Overline: Transdisciplinarity
Headline: Co-creative Collaboration Improves Energy Models

Scientists are constantly working to improve models for energy systems. Is this making the models more responsive to the actual needs of users from politics, business and civil society? IASS researchers have reached a mixed conclusion: While improvements are being made, modellers and users need to collaborate more closely to make full use of the potential of models for the energy transition.

Modellers and users need to collaborate more closely to make full use of the potential of models for the energy transition.
Modellers and users need to collaborate more closely to make full use of the potential of models for the energy transition. Shutterstock/Viktoria Kurpas

Models for energy systems have become increasingly complex in recent years. They now take into account a wide range of aspects from costs and climate-relevant emissions to energy efficiency and resource consumption. Yet most advances are based on what the modellers consider important – users’ needs are rarely explicitly considered. How satisfied are they with the refined energy models? To find out, IASS researchers and partner organisations in the Horizon Project "The Sustainable Energy Transition Laboratory” (SENTINEL) conducted a literature review and 32 interviews across Europe, as well as an online survey.

"Our results show that users are seeing some improvements in newer energy models. However, in the modelling of social, behavioural and political aspects, there is an urgent need for improvement," lead author Diana Süsser says. These include questions of lifestyle, the acceptance of the expansion of renewable energies and political dynamics and decisions. Unfortunately, it is precisely these social concerns of the energy transition that models often miss, as a further study co-authored by Diana Süsser shows.

The authors draw four conclusions from their study for the future development and use of models:

1. Energy models should support policymaking better and earlier. They should focus more on the impact of policy objectives and especially measures. Previous studies have shown that models are becoming increasingly important and are being used to support policymaking at the European, national and local levels.

2. Modellers have continuously increased the level of detail, resolution and technical precision of energy models. For example, models currently represent classical and innovative energy technologies differently. Now, they should shift their attention more toward the social, political and urgent ecological aspects of the energy transition. It is precisely the combined consideration of these factors that can significantly improve the relevance of models for a sustainability-oriented and socially supported restructuring of the energy supply.

3. Stakeholder engagement in the modelling process is often beneficial in aligning models with important challenges and pressing issues. Both the research design and the evaluation of results should increasingly be developed in a co-creative manner as this increases the relevance and usefulness of modelling for the participants.

4. Open-source models and transparency in the development of these models allow modellers and users to discuss different needs and build trust in the energy models. Modellers could also develop "toy models”, that is, simplified versions that provide users with a basic understanding of the model, while at the same time maintaining more comprehensive, sophisticated versions which they can continuously improve upon and make available on demand. It is crucial that complexity and comprehensibility are weighed carefully – and this should ideally be done together with users.

"We are certainly not the first and not the last to call for greater consideration of social and political aspects in models, but our work empirically shows which of these aspects are particularly important from the users' point of view," concludes Johan Lilliestam, who led the research team. Co-author Hannes Gaschnig adds: "Energy system models often create a cost-optimised world. This is not very useful if a lack of acceptance or political decisions means that windfarms cannot be built at all. Models need to explicitly account for such factors so that results can support decisions."

The IASS has published the results of the study in a report for the SENTINEL project as well as an article in the scientific journal Energy, which explores the similarities and differences between modellers and users.

Süsser, D., Gaschnig, H., Ceglarz, A., Stavrakas, V., Flamos, A., Lilliestam, J., Better suited or just more complex? On the fit between user needs and modeller-driven improvements of energy system models, Energy, Volume 239, Part B, 15 January 2022, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.energy.2021.121909