Dr. Klaus Kubeczko on Smart Grid Transitions and International Collaboration

On March 15, I Skyped with Dr. Klaus Kubeczko, a researcher at the Austrian Institute of Technology. As mentioned on his profile, Dr. Kubeczko studies research, technology, and innovation policy, with “a strong interest in socio-ecological-economic transitions and system innovations for sustainable development.” He is also the Operating Agent for the International Smart Grid Action Network (ISGAN)’s Smart Grid Transitions Annex, which is why we first met. Dr. Kubeczko told me about some of his projects and gave me his insights on European and global Smart Grids.


Some Key Terms

Parts of my conversation with Dr. Kubeczko got a bit technical. Before we get into the meat of the conversation, here are a few key terms and concepts that will make the content easier to follow.

The first three terms, from the social sciences, are briefly defined in this paper. The following definitions are simplified paraphrases of the original, so please see the original paper if you’d like more “technically correct” definitions.

  • Institutions: The rules and norms that frame a society’s behaviors and interactions.
  • Social networks: A society’s actors and the structure of the interactions between them. (For a good mental model, think of how “friends” and groups of “friends” form and interact on Facebook.)
  • Cognitive frames: Shared meanings and interpretations that shape how actors understand a particular concept.

The last term is on the power systems side:

  • Low- and medium-voltage grids (distribution grids): The levels of the electric grid that are closest to the end-user. Electricity flows most easily at high voltages, so power from traditional power plants (such as coal-fired plants) is first transmitted long distances on high-voltage transmission grids. As high voltage is too inconvenient and dangerous for the end-user, the grid voltage is decreased (to medium and low voltages) so consumers can use the power safely. (In reality the power system is more complex, but this is a high-level overview.)

Okay, now that definitions are out of the way, let’s get started!


The Purpose of a Smart Grid

I first asked Dr. Kubeczko to discuss the purpose of a Smart Grid, both in Europe and globally. In the global context, he responded, the definition of a Smart Grid can vary along several dimensions. Some countries focus more on ICT technologies, whereas others focus more on traditional electrical engineering technologies. There are also differences regarding the potential role of Smart Grids for developed and less developed countries. Given these variations, it’s difficult to find a general explanation for what Smart Grids are all about.

In Austria and Europe, he said, Smart Grid discussions are very much related to climate policy and the integration of renewable energy resources. Historically, Europe has had a rather centralized electricity system (using fossil fuels and nuclear power), but some European regions have had a large portion of decentralized electricity grids with many renewable resources already integrated. These renewable resources still include large hydropower on the transmission grids, as well as small hydropower and biofuel-based combined heat and power (CHP) on the distribution grids. In recent years, Europe has additionally integrated power from wind and solar PV into the grid.

As Dr. Kubeczko put it, the term “Smart Grid” is a cognitive frame, a kind of shared (but still loosely defined) cognitive vision of a future electricity grid. This vision helps transition the energy system by considering climate policy and other issues alongside energy policy goals.


Different Purposes and International Collaboration

Given that different countries have such different purposes for Smart Grids, I asked Dr. Kubeczko how these differences affect international collaboration. Dr. Kubeczko responded that forums such as ISGAN help different countries to “agree to disagree” on what Smart Grids are all about and then find commonalities. Each country can elaborate on what Smart Grids mean for them, which makes it easy to spot similarities between countries and identify potential areas for collaboration. For instance, Italy focused on Smart Meters to reduce energy losses from fraud or technical factors, since Smart Meters make it easy to trace where electric power goes. These Smart Meters increased overall revenues for the energy system, so the technology paid off quickly without consumers having to pay extra fees. That case is interesting for several other countries, such as South Africa. Another area of collaboration was on independent microgrids, which replaced diesel-based main or backup power supply with renewable local energy resources. Multiple countries shared interest in this topic and were able to collaborate on related projects.

Countries such as Austria are interested in the grid integration of renewable resources, which is also related to decarbonization, modernization of urban energy systems (Smart Cities), and climate change issues. International forums such as ISGAN can then help countries like Austria figure out how Smart Grids can support the transition to a low- or zero-carbon energy system. Dr. Kubeczko noted that it’s interesting to see the spectrum of approaches globally and then learn from the variety. For instance, some countries deal with energy transition through a technology-push policy, whereas others focus more on the demand side and societal needs.

International forums also bring support and legitimacy to national policies. By sharing information in the global discussion, countries can find arguments that show they’re on the right track, that Smart Grids create a larger market for domestic industry, and so on.


ISGAN’s Smart Grid Transitions Annex

Within ISGAN, Dr. Kubeczko is the Operating Agent for Annex 7: Smart Grid Transitions. Annex 7 studies the long-term aspects of introducing Smart Grids. It starts from the assumption that the Smart Grid transition depends not only on technological dimensions, but also on legal and institutional frameworks, changes in social networks and cognitive frames, and the interaction between all these dimensions. The team analyzes the dynamics of this transition process, as well as the factors that foster or hinder it. The team then examines what future research or national-level policy tools/practices can help progress the Smart Grid transition.

Dr. Kubeczko shared one interesting finding, about the global terminology surrounding Smart Grids. In most countries, Smart Grid technology development focuses on the “distribution grid.” The terminology describes Smart Grids as a change from our current unidirectional system, in which centralized energy producers sell electricity to end-users, into a two-way system where there are also (renewable) energy producers at the distribution grid level. However, Dr. Kubeczko noted, the reality is more complex. The traditional power system involves much more than just a unidirectional electricity flow, and Smart Grids will involve more parts of the grid than just the distribution grid. The problem, Dr. Kubeczko argued, is that oversimplified wording affects people’s cognitive frames. Many countries use distribution grid-centric terminology to establish shared context for conversations, which creates the wrong pictures/mental models in different actors’ minds, thereby incorrectly framing their communications. A main takeaway, then, is that we need to change the global Smart Grid terminology so that actors can correctly describe and understand the underlying systems.

Annex 7 also studies institutional systems, using academic frameworks from institutional economics and institutional sociology. As Dr. Kubeczko explained, one element of an institutional system is its actors and their interactions. During a fundamental transition, actors’ social networks and interactions change, with incumbents playing new roles and new actors coming into the fold. Shared cognitive frames are another element of institutional systems, as these frames can help institutional actors express their needs and expectations to one another. A third element of institutional systems is the “rules of the game,” or the formal rules, laws, and standards that govern how markets work, how actors cooperate, etc. Annex 7 analyzes institutions, mainly the interactions between actors and legal organizations, and the contradictions between legal terminology and cognitive frames. For instance, Dr. Kubeczko told me about a storage provider case study in Europe. Smart Grids rely on storage to work smoothly at the distribution grid level, so the role of storage provider is fundamental to the energy transition. However, current European law neither explicitly designates a storage provider role, nor contains enough freedom for storage providers to develop their own role. The contradiction between the cognitive frame (“Smart Grids need a storage provider”) and the formal laws (“there is no storage provider role”) must be fixed for Smart Grids to be properly implemented.


E-Trans 2050: Priorities for Austrian Energy Transition

I also asked Dr. Kubeczko about his prior work, namely the E-Trans 2050 project. According to the project website, the project aimed “to develop different visions of the future of the Austrian energy system” with “different groups of stakeholders from politics, science and business.” As Dr. Kubeczko noted, there are many processes and documents on the technological aspects of energy transition, but not many on the socio-economic aspects. This project aimed to fill the gap.

During the project, researchers brought together as wide a range of relevant actors as possible, from ecological tax researchers to civil society. By doing so, they were able to create a discourse between stakeholders who hadn’t previously been talking to each other, which hopefully shaped the cognitive frames of those involved. Together with these stakeholders, the researchers then identified three thematic priorities for research on the Austrian energy transition. One was the regional aspects of the energy transition and the differences between different territories. The second was how to integrate citizens and civil society, and how to develop social consensus. The third was about reflexive governance, or governance that adapts based on feedback. Climate change mitigation and energy transition touch several policy fields (such as energy, climate, environment, and industry) and different governmental levels (such as city, community, province, national, transnational, and global). There needs to be research on how to reduce the complexity of governance on these issues.

Finally, the project criticized the lack of funding for the humanities and social sciences, as opposed to technological research, in energy transition studies. This funding debate is still ongoing, and one E-Trans 2050 project outcome was that the ministry allowed Dr. Kubeczko’s department to operate ISGAN’s Annex 7. ISGAN and Annex 7 continue to establish workshops/participatory processes to bring stakeholders to the table and influence formal institutional frameworks.


Behavioral Change in the Energy Transition

In one of their E-Trans 2050 papers, Dr. Kubeczko and his follow researchers mention that “the aspect of land use and space in the energy sector is a far underdeveloped research topic.” In particular, they mention that increased per capita living space and urban sprawl “have severe implications with regard to energy consumption.” I asked Dr. Kubeczko how it’s possible to get people to make drastic lifestyle changes (such as moving into smaller homes), especially when participatory processes focus so much on social consensus.

Dr. Kubeczko responded that although E-Trans 2050 didn’t dig into the details of behavioral change, he and others working in sociology are generally critical of people’s potential to radically change their energy consumption behavior without incentives. We cannot simply tell the individual (convincingly) that energy consumption is important. We instead have to talk about social practices — not individuals alone, but individuals in their social contexts. Depending on the people one lives near, some things are socially accepted and some things are not. For instance, socially accepted behaviors around how often people should shower differ from country to country, and these behaviors all have implications for energy consumption. Decisions substantially affecting how one lives their social practices are also often “big” (and therefore infrequent), often depending on different phases in one’s life. For instance, most people shift residences only 5-10 times in their lives, but one’s choice of residence can substantially affect their household’s energy consumption.

Policy, Dr. Kubeczko said, can play some role both in individual behavior and in shaping social practices. The simplest way to influence practices, in theory, is to increase taxes. Speaking as an economist, he said that if you raise prices to certain level, then of course there will be substantial changes in energy consumption and over time possibly also in social practices. However, the “raising taxes” option is unpopular in Europe and Austria at the moment. Dr. Kubeczko said he realized this last during the E-Trans 2050 project, when he talked to green tax specialists who had worked on taxes for 20 years but whose concepts weren’t taken up in practice. Another possibility is prohibitive measures. During the Austrian energy crisis in the 1970s, there was a law that prohibited a person from using their car one day a week. People resultantly carpooled to work, which was a change in social practices. Once the legislation was taken away, however, people’s behavior changed back because the prohibitive measure was gone. There are lots of policy possibilities that can change social practices, but the question is whether these possibilities are socially accepted. There needs to be a societal consensus that the outcome is so important as to be worth giving up aspects of one’s culture and practices.

(Note: The interview corresponding to this writeup was recorded, and has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. The interviewee reviewed this writeup before its publication.)

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