Floor Alkemade is researching how the energy transition can be sped up
In part three of our end-of-year series, we talk with Floor Alkemade about the importance of social processes and human behavior in the energy transition.
Floor Alkemade's research revolves around the role of social processes and human behavior within the energy transition. "Current models for the energy transition are often not accurate because of their focus on economic and technological factors," Alkemade said. Last year, the researcher at the Technology, Innovation & Society research group netted two million euros in grant money.
Many countries have ambitious sustainability plans, however, achieving them is often challenging. Models on which policies are based play a key role in this. But, those models from international organizations, such as from the International Energy Agency, consistently predict less solar and wind power or electric cars than there are in actual practice
And that is a problem for the energy transition, explains Alkemade, professor of economics and policy of technological innovation at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e). "We are experiencing that firsthand in the Netherlands. The energy transition is a systems transition that requires a coordinated, long-term approach. If the government does not take the rapid rise of green technology into account sufficiently, then it will not take that into account in policy either. Then you won't shore up the power grid, put up more charging stations, train more mechanics or appoint more officials to oversee permit applications. This slows down the transition, when what is really needed is to speed it up."
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The year 2022 was an eventful one in many ways, both on a scientific and societal level. In this end-of-year interview series, four TU/e researchers look back and look ahead based on four themes (sustainability, diversity, health and artificial intelligence) that filled newspaper columns last year. What was the highlight of 2022 for them, what are they looking forward to in 2023, and what do they think are the main challenges in their fields? In addition to Floor Alkemade, we also spoke with Elena Torta, Roy van der Meel and Margriet van der Heijden. This series was created in collaboration with Innovation Origins.
Recording social feedback in figures and models
Those models are not accurate because they mainly consider the economic and technological factors and not the social processes that can drive momentum, Alkemade notes. Models are based on what hard commitments there are in place when it comes to new wind and solar energy sources. Whereas in practice, rising energy prices have made it a more attractive option for households and businesses to put solar panels on their roofs, to name one example.
"Moreover, costs are not the only consideration, people are worried about climate change and the dependency on Russian gas. So you get a kind of social feedback that way, as people are installing solar panels more and more, the technology is getting better, and the prices are coming down, and the step to switching over is getting easier for other people and companies to take because they see in their surroundings that it works. In addition, fostering such social feedback is one of the few things that we can still use to accelerate the transition and ensure that we do reach climate targets. Technologically speaking, we know it can be done; now it's a matter of implementation and widespread application across society."
Fostering social feedback is one of the few things we can still use to accelerate the transition and ensure that we do reach climate targets.
So the main question is: how do you manage to record social processes within the energy transition in figures and models? So that the models are correct and policymakers are not left lagging behind. That question will be at the core of the research of Alkemade and her team over the next five years.
"Fostering such social feedback is one of the few things we can still use to accelerate the transition and ensure that we do reach climate targets. Technologically speaking, we know it can be done; now it's a matter of implementation and widespread application in society.”
An absolute highlight
In March, the professor was awarded a grant of two million euros from the European Research Council, the absolute highlight of 2022 for Alkemade. "My heart was beating in my throat when I was clicking open the results, it was really exciting. When I read that I got the grant, I scarcely dared to believe it. Meanwhile, two postdocs and a PhD student have started, so by now I do have the nerve to believe it."
One important concept in Alkemade's research involves so-called tipping points. This term is widely used in climate research. It refers to the point at which certain values are exceeded, causing irreversible changes in ecosystems. An example of such a tipping point is the global warming rate of one and a half degrees. If we surpass that, scientists expect coral reefs to disappear and never return.
The notion of tipping points cannot be translated to social processes on a one-to-one basis because they are often more easily reversible. Recall the behavioral changes during the Covid-19 pandemic - such as social distancing, or greeting each other without shaking hands or a kiss - that very quickly disappeared.
But the idea is, that when different factors work together, the same kind of dynamic does emerge. Take the electric car, if both the technology improves, and the price drops, and it becomes less acceptable to drive a diesel car, at some point it will become the new norm, the tipping point.
Less gas consumption
As an example of a recent social change that could perhaps lead to a tipping point , Alkemade cites the fact that gas consumption has dropped by 25 percent compared to last year. "That's a real steep drop. And of course some of that will be due to the prices, but not everyone has a dynamic rate. It's also because the discussion about energy conservation is much more topical, people are more conscientious about it all. It would be great if the current situation led to substantial and lasting reduction of gas consumption by households and businesses. That said, the question always remains: how do you make it last? If you see something like that happening, what could you do as a policymaker to make sure that it would indeed not bounce back straight away to now it used to be as soon as prices go down or people receive compensation."
We cannot solve climate change with technology alone.
There is a lot of pressure on the work of Alkemade; and not much time is left. That pressure is what drives her personally. She is surrounded by people who are committed to making a change. "It's really nice to do research where you consider: if we find the answer to this, then we really have something. I love working in a field where the social impact is so great. We cannot solve climate change with technology alone. The social element is important in all aspects of the transition."
A university sabbatical
The new year will begin for Alkemade with a six-month sabbatical. And that does not mean a pilgrimage or world tour is on the cards. Anything but. "At the university, that means working on your research uninterrupted. I will be free from all other duties. I'm really looking forward to that."
The professor sees that her field of research, which is characterized by a tradition of fairly qualitative research, is increasingly adopting quantitative methods. "Take energy cooperatives, which are very popular in the Netherlands. But what impact are they having? We're not going to find that out with qualitative research alone. I'm glad that this combination between qualitative and quantitative energy models is becoming more common and I expect a lot from that."
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