Executive summary: Alien Energy

Renewable energy has in recent years become a central part of our all lives. This might surprise statistically, since renewable energy covers only a fraction of the global energy production, with oil, coal and gas still dominating while wind, water, biological and other electricity barely visible on the graphs. With man-made climate change already in effect, scientists, environmentalists, governments and many sections of the public in the west have come to the conclusion, that something has to be changed. The direction hereby is quite clear: Renewable energy is the future.

While renewable energy production might be the way forward, energy production is a competitive market. With Oil and Gas companies trying to defend their fossil fuel sources, it is an imperative to policy makers and environmental activists to convince the public of more sustainable methods of production. Changing public opinion is a door-opener in democracies, because ultimately only they can create the pressures necessary for long-term change. This is why we are proposing some alternative methods of convincing people to rethink energy productions.

Policy change resulting in laws and regulations that can curb fossil energy sources and promote renewables eventually depend on the people. Changing public perception of renewable energy, and it’s visible counterparts, the infrastructure is necessary to enable policy changes that favor renewable energy technologies. This leads to educational campaigns, and other integrations of ‘renewable energy’ as topic into the everyday life of citizens being of key importance.

Successful research is mainly facilitated in the European Union, the UK and the United States, who constitute major players in researching and testing new technologies, and in educating the public through campaigns. This is also a very competitive market, with many projects running at the same time, start-ups appearing and dying or being bought, ideas being created, prototypes tested, and successes planned, while in some cases those innovations get forgotten.

Tackling negative associations is part of the endeavour to educate the public on renewable energy sources. The researchers Laura Watts and Brit Winthereik face the question of how to redefine public understanding of the infrastructures that support our lives.  Renewable energy infrastructures often appear vastly different than conventional energy infrastructures. They occupy the landscape, sometimes nearly invisible, sometimes jarring, but seeming alien to people’s collective perception. They are alien in the sense that they are unfamiliar, new and strange to us. This can lead to misconceptions and negative attitudes that policy makers have to target.

How do we sway the public opinion then towards appreciating the importance of considering the role of renewable energy technologies and infrastructures in the future? Watts and Winthereik employ new approaches to draw our attention towards these infrastructures. For example, Winthereik envisioned the “Energy Walk”, a journey throughout a Danish coastal village accompanied by a walking stick with an embedded set of headphones. Embarking on the walk whilst listening to the audio recordings played from the digital walking stick is akin to an aesthetic experience: it asks the participant consider various things they encounter related to energy and infrastructures along the way, and to consider their past, future and alternatives.

It is necessary to remember the strides that have been made in renewable energy technologies. Watts points out on her blog that Orkney, an Island-chain at the north-eastern end of Scotland, has in the last couple of years been a hub for research and development of water and wind energy projects alike. Orkney has served as a testing site for smart grid technology research for almost a decade. While its rough, windy and wavy climate supports the creation of energy, sadly Orkneys electricity grid is separate from that of the mainland. This means energy created on the island stays trapped there. Furthermore, the UK National Infrastructure Commission proposes the development and linking of technologies abroad that already have been prototyped at Orkney. Instead of consigning “old” technologies to oblivion, it would be more sensible to build on top of them. In order to stay efficient one should not overlook prior investments and successes.

Investing in renewable energy sources might be a necessary step forward, in that amending policy is the only way forward, but politics often is not a straight, logical process. The Alien Energy project strives to explore ways of focusing public attention towards the infrastructures that shape our understanding of this issue. Projects such as those on the islands of Orkney serves as warning to forgetting existing infrastructure and technology.

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