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Energy Disruption

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Chris Robinson

Eco-savvy consumers who purchase electric vehicles and rooftop solar panels, for instance, or who participate in deep energy retrofit and other green-building programs, are already helping to mitigate greenhouse gases and challenge predictions of a future ecological calamity.

But for these small gestures to have lasting significance in making clean energy a reality for all, they require the creation of new products, services and policies that target the demand side to disrupt existing technologies and markets, ultimately leading to broad technological, social and political changes.

That’s the key finding of a new study out of York University that looks at climate-change actions on the part of all energy users as a requirement for the radical energy system transformation needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030, the target set by scientists to give the planet a fighting chance at long-term survival.

“We want to understand what role energy users – such as citizens, households, organizations and businesses within communities – can play in a low-carbon transition and how they can be supported to adopt multiple ‘disruptive’ innovations,” says Christina Hoicka (MES ’07), an associate professor of sustainable energy economics in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, and the project’s principal investigator.

Between 2017 and 2019, Hoicka led a research team in identifying 131 low-carbon innovations that had been offered to energy users in Ontario between 1998 and 2018. Examples of the innovations they found included a municipal energy planning program, electric vehicle charging policy incentives, a community energy-storage project, energy audits and regional sustainability initiatives.

But many “lacked the technology-specific regulatory, economic and knowledge-creation and diffusion policy supports necessary to achieve scale-up and diffusion in mainstream markets,” Hoicka says, making them less effective than they could be in redefining a low-carbon landscape for the province.

“Disruptive innovations create major societal change, for example by introducing new social values and political beliefs and through the emergence of new actors and regulatory interventions. We have identified these innovations and their dissemination rates, and measured their impact on a low-carbon energy transition.”

The potential policy implications of the research are quite broad and impactful, earning Hoicka a 2021 Ontario Early Researcher Award based on this project.

“Our research can inform policy-makers, industry experts and professionals about how to identify disruptive innovations and the specific factors that influence the successful diffusion of existing low-carbon innovations,” she says.

“By broadening our understanding and measurement of how to engage energy users quickly and accelerate our response, this research provides an important contribution to decarbonization policy that aligns with 2030 greenhouse gas mitigation targets.”  ■

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