From social science to innovative engineering with Rebecca Ford

“I think the world needs more multidisciplinary work, and needs to hear women’s voices more strongly.”

Dr Rebecca Ford is a researcher in Energy at the Environmental Change Institute, where she manages the Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy, and leads the Living Lab initiative at the University that aims to support the University to reduce carbon emissions by 33% by 2020. Rebecca is a multi-disciplinary scholar whose research focuses on energy challenges and transitions toward a sustainable future. She is interested in how people interact with energy systems, and how social science and technological insights can be co-developed to better inform decisions related to resource efficiency, carbon emissions, energy development and resilience.

Hello Rebecca Ford. Let’s go back in time. Can you remember where does your interest in renewable energy and environmental change come from?

For as long as I can remember I have been in love with some of the wonders of the natural environment. As a child I was taken on ski trips and I always felt in awe of the mountains. As a teenager I spent time by the sea and marvelled at the sheer power of the ocean, and as an adult I’ve continued to enjoy spending time in the outdoors. So I think a desire to ensure we maintain our environment for future generations has always been in my blood. But I’m also a very pragmatic person, so working with very tangible and realistic solutions around renewable energy and energy efficiency felt a natural fit for me.

It’s not always easy to understand what a researcher does exactly, so what does a typical day look like for you?

My day to day can vary hugely. Some days I seem to bounce from meeting to meeting, exploring ideas to get new projects off the ground, working with existing project teams on specific tasks, or just meeting interesting people and soaking in new ideas. Other days I spend a lot of time in front of my computer, reading papers, analysing data or writing up findings. And of course, there’s always the occasional fun of collecting data. Sometimes this means trawling the internet for various resources, other times I’m out interviewing people (such as early adopters of rooftop solar), or designing surveys. There’s always something to keep me on my toes!

How important is it that people become independent in terms of their energy consumption?

As our energy systems becomes increasingly distributed, with more and more households, communities and businesses generating their own energy, I think it’s important to become smarter in terms of how we use energy. Traditionally we’ve had demand following electricity systems, where we ramped up or down generation according to demand. But with more and more renewables this becomes harder to do, and we need to start to balance supply and demand in new and innovative ways. So I don’t think that means that people need to become independent, but that we need to think about how we can be smarter with using our energy when it’s available.

Do you think that in the future we’ll see more and more communities where people produce their own electricity and sell their surplus to their neighbours?

We’re already starting to see this in many countries, and as the price of solar, batteries, and smart appliances continues to drop, I can only imagine we’ll see more of this. Particularly as financial incentives to feed power into the grid are decreasing, there’s more of a motivation to either use energy on site, or find alternative methods to sell the excess, for example through peer-to-peer platforms.

According to your research, what factors influence people’s decision to purchase new energy technologies such as solar PV home systems or electric vehicles?

There are a whole variety of factors for different people in different locations. There’s no doubt that the financial incentives for solar in places like the UK have been a strong influence on uptake there. But in New Zealand, where no financial incentives existed, people were purchasing solar for non-financial reasons; they lacked trust in their power companies, wanted to protect themselves from future spikes in power prices, wanted increased independence from the grid in the face of natural or man made disasters, and felt good about the technology. With other technologies, like smart appliances, we’ve seen different factors driving uptake, and while people may tell you they’re interested in saving money or energy, it’s things like safety, security and comfort that dominate purchases.

What trends did you encounter in your research in terms of energy-related behaviour and uses in households?

One of the things I’ve been fascinated by is actually the diversity of energy use patterns in homes. We kitted up 50 New Zealand households with energy monitoring kits, and had them also fill out a diary for a week to tell us what they were doing. And what we saw was a huge diversity between homes in terms of when and how they were using energy. We also saw a huge diversity within homes, so one home may have entirely different use patterns from one day to the next. I guess the best thing I could say here is that we really saw how strongly energy demand was influenced by a combination of the technologies people had, the ways in which they used them, and their expectations and aspirations around things like indoor temperature, eating patterns, and so on.

How optimistic are you about the adoption of those new technologies? How long do you think it will take until it is “the norm” to have those devices in households?

In general I’m pretty optimistic about the technological side of the renewable energy transition, but I don’t think that means we will (or should) see every home adopting them. I think we’ll see a mix of household, community, business, and national contributions, but the continued price declines, performance increases, and governments buying in to clean energy technology is heartening.

The “Lighting Vanuatu” Project

You enrolled in a 2-year project to address Vanuatu’s “energy poverty” in 2010. Can you tell us a bit more about the situation in Vanuatu and what were the main goals of “Lighting Vanuatu” as well as the main difficulties you encountered?

Vanuatu is a really interesting country with a relatively small population spread over a large number of islands. This has meant that most people have no access to electricity, with kerosene remaining the dominant fuel for lighting. The goal of the project, which was run by Australia Aid and implemented by local NGOs, was to create a shift from kerosene lamps to solar lights. By this measure the project was a roaring success; when we visited we saw very little evidence of the kerosene lamps that had, until the time of the project, dominated. The solar technology was really embraced by the locals who found the lights much easier, safer, and convenient to use than the older technology. I think the main difficulties were in the distribution models. Of the two NGO’s that were implementing the project, one was really successful based on the number of lights distributed, but kept very poor records and went out of business shortly after the project was completed. The other NGO distributed far fewer lights, so was less successful by this metric, but retained a strong business and is working to support a thriving solar economy.

The “Lighting Vanuatu” Project

How did the locals embrace the project?

The project was implemented by two local NGOs, who interacted with the communities through a number of information distribution networks. Because of the multiple channels used, they did a great job at getting the lights out into the community. And once the locals had been exposed to the technology, they wanted it! Many times we heard people say “what else but solar”, and comment that they could never go back to kerosene.

What is the SEE Change Institute and what research are you currently working on there?

SEE Change Institute brings together a team of researchers who want to work on real world problems to try and affect change. Most of our work is focussed in the energy space, but we also have researchers who are experts in other areas of pro-social change. My main project here is focussed on the smart home, and trying to understand, and ultimately influence, how these new technologies might be used to deliver benefits to households and our wider energy system.

One of the SEE Change Institute goals is to combine social science with innovative engineering. Why is that so important in term of solving the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems?

The world’s most pressing problems are not contained to the disciplines we enforce in academia. So by looking at the problem through a single lens, you only see a small part of the picture. In order to more fully understand these complex and dynamic issues we need to look at them from all angles, which can only be done by bringing a multidisciplinary team together.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Only that I think the world needs more multidisciplinary work, and needs to hear women’s voices more strongly. So often I am at events or in rooms where I am the only woman at the table, and I think this is a huge error. We need to work harder to support the smart minds that are engaged and interested in working in quite new and exciting ways.

Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou

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