WHY: the citizen transformation of the energy sector

This post is an article (originally in Spanish) I co-wrote for the Journal of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Deusto.

Original journal showing the pages of our article.

One of the great challenges that society as a whole is facing is the decarbonisation of the economy. Both the sustainable development objectives and the smart specialisation strategies of the Basque Country (RIS3) support a triple transition (ecological, digital and sociosanitary) that cannot be carried out without the active participation of citizens.

The Faculty of Engineering of the University of Deusto is coordinating the European WHY project, which is studying the role that citizens will play in the transformation of the energy sector. It involves 7 partners from 5 different countries. The project has a duration of 3 years. Its main objective is to develop a model of residential energy consumption that accounts for human behaviour and makes it possible to simulate how people would react, from the point of view of their energy consumption, to different scenarios.

Why does your research need to be done? What is the need?

The European electricity grid is very complex and highly interconnected. In order to move towards a non-fossil fuel economy, the electricity grid needs to integrate many renewable energy sources. However, these are not controllable, as they depend, among others, on the sun and wind. In order to maintain the balance of this new system, it is necessary, among other things, to manage the demand (i.e. the electricity consumption).

There are large-scale mathematical models of the energy system that can predict energy generation in great detail. However, these models are not as good at modelling consumption, which becomes more difficult when going down to the household level due to the great diversity of households.

What do you aim to answer?

Some of the questions we want to answer are: would a family leave the heating on at night if the price of electricity increased (or decreased) by X euros? Would they install solar panels on the roof of their house if the government provided subsidies for this? Would they buy an electric vehicle if it were explained that this, in addition to being a means of transport, can also serve as a battery to power the home? How do the state of alarm and the pandemic affect the energy consumption of households?

The model that results from this project will be able to answer these questions, will be more robust than existing models (which are based on past data) and will allow better informed energy policies to be developed.

How is this done?

As we are studying behaviour, we must study people in their daily routines. To do this, we use different techniques. For example, we are processing household electricity consumption to detect people’s different patterns of behaviour. It seems that there are only about forty different patterns, which is surprising, because we expected many more.

On the other hand, we are going to use a Telegram bot to monitor the use of household devices. We will put stickers with QR codes on household appliances and ask volunteers to scan them every time they use them. The bot will then ask them questions about the choices they have made. It is also possible that we will use the bot to send personalised usage recommendations so that we can also intervene in the behaviour.

Finally, we will talk to world-renowned experts to formulate a scientific theory and use all the information we have gathered to validate it.

What is the most important aspect of this research work? What have you achieved? What conclusions have you reached?

The results of this work can be used to fine-tune future energy policies at European level in a way that makes it easier to achieve environmental objectives without doing any injustice or disadvantaging any groups. The project has just started, but we hope to be able to comment on some of the results next year. When we talk about justice, we mean that a legislative and fiscal change will not leave any family behind and we will not deepen the energy poverty that already affects more than 8% of the state’s population.

As in all research work, there are not only successes, but also mistakes. Is there anything that has not turned out as you expected?

To develop this model we are studying real energy consumption patterns of thousands of households in Spain. With the arrival of the pandemic, behaviour has been altered by last year’s lockdown. The downside of this is that we can only study the “normal” behaviour of households until the arrival of the containment. On the positive side, we will be able to verify whether our model is able to predict such an unexpected scenario well.

What would you like to achieve or discover?

The project would be a tremendous success if we could use the tools to design an incentive policy linked to the installation of solar panels or electric vehicles at the national level that not only works, but also works according to our predictions. However, there are more important issues that we would like to look at, such as how policies are designed to reduce fuel poverty without being costly and without creating perverse incentives.

Another aspect we would like to look at is whether, from load curves (i.e. the ways in which we consume energy in each household), we can infer the economic status of certain households. This would help to ensure that the policies we work on do not leave any disadvantaged groups behind.