The International Day of Light, observed on May 16th each year, is a global initiative endorsed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) since 2017 to raise awareness about the essential role of light in diverse fields such as science, culture, education, and sustainable development. It aims to highlight the significance of light-based technologies, promote scientific advancements, and foster interdisciplinary collaborations while emphasizing the potential of light to address global challenges and improve the well-being of societies worldwide through energy efficiency, environmental conservation, and improved quality of life.
At the Centre for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte), the project SMART-BEEjS aims to address the decentralization of the energy ecosystem and empower energy citizens in the European Union (EU). The project recognizes the need for collaboration among stakeholders, including policymakers, citizens, energy providers, and technology experts, to successfully transition toward a more sustainable and inclusive energy system. It focuses on training individuals to drive transformative change in policy design, techno-economic planning, and business model innovation in the energy and efficiency sectors. On this day, which also marks the National Day of the Scientist in Portugal, we talked with Amy (Minh Thu Nguyen), a Ph.D. student from Iscte working on this project, to learn more about ways to achieve justice and inclusion in energy access.
How does the Smart-BEEjS project contribute to the goals and themes of the International Day of Light?
Smart-BEEjS project contributes to the goals of the International Day of Light by Building Efficiency and Energy Justice for Sustainable Living (this is where the abbreviation of BEEjS comes from). It researches how citizens, together with government, business, and technological experts, could generate, distribute, and use energy resources in their community in a “smart” way that reduces impacts on the climate and environment and promotes societal well-being. Specifically, it uses a human-centric approach to encourage the local actions of Positive Energy Districts (PEDs) to fight against global climate change in a just and inclusive way. An example of a just and inclusive PED is one that avoids “environmental gentrification”, which means it does not exclude and displace economically marginalized residents by implementing an environmental or sustainability initiative Another example is that PEDs could tackle energy poverty; in other words, it helps vulnerable households pay less for energy bills and still live comfortably. This can be achieved by retrofitting houses to improve their energy efficiency and sharing the energy produced by their neighbors and community.
Can you explain the concept of Positive Energy Districts (PEDs)? How do they fit with the Smart-BEEjS project, the idea of light, and its significance for society?
Positive Energy Districts (PEDs) are districts or neighborhoods that produce more renewable energy than they consume. This new initiative from European member states aims to build 100 PEDs by 2025. Light and energy have a close relationship and are very important in the implementation of PEDs. We harness sunlight to produce energy through photovoltaic panels (usually called solar panels), and we can use this energy to power our light bulbs, computers, electric car, etc. An example from the case study I am working on in Torres Vedras town is that the municipality changed streetlights into LED lights to save energy. This attempt contributes to their endeavor of becoming a PED, to be energy self-sufficient.
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The project uses evidence-based knowledge to educate and engage citizens on the relationship between socioeconomic factors and their energy practices. Can you give some examples, considering the role of energy (and especially light) in this context?
Indeed, based on desk research and interviews with stakeholders about citizen participation in PEDs, the Smart-BEEjS working package 3 team found that citizens are perceived to be less powerful in collaborating with government and large businesses as equal partners due to their lack of knowledge and willingness to participate in energy projects. This could result in unjust outcomes of energy cost and benefit distribution, misrecognition of the needs of vulnerable consumers in energy efficiency interventions, and the lack of more diverse voices in energy policy-making processes. Therefore, we developed a toolkit for citizens to engage with energy justice in everyday life through various practices. These range from individual actions such as changing energy suppliers, finding subsidies for energy efficiency plans, or installing a heat pump; to collective efforts such as sharing means of transport, building a community garden, and collaborating in a renewable energy community. Notably, the toolkit also includes tips for citizens to have a say in EU energy policies to influence local and national energy regulations. We also shared an overview of this toolkit in video format.
From your work and research experience, what are the best strategies to positively influence citizens towards sustainable behavior patterns, specifically as they relate to the use of light and energy consumption?
Together with my supervisor Dr. Susana Batel, I developed a critical framework of human-centric Positive Energy Districts for policymakers and practitioners to apply. Following a literature review, we found five groups of social psychological factors that could influence citizens’ sustainable behavior towards energy and light consumption as well as their further engagement in PEDs. The factors that policymakers and practitioners should consider are 1) uncertainty, risk perception, and trust of citizens towards energy technology and experts; 2) distributive justice in analyzing who wins and who loses in an energy policy/decision; 3) recognition of justice for those who are affected by an intervention, especially their relations to the area where the intervention takes place; 4) procedural justice to include all voices of those who are frequently excluded before, during and after an energy policy/decision is made; and, 5) routines, capabilities and lived experiences of different citizens about different energy technologies and interventions.
This critical framework encourages policymakers, as well as society as a whole, not to look at these social psychological factors as individual variables that are subject to be manipulated to serve a policy end. It encourages us to self-reflect that in policymaking, planning, and practice, same as in research, specific interests and privileges are promoted, which could entail benefits for some and consequences for other actors. From this approach, our recommendations of best strategies to successfully deploy human-centric PEDs are: considering justice, inclusion, and the well-being of affected socio-ecological systems in the whole-life cycle of PEDs; better integration of indigenous capabilities; and an ethos of de-growth and circularity in their deployment.
Can you share some results from your research and how those may impact public policies regarding energy efficiency, sustainability, and societal well-being?
One of the results that I found interesting is that policies relating to PEDs mainly refer to energy citizens as consumers and prosumers (those who also produce the energy they consume). The efficiency technologies that PEDs adopt, such as smart-meters and smart-grid, promote active roles of energy citizens in consuming and producing energy based on their economic interest and personal responsibility for the carbon footprint. However, this line of neoliberal policy strategies and technological interventions has consequences on citizens' active thinking regarding energy concerns since it only triggers automatic responses to the changes in energy price and carbon footprint displayed on the smart-meter or electricity bill. This way of relating to energy as a commodity in the market may alienate citizens from seeing it as a public good and ecological resource, and thus, to take on more critical roles in the public sphere, such as caring for neighbors’ well-being as well as advocating for less social-ecological impacts in energy production. Nevertheless, there are also other marginalized representations in the analyzed policies, such as seeing access to affordable and clean energy as a right for especially vulnerable citizens or seeing local citizens’ participation as crucial for co-producing energy knowledge to tackle global challenges.
What take-home message would you give our readers on this International Day of Light?
When you turn on the light or computer or your phone to read this article, please take a moment to think not only as a consumer - about what we need light and energy for, which company or source of energy power our light and life, how much it costs. It is also essential for us to ponder on other critical questions such as how energy is produced, where all the materials for its production come from and where they go, who and what is involved in the process, who is excluded from the light and energy access as well as decisions, and what environmental, social and psychological impacts it may have on those. After being aware of this from reliable scientific sources, we can think of what practices and acts of citizenship we could do in our everyday life to address the global challenges of energy efficiency, environmental conservation, and improved quality of life.
Minh Thu Nguyen’s doctoral work is supervised by Susana Batel from CIS-Iscte, the local coordinator of the SMART-BEEjS project in Portugal. Minh critically researches how policies, stakeholders, and citizens represent energy citizenship, promoting the local fight against global climate change by building efficiency and energy justice for sustainable living.
Both researchers work in the PsyChange group, which aims to study the psychosocial dimensions of social change: the cognitive, motivational, behavioral, relational, institutional, and cultural dimensions affecting how change is created, accepted, or resisted.