea of ‘social licence’, or consumer acceptance of energy projects and technologies. This is something that hasn’t always necessarily been properly sought for conventional energy projects, but can become more of a focus as we focus our attention on consumers and broader energy justice principles.

During a panel discussion on energy justice, Dr Lily O’Neill of ANU spoke about social licence specifically for traditional owners with renewable energy projects. She mentioned the Clean Energy Agreement on First Nations Land guide, which states that traditional owners should be properly resourced to participate in project negotiations, and agendas shouldn't be set solely by energy companies.

Similarly, Luke Blackbourn of InterContinental Energy spoke about traditional owners as being key stakeholders in many renewable energy projects because many large-scale renewable energy projects will be built on First Nations land.  The social and cultural context of the project area must be identified and worked within from the beginning, rather than these values being bent to fit the project.  

Bonus topic: getting excited about demand flexibility

Whilst these three themes were clearly front and centre throughout the conference, the standout session for me was a fantastic talk on demand flexibility from Dani Alexander of UTS and RACE for 2030. Dani characterised demand flexibility as a 'no regrets' measure, particularly compared to large infrastructure investments, which have the potential to lock us into one regrettable measure rather than the multiple options offered by flexibility.

Some businesses are hesitant to engage in demand flexibility due to concerns around core business delivery. However, demand flexibility doesn't mean loads have to be switched off completely. Instead, energy can be stored, and non-time sensitive processes can be rescheduled. Dani noted that ”the future of flex is aggregation”, and heat pumps, including those used for hot water systems and reverse cycle air conditioners, are very well suited to flexibility due to their ability to be paired with renewables for things like pre-heating of residential buildings. Importantly, aggregated flexibility raises consumer protection and data privacy issues, which means that for demand flexibility to work, it must suit consumer needs.

What’s next?

With consumers at the centre of the energy transition, it’s vital that their needs and desires are identified and pursuedfrom the very beginning – not just tacked on at the end as an afterthought. After all, what is the energy transition for, if not for improving lives and livelihoods while making the world an equitable and just place to live?

In the new year, the EEC will continue to work closely with ERICA, the RACE for 2030 and other leading organisations to ensure that people are at the centre of the energy transition, particularly through the projects highlighted in the RACE for 2030 Developing the future energy workforce research roadmap. Until then, if you’re looking for some inspiration, you can find the keynote addresses from the SoERC conference here.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.