Published on March 19th, 2017 | by The Beam0
Rebecca Ford: “I think the world needs more multidisciplinary work, and needs to hear women’s voices more strongly.”
March 19th, 2017 by The Beam
The Beam interview series, edition 29: Rebecca Ford
CleanTechnica keeps on publishing some of The Beam interviews and opinion pieces twice a week. The Beam magazine takes a modern perspective on the energy transition, interviewing inspirational people from around the world that shape our sustainable energy future.
This week Anne-Sophie Garrigou, journalist at The Beam, interviewed Rebecca Ford, a researcher in Energy at the Environmental Change Institute. Rebecca shares her thoughts with The Beam about how people interact with energy systems, and how social science and technological insights can be co-developed to better inform decisions related to resource efficiency, carbon emissions, energy development and resilience.
Hello Rebecca Ford. It’s not always easy to understand what a researcher does exactly, so what does a typical day look like for you?
My day to day can vary hugely. Some days I seem to bounce from meeting to meeting, exploring ideas to get new projects off the ground, working with existing project teams on specific tasks, or just meeting interesting people and soaking in new ideas. Other days I spend a lot of time in front of my computer, reading papers, analyzing data or writing up findings. And of course, there’s always the occasional fun of collecting data. Sometimes this means trawling the internet for various resources, other times I’m out interviewing people (such as early adopters of rooftop solar), or designing surveys. There’s always something to keep me on my toes!
How important is it that people become independent in terms of their energy consumption?
As our energy systems becomes increasingly distributed, with more and more households, communities and businesses generating their own energy, I think it’s important to become smarter in terms of how we use energy. Traditionally we’ve had demand following electricity systems, where we ramped up or down generation according to demand. But with more and more renewables this becomes harder to do, and we need to start to balance supply and demand in new and innovative ways. So I don’t think that means that people need to become independent, but that we need to think about how we can be smarter with using our energy when it’s available.
Do you think that in the future we’ll see more and more communities where people produce their own electricity and sell their surplus to their neighbors?
We’re already starting to see this in many countries, and as the price of solar, batteries, and smart appliances continues to drop, I can only imagine we’ll see more of this. Particularly as financial incentives to feed power into the grid are decreasing, there’s more of a motivation to either use energy on site, or find alternative methods to sell the excess, for example through peer-to-peer platforms.
According to your research, what factors influence people’s decisions to purchase new energy technologies such as solar PV home systems or electric vehicles?
There are a whole variety of factors for different people in different locations. There’s no doubt that the financial incentives for solar in places like the UK have been a strong influence on uptake there. But in New Zealand, where no financial incentives existed, people were purchasing solar for non-financial reasons; they lacked trust in their power companies, wanted to protect themselves from future spikes in power prices, wanted increased independence from the grid in the face of natural or man made disasters, and felt good about the technology. With other technologies, like smart appliances, we’ve seen different factors driving uptake, and while people may tell you they’re interested in saving money or energy, it’s things like safety, security and comfort that dominate purchases.
What trends did you encounter in your research in terms of energy-related behavior and uses in households?
One of the things I’ve been fascinated by is actually the diversity of energy use patterns in homes. We kitted up 50 New Zealand households with energy monitoring kits, and had them also fill out a diary for a week to tell us what they were doing. And what we saw was a huge diversity between homes in terms of when and how they were using energy. We also saw a huge diversity within homes, so one home may have entirely different use patterns from one day to the next. I guess the best thing I could say here is that we really saw how strongly energy demand was influenced by a combination of the technologies people had, the ways in which they used them, and their expectations and aspirations around things like indoor temperature, eating patterns, and so on.
How optimistic are you about the adoption of those new technologies? How long do you think it will take until it is “the norm” to have those devices in households?
In general I’m pretty optimistic about the technological side of the renewable energy transition, but I don’t think that means we will (or should) see every home adopting them. I think we’ll see a mix of household, community, business, and national contributions, but the continued price declines, performance increases, and governments buying in to clean energy technology is heartening.