The energy transition needs anthropologists

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It´s the final countdown! In just a few days the symposium that explores why the world needs anthropologists will start. There are many reasons that make this event so special: the quality of the speakers, its totally free cost, the practical workshops in which attendees can participate or the very interesting networking that is established during coffee breaks and dinners. But there is another element that distinguishes this event from other similar ones, and that is that this event is not intended to attract anthropologists only in an endogamic way (“from us to us”). On the contrary, this event attracts students and professionals from different areas in order to learn about the potential of anthropology and allow the encounter and the possibility for collaborations.

A good example of this is the presence of Benj Sykes who is not an anthropologist but is one of the keynote speakers this year. Benj has spent his entire professional career in the energy sector, having worked for companies such as Hess Corporation, a Fortune 100 oil and gas company or The Carbon Trust, an independent expert organization with a mission to reduce carbon emissions in a sustainable manner. Benj Sykes is currently UK Country Manager and Head of Programme Asset Management in DONG Energy’s Offshore Wind Power. DONG energy is a UK-based company that also operates in Denmark and Germany and has shown on more than one occasion its interest in understanding the human factor within its operations. They collaborate with the Durham Energy Institute and have worked with the Danish anthropological consultancy Antropologerne on the eFlex project which you can consult here.

This is what Benj told us:

 energy transitionWhy is the Head of Programme Asset Management in DONG Energy’s Offshore Wind Power going to talk in an event named why the world needs anthropologists?

That´s a really good question! Well, I´ve been involved in the energy industry all of my carreer, which is now thirty years. And for me, the energy industry thinks of itself as a technical challenge but what we are talking about in DONG energy (which by the way is about to change its name. The new name will come to light short after the conference), our ambition is to drive the transition of the energy system and to lead the Green transformation. And to do that isn´t just a technnological challenge, it´s also a human challenge! So the reason I´m interested in talking in this symposium is that I can see how people and energy interact and understanding that will be critical to the success of the energy transition.

How can something that sounds so technical in the first place need anthropology?

There are questions on a number of levels. DONG energy´s business is all about building offshore windfarms and owning and operating them. So one of the obvious questions that we have to face is how do we get the public that we build our windfarms for to accept this change in their landscape? So in a very superficial level, there is that question. But also: How do we work with societies where we build our windfarms? How do we work with the communities where we are setting ourselves up to make sure that the effect of this energy transition on their views and values is positive? How do we do that in a way that is constructive and engages them in the process? So, on one level is simply, how do we work with those communities where we want to change the way the world looks, quite literally , because we are building new types of power generation access.

But I think it goes well beyond that. When you think about the energy transition is not just about building new ways of generating electricity. It´s also a change in the way people use electricity. And I think there are two types of questions:

The first is “How do we get people to adopt new ways of using energy where there are benefits for them? So, for example going to more efficient appliances, going to more efficent lightbulbs, switching to electric vehicles that can save money. How do we incentivate and encourage people to make those choices and help the energy transition? Because, of course we can do a lot on the energy generation side, but we have to change the way people consume energy as well.

The second question is a more difficult one. That is: How do we work with societies and communities to encourage them to adopt new technologies and new ways of using energy which perhaps don´t have any direct benefit on them, but are necessary? A good example for me would be the change from incadescent to CFL lightbulbs. At the time there was not much enthusiasm for that because the quality of the light you get from this lightbulbs isn´t as good and the cost savings were relatively small. So in a lot of areas of the energy transition we will be needing people to adopt things which are good for society and good for the environment but don´t  necessarily have direct visible benefit for the individuals whose behaviour we are asking to change. And I think that is a really challenging question as an energy industry and a society. How to encourage the right changes in behaviour and the adoption of the right new ways of living and the right new technologies to ensure that we can transform the energy system and create a cleaner future.

I suppose this involves other actors apart from the communities and the companies…

Of course, there are many actors involved: wider society, there are regulators and goverments, there are energy companies and also energy service companies emerging… I think the whole way which energy is used, consumed, and the way its solved will change dramatically in the next decade or two. As we become a more and more energy consuming society that perhaps sees the energy as a service instead of as a product.

DONG energy works in UK, Denmark, Germany and is still expanding. How do you manage and think of differences in those countries?

Every country has its own view of climate change of environment and what cost really means. Even between Denmark and the UK you see differences. To accelerate this energy transformation we have to be very aware of the differences between societies and different communities. And thats not just a national trait, thats also with income, or the benfits of bringing jobs to a place. For example nuclear energy: you can see nuclear energy is not always that popular, but it´s usually very popular at the places where there are nuclear power stations. Because it creates thousands of jobs. So you have to be carefull no to think there is one solution that will work for all communities in all parts of the world

Have you had experience working with anthropologists?

No, I haven´t worked closely with anthropologists. I am married to an anthropologist! But in a business contact I havent worked with them other than through the Durham Energy Institute. So this is a new area of thought for me. I think probably is more of a challenge for goverments and for academics. I think as a business our challenge remains driving the deployment of offshorewinds through driving the cost down and the performances up. What we would like to see as a energy industry is more attention being put on to this questions of what happens when the energy transformation meets real people. And I think there is a lot of interesting collaborative research to be done.

What advice do you have for anthropologists who would like to work in the energy field?

I would say, follow the lead that Durham´s Institute of Energy has taken by bringing anthropologists together with engineers and with geographers to understand the energy transition. I think there is a lot of academic work that would benefit from a more holistic approach. And I think the partnership between engineer knwowledge for the technology, geography knowledge for the way physical and human geography works, and anthropology bringing understanding about how societies and communities work, is a very powerfull combination!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

See you in Durham!

Designing the Future

Graduated in Social and Cultural Anthropology by the University of Granada and Master in Research and Rational Use of Medicines by the University of Valencia. This young researcher has worked in the public and private sector - both nationally and internationally - on consumer issues.

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