Researchers Develop Approach for Assessing the Social Dimensions of Energy Transitions

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Researchers at the NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST), which is headquartered at Arizona State University, have developed an approach for assessing the social dimensions of energy transitions.


This research will significantly improve our ability to understand the role that individuals and communities play in shaping energy transitions as well as the meaning and impact of energy transitions for those individuals and communities. Understanding the social dimensions of solar energy transitions can create significant insights for the design of both energy policies and socio-energy systems that link energy production and use in innovative ways. Using these insights, policy-makers and energy engineers can enhance the social value of energy systems while avoiding some of the worst-case potential outcomes of large-scale energy transitions.


Many aspects of societies are tightly connected to patterns of energy use. Energy transitions will have major implications for societies, and these implications should be accounted for in energy policy and planning. The research, industrial engagement efforts, and educational activities of QESST all focus on the Terawatt Challenge to provide clean, affordable, and sustainable energy to meet the growing energy demand of the planet with photovoltaic (PV) generation of electricity (see figure). However, the challenge for both QESST and the PV industry in reaching a terawatt of solar-energy production is not simply a question of technology. Social and political support for a solar-energy transition can have enormous impacts on both the rate of solar PV development and the kinds of solar developments that take place. This scale of energy transition raises profound challenges, not just for technology development but also for social, political, and economic change.

Managing the social, political, and economic dimensions of energy transitions requires tools and frameworks for understanding how these transitions intersect with the lives and livelihoods of individuals and communities. To this end, the social sustainability research group in QESST has conducted a range of studies analyzing the social dynamics of solar energy transitions and worked with collaborators to synthesize the results with similar studies of other energy transitions. This work is aimed at finding new approaches to assessing what energy transitions mean for different people.