Thinking and acting across disciplines - For the sake of a just energy transition

News - 07 March 2022

Gerdien de Vries and Mariëlle Feenstra of the TU Delft Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management are both working on the important theme of the energy transition. De Vries is a climate psychologist; Feenstra specialises in public administration and is known on social media as an ‘energy feminist’. Neither are what you might call the usual suspects at a university of technology. So, why is their knowledge and experience of such value in accelerating the energy transition? 

“When people hear that I’m a climate psychologist, they sometimes think I treat patients who suffer from ‘flight shame’!” laughs Gerdien de Vries. A misunderstanding, as she is not a clinical psychologist. In reality, De Vries uses methods and models from psychology to study human behaviour around climate issues. This may involve what De Vries refers to as “individual mechanisms”, such as the factors that determine people’s resistance to or social acceptance of wind farms or CO2 storage close to home. Of course, the success of the energy transition will not depend solely on the behaviour of the public. The motivations and choices of politicians, policymakers, entrepreneurs and even scientists are equally important. De Vries is fascinated by this complex, wide-ranging arena. She is convinced that psychological experiments and insights can contribute to such areas as the formulation of effective energy policy or the design of innovative climate technology. 

Interdisciplinary

De Vries is an associate professor and for the last two years has been director of the TPM Energy Transition Lab, a position that could almost have been created for her. The lab provides academics in the Faculty of TPM with a safe environment in which to conduct innovative, interdisciplinary research into the development of new approaches, methods and tools for accelerating the energy transition. For example, a team of young scientists has been granted funding to conduct research on the existence of – and how to tackle – conspiracy theories about climate change and the energy transition in the Netherlands. Another group that includes a serious game designer and a modeller has been given support in developing an Infrarium. This is a sea container packed with equipment, cables, plugs, sockets, sirens and lights, in which decision-makers in the energy transition (such as policymakers) can practise making decisions under pressure and in uncertain conditions.

External perspective

The Energy Transition Lab is a growing community with two designated postdocs, a PhD club, a seminar series and a think tank. The Think Tank's role includes responding to external questions received by the university, for example from policymakers, entrepreneurs or journalists. “That external perspective is essential,” says Mariëlle Feenstra, who has worked as a guest researcher at TU Delft for the last six months. “As we now know, the energy transition is more than just a technology-driven shift from fossil to renewable energy. It requires a new way of thinking, moving from a supply-driven to a demand-driven energy system, for example, which in turn calls for far-reaching choices in policy and governance. That’s why I’m so pleased to see how embedded the triple helix is at TU Delft.” Feenstra is referring to collaboration and knowledge sharing between the university, government and industry, something that was given a further boost last year with the opening of the Climate Action Hub at Campus The Hague.

Major questions

At the same time, Feenstra is eager to emphasise that any academic who opts to focus on social and policy issues at a university of technology must inevitably adopt an extra-critical style of thinking. For example, the TU Delft anniversary website states that the university aims to take the lead in a ‘clean, affordable, safe and reliable energy system’. Feenstra: “For me, that immediately raises the question: affordable for whom?” This is one of the many conceptual, normative and ethical questions that she believes need to be asked when we consider how we aim to achieve the energy transition as a society. What exactly do we mean by a sustainable or just energy system? And what will need to change, why and for and by whom?

 

One specific problem highlighted by both Feenstra and De Vries is that much of the thinking is still based on catch-all terms such as ‘households’ or ‘energy consumers’. Feenstra gives an example. Many local municipalities opt for the policy instrument ‘subsidies’ for households that have solar panels installed. However, she says, this choice is based on a series of assumptions: that private individuals also own the roof of their home, can afford the initial investment and are capable of dealing with the paperwork involved in applying for the subsidy. Feenstra: “This policy choice actually excludes a large group, such as the 40% of people who are tenants, the many people with no savings, and the 20% of the Dutch population who are functionally illiterate. Since they are unable to contribute to this aspect of the energy transition, they cannot benefit from it either. This creates a sustainability gap: the rich become richer and the poor poorer. As a society, we need at least to ask ourselves whether that is what we want or whether the transition can also be achieved in a different way.”

Gender injustice

In thinking about energy justice, Mariëlle Feenstra’s expertise, gender has a key role to play. First of all, although half of energy consumers are of course women, this is true of only 22% of energy producers and women are even more poorly represented among decision-makers in the energy sector. Based on methods and analyses she developed during her extensive research project in sub-Saharan Africa, which she then applied to the European situation in her PhD research, Feenstra argues that Dutch energy policy is largely blind to the dimension of gender, both conceptually and in its implementation.

For example, in the 250-page Climate Agreement presented by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate in 2019, women were mentioned only three times, says Feenstra, and only then as a solution to the labour shortage in the energy and climate sector. This is even more ironic in view of the fact that the Dutch government has been supporting energy and gender programmes in Africa and Asia for years. Feenstra: “But even in the Netherlands and other European countries, we see that certain groups of women, such as single mothers and the elderly, do not have equal access to energy or even face energy poverty.” These people have to live in cold homes, or may be forced to use a food bank in order to be able to afford the energy bill.

In other words, even in the Netherlands, there is still huge progress to be made when it comes to the justice aspect of the energy transition. Ultimately, this is about inclusion: will we allow the energy transition to increase inequality or will we actually seize it as an opportunity for reducing that inequality?

Connect

In responding to these complex questions, De Vries and Feenstra argue that a university of technology needs people like them: people whose interdisciplinary knowledge and experience, but also their character, enable them to open up the conversation, ask critical questions, offer alternatives and above all also: to connect. But it is not only about greasing the wheels, bringing people together and connecting, but also transcending disciplines. And this transdisciplinary role is increasingly being valued. Both academics are positive about the way in which their colleagues at TU Delft are focusing on the social, ethical and psychological aspects of technological development. “We’re increasingly being asked to contribute our ideas at an early stage,” says De Vries. This may involve major conceptual issues, but can also be very concrete. For example, what effect does it have on the technical design of a smart energy meter if you also factor in human behaviour, gender, sustainability and economic efficiency? It will be likely that different devices will be designed for a single older lady and a family with adolescent children, for example. 

In addition to individual academic staff, the whole of TU Delft is now choosing to take account of the social science aspects of the energy transition, for example by selecting Gerdien de Vries as one of the ten Energy Accelerators for this anniversary year, simultaneously placing her work as a climate psychologist in the spotlight. “Quite a bold choice”, says De Vries. 

Solidarity

Finally, a question that needs to be asked on International Women’s Day: do De Vries and Feenstra also experience solidarity from TU Delft management and colleagues for their role as women in the male-dominated energy world? The answer is yes – they feel that solidarity not only from female but also from male colleagues. Although this solidarity is sometimes personal, it is also expressed in the focus on gender justice that increasingly crops up in presentations or research proposals by male colleagues. De Vries also mentions the Corporate Communications office that immediately steps in if inappropriate comments appear on social media after public appearances by female TU Delft academics.

On the other hand, occasionally they do suspect instances of tokenism, when they are invited to join a scientific committee or attend a public event in their field as the only woman and sometimes at the very last minute. But Feenstra and De Vries are also keen to seize opportunities like these to focus on exactly what they are applying their scientific minds and creativity on: designing a sustainable, affordable energy transition based on the principles of equality and justice.

-- by Dr Ellen Lammers, 07 March 2022

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