Australia lacks the critical research and innovation capacity to forecast social trends that can improve electricity sector planning. Digital Energy Futures will enable innovation in the energy sector by providing a new interdisciplinary forecasting methodology, which will be nationally and internationally leading and transferable.

Like all forecasting methodologies, social practice imaginaries and principles are not intended to predict the future. Their value lies in offering new insights into how digital energy futures can be imagined, and subsequently enable forecasting models, planning mechanisms, and demand management programs to anticipate changing social practices.

Our social-science led research team are pioneering methodologies and conceptual approaches to understand and forecast digital energy futures. Associate Professor Yolande Strengers is a sociologist of smart technology, social practices and energy demand. Both Yolande and Dr Larissa Nicholls are industry-leading collaborative researchers investigating how changing social trends and consumer impacts in the energy sector. Professor Sarah Pink is a globally leading digital ethnographer and futures anthropologist. Her work has forged new methodologies for anticipating and understanding possible futures with digital technologies in industry partnered research. Dr Kari Dahlgren is an anthropologist with ethnographic experience researching Australia’s energy landscape.

Project Design

Understanding social trends is critically important for electricity sector planning. The Digital Energy Futures project has been designed to ask questions about how Australian lifestyles, aspirations and energy use practices might change in the near and far future, and what this will mean for the electricity sector.

Research Objectives:

  1. Understand how Australian household practices are currently changing in relation to new and emerging intelligent and digital technologies across different consumer groups in the context of the electricity sector.
  2. Identify emerging future scenarios and principles that have important implications for the electricity sector in the near, medium and far future.
  3. Test and develop a theoretical and methodological approach to studying and anticipating changing trends in household practices, which brings a futures perspective to theories of social practice.
  4. Develop a new industry-relevant forecasting model for tracking and anticipating peak electricity demand, and energy consumption more broadly, that incorporates insights from future-oriented social science research.
  5. Develop practical demand management solutions for Australian electricity network businesses to plan for efficient, cost-effective and reliable networks.

There are six stages to the research design:

Stage 1: Digital and energy futures review
This stage (completed June 2020) involved a desk-based review of industry reports about digital and energy futures to develop insights about how household practices are likely to change in the future. The key contribution was to bring together currently separate visions for digital technology and energy futures, to understand the ways in which they might impact or disrupt each other. The findings were synthesised into six aggregated industry scenarios, depicting how people are expected to incorporate digital and energy technologies into their everyday practices in the near and medium-far futures. These scenarios will be discussed with households in Stage 2, to understand their reactions and responses to industry-envisioned futures, and to explore and identify other alternatives.

Stage 2: Digital ethnography with households 
The project team will conduct digital ethnography research tailored to residential homes with 72 households in Ausgrid and AusNet Services' distribution areas across six diverse consumer groups. This stage will focus on understanding the future through the present-day digital practices and expectations of Australian householders. Informed by the Stage 1 digital and energy futures review, the ethnography will test and challenge industry scenarios for digital energy futures.

Stage 3: Survey supplement for ECA’s annual Energy Consumer Sentiments Survey (ECSS) 
Digital Energy Futures research partner Energy Consumers Australia (ECA) conducts the most comprehensive ongoing research study of the attitudes and activity of residential energy consumers in Australia. A survey supplement on ‘consumer energy futures’ will be added to ECA’s Energy Consumer Sentiments Survey (ECSS) in half-yearly intervals beginning in the Year 2 (4 rounds in total). The survey will be informed by the Stage 2 digital ethnography research with households and will test key findings with a representative sample of consumers.

Stage 4: Scenario innovation workshops with residential electricity consumers 
The project team will undertake 12 scenario innovation workshops with residential energy consumers recruited from Ausgrid and AusNet Services' residential electricity consumers. The facilitated workshops will involve: ‘hypotheticals’ of the scenarios (developed at Stage 1) whereby participants will be invited to playfully imagine themselves in possible digital energy future scenarios; and “Scenario-making”, providing participants with an opportunity to re-imagine/rethink and where possible enact the scenarios in ways that bring digital and energy futures ambitions together. The aim is to develop consumer-focused and -driven future scenarios informed by all other stages of research.

Stage 5: Modeling and scenario testing  
The research team will work with POs Ausgrid and AusNet Services to embed the research findings and insights into their forecasting methods. Workshops with key energy sector stakeholders will inform the development of an interdisciplinary forecasting methodology that takes account of the everyday futures developed through the project.  

Stage 6: Demand management innovation 
In the final stage of the research, the project team will review the findings across all stages to identify potential demand management opportunities for intervening in the forecasts and future scenarios produced through the research. The aim of these suggested interventions is to disrupt or encourage possible futures likely to adversely affect or positively impact the electricity sector and the reliability and affordability of electricity for residential consumers.

Practice Domains

The project will explore digital energy futures through the following practice domains:

* Heating and cooling: digital and connected Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems, including changing expectations of heating and cooling for children, pets and technology

* Working from home and unemployment: home-based businesses and digital collaboration; flexible employment; automation; and mobile work

* Caring from home: home-based childcare and elderly care; changing trends in assisted living

* Digital household entertainment and smart home technologies: multiplying or converging devices; live streaming; home cinemas; voice assistants and smart home technologies; use of standby modes   

* Mobility, driving, charging: electric vehicles; car and ridesharing; automated vehicles; public transport 

* Energy management: micro-grids; solar PVs; smart meters; smart plugs and smart appliances; battery storage and automation