New Research Handbook on Energy and Society published

27 Jan 2022

Costly reliance on fossil fuels

At the start of 2022, European households and businesses are facing major increases in the cost of gas and electricity. Wholesale gas prices have been rising exponentially since autumn 2021 (see Mike Bradshaw’s recent analysis). In Britain, heavily dependent on gas for electricity and for heating, there is concern about what households, businesses and politicians need to do to manage the fallout. Regardless of immediate actions to minimise the impact, this exposure to volatile global gas prices emphasises the urgency of transition to a clean, low energy society and economy.

The current crisis is a sharp reminder that energy supply and use are fundamentally about society and ways of life, and never simply a matter of technology. Despite this, there is still  a common assumption that technology innovation is sufficient to save our skins; the majority of energy research funding also reflects that maxim (Overland and Sovacool, 2020). When societal issues are considered, the focus remains on public acceptability of new consumer appliances or managing opposition to renewable energy technologies, such as large scale wind turbines.

New perspectives for supporting the transition

Our new Research Handbook on Energy and Society sets out a very different perspective. In particular, it highlights the inextricable interdependencies of energy systems, societies and social identities. We survey the growing field of social studies of energy, bringing together contributions from researchers across the world. We ask whether our fossil fuel age institutions (including government, industry and markets) are fit for the purpose of responding to the climate crisis, environmental destruction and social injustices. We explore the socio-technical, political and economic shaping of energy systems, unpicking taken for granted definitions of expertise, authority, producers and consumers. We also consider the potential for public engagement and participative democracy in decision-making about energy.

The Handbook has twenty-seven chapters, with over fifty authors discussing social science research. Authors begin by examining the tight coupling between fossil fuels, industrial revolution and the formation of modern societies. This shows that the history of energy is not one of linear transition from one major source to another, but one of adding more sources to the mix, including wind and solar power, without displacing others. Even in countries with strong espoused climate protection commitments, coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, remains a central element of economic organisation. Indeed, in some cases, wholesale gas price volatility is prompting renewed discussion about new coal power, rather than encouraging a further shift to alternatives.

Unpicking dominant ideas

The concept of the ‘energy consumer’ is a critical part of the status quo. Handbook contributors challenge the idea that the ‘energy consumer’ is a self-evident identity, where everyone has pre-given needs, geared to perpetual growth in consumption.  Instead, we show the flexibility and diversity of consumer identities and patterns of energy use across societies and historical periods. Authors invert the dominant model of policy which assumes that current consumption patterns need to be reproduced. Instead, they provide a foundation for innovative policies, concerned with sufficiency, equity and energy citizenship.

Distinctive social science perspectives include a direct focus on whole systems, encompassing energy uses as well as supply. In the Handbook, we examine numerous dimensions of use, ranging from lack of access, energy poverty and inequities of gender and ethnicity, to questions about hyper-consumption and energy waste. Authors discuss routes to culturally responsive global governance for equity in access to clean energy for the three billion people reliant on traditional fuels for cooking, and the billion without access to electricity. Others discuss the potential to reduce energy use in higher income societies by improving our buildings, and developing active and shared mobility as alternatives to private cars. We also examining gendered divisions in energy sector jobs, and highlight opportunities for greater diversity, equality and inclusion that can be opened up through clean energy plans.

Making decisions for our energy future

A third section of the book turns to examining governance, policies and politics of energy systems. This ranges from global impacts of Chinese policy innovations to consequences of devolved government for clean energy in the UK. Ethnographic research for example casts light on the intersections of large-scale developments and local livelihoods. The Hebridean Isle of Lewis is at the meeting point of offshore industries and investments in the North Sea and North East Atlantic, while local people are questioning who decides the uses of land, coasts and the future of energy. We also go beyond the common focus of research on energy policies to analyse the impacts of non-energy policies on energy demand, including in the spheres of industry, trade, agriculture, health and education.

The final section discusses the climate consequences of fossil fuel dependence, and energy futures.  Here, we explore narratives about sustainable societies, future places and ways of life. Authors review the potential for public engagement in producing and accessing knowledge for scenario modelling, and in decisions about technology research & development, systems (re-) engineering, ownership and control.

Establishing social studies of energy

The Handbook contributes to establishing social studies of energy as a valuable part of multi-disciplinary higher education and research. Whether in business and industry, government or civil society, social sciences are investigating established and emerging energy systems, across cycles of development, supply, use and dismantling or repurposing. We need to use the resulting evidence to inform public debate about the major risks of further exploiting fossil fuels. This includes the urgent need for clean energy, sufficient for sustainable prosperity, and responsive to democratic control.


Overland, I. and Sovacool, B. 2020 ‘The misallocation of climate research funding’, Energy Research and Social Science, 62. Article 101349.

J Webb, F Wade and M Tingey (eds) (2021) Research Handbook on Energy and Society, Edward Elgar