Opinion editorial: Alien Energy

The Energy Walk was more than just a proverbial eye-opener: it was an aesthetic experience. During launch day of the project, an elderly participant was overcome with emotions as she proclaimed her joy at the way that the researchers had captured her understanding of living at the “edge”, i.e. in the countryside. As she was crying tears of joy, the researchers considered what this meant for their work. It is most likely not the case, but I like to imagine those two things happening simultaneously. They had set out to create awareness of infrastructures, but had gone beyond that. The walk touched the imaginations of the walkers in ways that surprised the walkers as much as the researchers. An imaginative space of sorts had come into existence, one that was employed to consider both the current and future outlook of the Danish edge-landscape.

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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.

Peer review of “The Energy Walk: Experimenting with Aesthetic Methods in STS?” by Line Marie Thorsen

This review intends to focus on critiquing not the content, but rather the style, language and structure of the text; the writing in short.

To determine the intention of her text, we must look at the end of it. In her concluding remarks, L. M. Thorsen draws on Dewey to explain why it can be categorized as an aesthetic experience. She states her hopes for the future of STS in the very final statement: “If we are serious about methodological cross-pollination among disciplines, then STS needs to be sensitised towards aesthetics in order to grapple with these engagements.” This could be indicative of her intention with the text – one could assume that she wants this “cross-pollination” to happen. She believes that “the Energy Walk thus seems to me to open up an interesting space for further experimenting with the relevance of aesthetic method and thinking to STS research and practice – and visa versa.” This is why she makes such an effort to ensure that the reader emphasizes with the experience and understands it: she believes it to have potential for STS as a whole. In short, in better understanding aesthetics STS would also be better able to understand other disciplines as well.

The language is advanced, but not overly complex. The writer uses words and terms native to Science and Technology Studies(STS), making it more difficult, but not impossible, for outsiders to the research field to follow. The primary intended audience, considering the publication, is then quite clear: researchers in the field of STS. Due to the nature of her text, it being a review of someone else’s research, she cannot directly bring in the supporting data and analysis work that the original researchers might have done. This could mean that some researchers would not be convinced merely by reading her review.

Style-wise, L.M. Thorsen uses long explicatory statements such as “Leading up on the wooden stairway through the dunes overlooking the harbour; around the electrical mast on top; through a small grass-covered path; through a meadow with grazing cows overlooking the adjacent National Park; up a gravelled path to the old lighthouse and the town church; onto the paved road leading back to the overview of the harbour.” The elaborate description helps the reader imagine and immerse themselves in the situation. The author even refers to “you” when explaining the Energy Walk, as if the reader is being enticed to participate. The intent here could be to give the reader the opportunity to understand the experience, even if they were never actually to visit Hanstholm and partake in the Energy Walk themselves. Likely, this was done due to the nature of the research being discussed – the experience itself is a critical component without which the research becomes pointless. It is consequently crucial that the reader is made to believe that the experience is interesting and worthwhile, the two things that the author wants to emphasize that it is; thus supporting her intention well.

Perhaps in spite of the capabilities of the audience, or perhaps signifying a targeted sub-audience, L. M. Thorsen employs a simple structure throughout the text, using summary statements at the end of sections to guide the reader through it. Arguably, it even follows the standard successive format of: introduction, analysis, discussion and conclusion. This helps the reader follow the argument easily, building their own understanding and consequently supports her intention well.

In conclusion, the language, style and structure seems to support L.M. Thorsen’s intention well, though some of the readers may find the text lacking due to its very nature. These would need to consult the original research articles to make their final judgement.