Clark University associate professor of Environmental Science and Policy, Jennie Stephens, presented research and organized a research panel on energy system transitions at the annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) conference held Oct. 17 to 20 at the Copenhagen Business School in Frederiksberg, Denmark.
At the conference, which was held jointly with the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology, Stephens and her collaborators presented their research on competing visions of “smart grid” and a comparative analysis of the social context of smart grid development in different regions. In addition to presenting results from her research team, Stephens chaired a two-part session of international scholars who presented on various aspects of social, cultural, and political dimensions of changes in energy systems.
Stephens’ research team, which is based at Clark’s George Perkins Marsh Institute, includes three graduate students in the Environmental Science and Policy program in the Department of International Development, Community and Environment (IDCE): Ria Langheim (ES&P graduate student ’13), Xiao Chen (ES&P graduate student ’13), and Ryan Collins (ES&P/MBA graduate student ’15). Two undergraduate research assistants are also on the team: senior Melissa Skubel (Environmental Science major in the Environmental Science & Policy track) and sophomore William Maxwell (Environmental Science and Economics). The students did not travel to the 4S conference in Copenhagen. The research team also includes collaborating faculty and students from the University of Minnesota and Texas A&M.
Most of the student researchers have been focusing on media analysis, Stephens says. They are analyzing different representations of smart grid in the media. One of the students is also organizing and will be carrying out a series of focus groups with energy stakeholders in New England that will help to better understand different perceptions of what smart grid is as well as its potential and challenges.
This smart grid research project is supported by a National Science Foundation award from the Science, Technology and Society program in the Division of Social and Economic sciences.
Stephens’ research team is studying how, over the past decade, the term “smart grid” has been increasingly used to represent a multitude of different social and technological changes with potential to transform electricity systems. Motivations for pursuing and supporting smart grid systems include increasing the efficiency of energy systems, the reliability of electricity supply, and the security and resilience of electricity systems. Smart grid systems also have potential to reduce energy costs, reduce environmental impacts including greenhouse gas emissions, and enable expansion of renewable electricity generation and electric vehicles. Despite tension among the varied understandings of what might constitute a smart grid system, Stephens noted, most interpretations assume smart grid offers substantial potential to improve the way societies produce, transmit, distribute, store, and consume electricity.
For many, Stephens said, “smart grid” means “modernizing” networks that link electricity producers and consumers through advanced information and communication technologies (ICT), but others recognize that the social change associated with smart grid and changing electricity systems is extremely important with great potential in addition to the technological change. Competing visions of what smart grid is or could be reflects a broad range of different conceptions of change in electricity systems.
The city of Worcester has been selected for National Grid’s regional smart grid pilot project, and the state of Massachusetts recently approved the plans for this pilot. Stephens’ research involves assessing the social and political dimensions of this and other smart grid initiatives around the country. Professor Stephens’ research has found that because the notion of a smart grid promises so much, some see the term “smart grid” as an empty signifier, simply becoming whatever an advocate wants it to be at the moment. For others, however, “smart grid” is a powerfully inclusive and expansive way to articulate the vast potential of technical and social change in energy systems.