Sara Renström

Participating in Energy Systems through Everyday Designs

​Sara Renström, PhD student at Design & Human Factors IMS, defends her doctoral thesis on June 11.
Title: Participating in Energy Systems through Everyday Designs – Exploring roles for households in a more sustainable energy future
2019-06-11 10:00
Virtual Development Laboratory (VDL), Chalmers Tvärgata 4 - 6
Opponent: Annelise de Jong, IVL Environmental Science Research Institute, in Stockholm, Sweden
Examiner: MariAnne Karlsson, Design &Human Factors IMS

As households we participate in energy systems when, in the course of our everyday energy-reliant activities, we create a demand for energy and when we engage in energy-managing activities such as choosing an energy provider and deciding to support a specific source of energy. In this way, everyday life has an impact on the energy sector, and vice versa. To mitigate climate change, the energy sector will have to reduce its negative environmental impact, and everyday life will have to change with it. This thesis aims at contributing to development of artefacts that, as they are embedded into energy-reliant and energy-managing activities in everyday life, support such changes. Four empirical studies were carried out in a research through design process with a ‘mixed methods’ approach. Two studies described which energy-reliant and energy-managing activities to design for by identifying what roles households could play in energy systems (RQ 1a). Two studies explored how artefacts shape those roles (RQ 1a) and prescribed ways to design to support reduced negative environmental impact (RQ 2). 

The findings showed that the roles households considered playing in energy systems were framed by (i) roles performed by peers, (ii) available and accessible energy-reliant and energy-managing artefacts, (iii) existing business models, (iv) available infrastructure, and (v) policy and regulation. The roles were framed into three so-called meta-roles named Reception, Interplay, and Balance.

Within Reception, households receive standardised amounts and variants of services from the energy system, such as a pre-set indoor temperature.
Within Interplay, the households’ meta-role is to use some kind of interplay with the energy system to optimise energy services for their individual preferences, for example low cost. Finally, within Balance, the households’ meta-role is to balance their individual preferences with what is preferable from an energy system perspective, for instance without benefits to be part of time-shifting energy use to cut peaks in demand.

In Reception and Interplay, the reduction in environmental impact is restricted to either what can be achieved without households’ active contribution or when reductions in environmental impact align with personal preferences, respectively. Balance, although uncommon and therefore unvalidated, was therefore considered most promising to mitigate climate change.

Evaluations of two prototypes intended to support reduced negative energy-related environmental impact showed such possibilities, and additionally that Reception and Interplay could be challenged by designing artefacts that: 

- encourage households to make compromises and ask for efforts;

- make the connection between energy supply and demand explicit (reconnecting supply and demand);

- provide a possibility to feel like active participants (instead of discouraging active participation through automation);

- provide a possibility for influencing energy-related decisions made by energy companies or (local) authorities; and

- focus on energy-reliant activities and not (only) on energy-managing activities. 

Artefacts are however just one of the five aspects found to frame meta-roles. In order to not only challenge but also change a prevailing meta-role, the other aspects would need to align.

Published: Wed 29 May 2019.