Energy systems are in transition from predominantly centralized fossil-fuel and nuclear-based infrastructures to more efficient and heterogeneous renewable-based configurations that include a diversity of different kinds of decentralized, distributed energy. This energy transition is much more than a technological substitution; this transition also includes major social innovations including institutional and cultural changes related to expectations for how individuals, households, communities and organizations use and manage energy. The renewable energy transition also has huge potential to redistribute the political “power” associated with huge multi-national conventional energy companies. This political potential of the local, distributed, abundant, and renewable characteristics of renewable-based energy systems has contributed to growing popularity of the concept of “energy democracy.”
To date, investment in and education for the energy transition has focused primarily on technology and advancing technological innovation. To accelerate change and counter inevitable resistance from the status quo, social innovations also need to be included in energy education, researched, supported and experimented with. New institutional models need to be developed for electric utilities that are critical energy organizations to embrace and facilitate, rather than resist, change. The societal benefits of renewable-based job creation need to be articulated more clearly to justify new job training programs to meet the growing demand for skilled workers in renewable energy. And we need to better understand and acknowledge the multiple positive societal impacts of expanding the diversity of the individuals engaged in the energy sector. Having more women and other under-represented minorities not only creates new opportunities but can also accelerate both social and technological innovation.
Strengthening the technical side of energy education while expanding beyond engineering, to include sociology, policy, economics, psychology and the environment, is critical to preparing students and society for the renewable energy transition. Connecting social and technical innovation within energy education is essential to support the systemic change that is occurring.