For many Australians, 2020 has been shaped by many unprecedented events – from a widespread and severe bushfire season to the current COVID-19 pandemic. These events have brought to attention, and in some cases unearthed, significant problems in Australian society that will shape how we live and work for decades to come. 

Domestic energy demand has increased up to 25 per cent on average as households are required to spend more time at home for work, school and leisure. 

The growth of home technology purchases has also eventuated, with people investing in home office technology, extra refrigeration and freezer space to store more groceries, and air purifiers to manage pollution. 

These events have also impacted research methodology within the sector, calling for significant innovations in research methods to guide future research design and delivery. 

The Digital Energy Futures project, led by the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University, aims to understand and forecast the changing digital lifestyle trends of Australians and the potential impact on future household electricity demand. 

To understand the knowledge required to bring social science insights to the forefront of energy forecasting, the Digital Energy Futures team have developed several experimental research methods for the energy sector. 

For example, researchers are using visual cues in the form of comic strip depictions of future technology scenarios to prompt  discussion about emerging technologies and their futures from participants. 

Each aggregated scenario is based on a content analysis of reports from the energy and technology industry. 

Findings indicate that the impact of the bushfire crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that the Cool and Comfortable in Extreme Weather scenario (Figure 1) is already a close depiction of some people’s everyday lives.

Figure 1: Cool and comfortable in extreme weather scenario

Households are increasingly interested in integrating appliances to purify the air in their homes – both in response to last summer’s bushfire smoke and respiratory conditions such as allergies and asthma. 

Air purifiers are increasingly common in homes despite doubts about their effectiveness. Adopters of air purification often continue to use the devices throughout the year despite the initial reason for the purchase having passed. 

This example shows how unanticipated events can have quite sudden impacts on energy use and can persist in ways that may differ from industry expectations. 

The team is now in the thick of the second stage of the Digital Energy Futures project, which uncovers new insights about emerging technologies and energy demand in our contemporary lives and into the future. 

This phase is being conducted remotely via Zoom, allowing researchers to connect virtually with participants across New South Wales and Victoria. 

This virtual fieldwork incorporates pre-recorded or live video tours and photo-dairies of participants’ homes. 

The knowledge derived from these virtual interviews and home visits will allow researchers to develop a deeper understanding of participants’ lives and thereby generate new insights into their possible energy futures. 

The flexibility provided by these new methodologies is allowing the team to respond rapidly to changing circumstances and offering insights to the energy industry that will help capture crucial learnings related to shifts in energy demand as they happen. 

The team has also been able to incorporate new visual data into their research. By screen-sharing data visualisations of each participants’ energy load profiles, the team can obtain reflections from each participant on their energy consumption during critical periods throughout the year. 

These key dates range from public holidays, a bushfire day or a winter day in COVID-19 lockdown. These discussions have revealed participants’ priorities and the changes they envisage for their future homes. 

For example, discussing the load profile on a cold winter’s day during COVID-19 lockdown helped households identify the range of devices used in response to having more people at home working, studying and needing comfort, entertainment and care. 

In this project, the team has been privileged to have the opportunity to collaborate with forward-thinking industry partner organisations, Energy Consumers Australia, Ausgrid and AusNet Services, who are eager to learn from these world-first methodologies to improve energy forecasting across their businesses and the sector. 

An example of an NSW participant’s load profile

By engaging with the energy sector through innovative social science methods, the team is able to better understand future energy demand from the perspectives of both the industry and the people who consume energy. 

Methodologies will also be transferable within the energy sector, internationally and to other industries concerned about how to invest in unpredictable futures. 

The team has an international reputation for being leaders in methodological innovation. The social science based methodologies used throughout the Digital Energy Futures project will inform our industry partners and produce the most comprehensive contemporary insights into the lived experiences of residential energy consumers. 

Findings will provide the foundations for the Futures Workshops, to be delivered in 2021. These will inform a nation-wide survey, and will promote the development of new forecasting methodology that accounts for everyday life, digital and energy technology trends and social change, throughout the sector.

Professor Sarah Pink, based in Melbourne, conducts online research with a participant in New South Wales

Professor Sarah Pink is the Director of the Emerging Technologies Research Lab, which undertakes critical interdisciplinary and international research into the social, cultural and experiential dimensions of the design, use and futures of new and emerging technologies. She has a joint appointment at Monash University across the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture and the Faculty of Information Technology.

Dr Larissa Nicholls is a social scientist at the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University. Her research specialises in bringing deeper understandings of household practices and concerns into Australia’s ongoing policy debates about energy affordability, sustainability and reliability. The impacts of energy policy and emerging technologies for vulnerable and disadvantaged households are a key research focus. Her industry-relevant research supports consumer advocacy and energy organisation decision-making towards better outcomes for households.

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