Dr Geertje Schuitema
What attracted you to work with the Energy Institute?
I am interested in working on so-called wicked problems around sustainability. Wicked problems are problems that are difficult to solve because they are complex, contradictory and dynamic in nature. How to provide current and future generations with their energy needs is a wicked problem. The people who work in the Energy Institute look at this problem from very different angles as they have different backgrounds. By working in the Energy Institute, I get the opportunity to work on energy related problems in collaboration with people from other disciplines. I find this fascinating and rewarding as I feel I get the chance work on and contribute to a problem that is important for our society.
What research questions interest you most right now?
I’m interested in how people respond to technological changes that are needed to change make the current energy system more sustainable. The technological changes that are needed include new infrastructure (e.g., the build of more renewable energy sources, such as wind energy) and encouraging households to adopt new technologies (e.g., heat pumps, smart meters, or electric vehicles). I’m convinced that technologies can help us to make the energy system more sustainable, but we also need to look at our energy consumption. Hence, I’m also interested in how we can encourage people to conserve energy and thus reduce the energy demand.
There is a societal move towards a decarbonised economy. What do you think are the most important steps to decarbonisation and how does your research contribute to this?
It’s encouraging to see society moving towards a decarbonised economy as it indicates that there is increasing support for decarbonising policies and technologies. However, one thing policy makers, researchers and industry need to be aware about this process is that support is not guaranteed. It is important to have a continuous conversation with society about what decarbonisation means and how it impacts them. My research focusses on understanding people’s responses to technologies and policies and I aim to understand people’s responses when new policies or technologies are implemented. That is, what are people’s concerns? What are their expectations? What do they find important in the short and in the long term? This is important knowledge because often these concerns can be addressed by making changes. Understanding what truly motivates people is necessary in order to design an energy system that is built for society to function optimally.
Behavioural changes has long been neglected by some policymakers, since they are typically perceived as more value-laden than technological improvements and because they are more difficult to quantify and implement in models (Creutzig et al. 2016; Hardt et al. 2019). Would you agree with this statement and why?
Technology optimism is common also under policy makers. It is nice to think that for all problems a technological “fix” is available or will be developed in the future. It means we don’t have to change our behaviour and our lifestyles. This, however, is wishful thinking. If you look at the data, energy demand must be reduced too to build a sustainable future. This means we have to change the way we use energy. Technology can sometimes facilitate this but not always. Changing behaviour is difficult because changing lifestyles can have real impact on people. However, research has also shown that if changes are made, people see the benefits of these changes. For example, I have studied changes in policy acceptance of a congestion charge in Stockholm. Initially, people objected to this congestion charge. However, when they were forced to experience the congestion charge in a trial, they realised they had underestimated benefits (e.g., pollution levels reduced) and overestimate the costs (i.e., if costs less than they initially thought). This is encouraging because it means that people can change even when coercive policies are implemented.
What advice would you give to secondary school students who are considering engineering as a third level option?
Find out what your passion! What interests you and why. I would certainly encourage students to follow what interests them. Interdisciplinary work can be bumpy and complex but very rewarding too.