Envisioning surprises: 4 ways social sciences can help us navigate energy demand uncertainty

20 Nov 2019

The world is undergoing a paradigm change, which affects the way we think about the future and uncertainty. Changes in the climate and efforts to decarbonise the energy system, changes in people’s expectations of services, and changes in the amounts of data available and the speed of computing add uncertainty to how energy demand will evolve. The energy sector and policy-makers rely on energy models that might no longer be fit for purpose.

Such changes call for new ways of thinking about future energy. In our new paper in the Journal of Energy Research & Social Science, we argue that social sciences can give important insights to energy-demand modellers and policy makers. We highlight four insights relevant to both the energy sector and interconnected sectors where there is a water-energy nexus:

1. The diversity of behaviour.

This idea represents behaviour at the systems level rather than individual level, for example how social norms influence demand for resources. Our friends, family and colleagues influence what is considered a comfortable temperature in our homes and offices, and how we commute and travel.

Models of future demand need to be able to envision how alternative practices could diffuse among people, creating different patterns of demand.

2. Co-evolution of supply and demand.

The challenges of decarbonising transport and heat illustrate this insight well. Availability of public transport or charging points for electric cars co-evolve with people’s demand for transport energy. Low-carbon heat requires installers, occupant knowledge and acceptability, convenience and know-how of how to operate new types of equipment.

When these infrastructure challenges are met, a more plentiful and effortless supply of energy in these sectors is likely to increase demand disproportionately. The co-evolution of supply and demand will also depend on our response to climate impacts.

Take for example heat waves: changes in how we use our homes and offices can to an extent limit overheating, or with increasing availability of plug-in air conditioning units, we may adapt in a more energy-intensive way.

3. The unevenness of demand.

The unevenness of social and economic capital affects people’s ability to reduce their demand for energy. For example, the National Grid already knows that some households are more vulnerable to the loss of electricity or heat, including elderly people, families with small children and those unwell.

There are people who can’t afford to pay for insulation and double glazing and those in rented properties who aren’t allowed or incentivised to do so. These differing needs have implications for how energy pricing should be structured, particularly how the costs of efficiency schemes and energy subsidies are passed onto vulnerable citizens.

4. To quantify or not to quantify?  

Some of the insights presented so far can be turned into variables and interactions thereof, to inform modelling of future demand. But do we have to quantify everything, to be able to envision surprises in evolving energy demand?

Models produce hard numbers that can simplify complexity and hence decisions for policy-makers. How do we maintain a systems view for policy-making under increasing uncertainty (see for example Defra’s recent Systems Research Programme)?

Enabling methodologies that value qualitative insights from social sciences might make decision-making on energy demand-supply systems more responsive and nuanced, particularly to emergent and unpredictable trends.


Maria Sharmina, Ruth Wood, Alison L. Browne