Futures of Energy Vulnerability

How do we prepare for citizens' future energy needs?


Foresight research


Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks Dr. Leila Sheldrick



How might people be vulnerable to energy shocks in the future?

Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) asked us to explore how people might live, use and relate to electricity differently in the future - and how they might be vulnerable in new ways when their electricity networks go wrong. 

Every five years there is a nation-wide process that determines how much each electricity network operator will invest in infrastructure upgrades in different parts of the country. Unfortunately, this prioritisation process is primarily based on predicted electricity usage - meaning the fastest electrifying (and wealthiest) regions are prioritised. 

The UKRI funded project looked to innovate an alternative metric of where to focus infrastructure investment, based on likely vulnerability rather than simply on electricity usage. Because we hope this metric will influence investment for tens of years, we first had to explore how people might be vulnerable in different ways in the future.

Building scenarios and telling stories of individual vulnerabilities

We used a foresight approach to attempt to broaden SSEN’s existing definitions of consumer vulnerability. We started by scanning signals of change across three dimensions of people’s lives: changes in people’s ideas of self, changes in people’s homes, and changes to communities and connections. We then developed a set of future scenarios describing different ways people might live and use energy in rural and urban populations across the UK. Making scenarios allowed us to move beyond extrapolating present day trends and instead paint a rich picture of how people's lives might change when multiple trends start to collide and interact.

From these scenarios we told the stories of four different people: Adam, Safoora, Hannah and Rhianna, all of whom are facing multiple interacting forms of vulnerability arising from their changing contexts. This form of vulnerability - that we call contextual vulnerability - is a new way for SSEN to look at the factors that drive people to require support. From these four stories we drew out 12 emerging forms of vulnerability which may become exacerbated by changes to future lifestyles and energy landscapes, and offered recommendations for how SSEN can support those newly vulnerable customers.

Integrating long term thinking through SSEN and the sector

The work sits alongside a predictive modelling study aiming to understand the likely future distribution of emerging energy vulnerabilities around the UK. National Energy Action, a campaign group for energy equity, was brought in to help bring together the modelling with the future scenarios. Together, the ideas are already being integrated into a new process for SSEN to decide how to distribute funds to prioritise upgrading the network of the most vulnerable customers, and we hope to influence sector-wide investment practices for the next price-control planning period.

The insights within this foresighting of different scenarios are incredibly valuable to SSEN, providing a robust view of different futures that could take place, and a scenario space within which to plan.

National Energy Action

In collaboration with Dr. Leila Sheldrick from Imperial College London

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