Smart grids the human scale: Investigating householder participation in the decentralization, digitalization and decarbonization of energy grids in the Netherlands

Robin Smale

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Smart grids are heralded as promising socio-technical innovation and a comprehensive solution for making the energy grid more flexible and green. Smart grids innovations presume the involvement of householders, who, by conserving, monitoring, and timing their consumption with the help of various smart technologies and information flows, contribute to the sustainability and stability of the electricity grid. In this context, grid operator, energy producing companies, governments and other actors are redefining their relationships to each other and to citizens. These actors have to face the desires, values and actions of citizens. Meeting this challenge requires a closer investigation of householder engagement and empowerment in smart grids. Three main research questions were posed:

  • How do smart grid objectives and technologies interact with householder goals and preferences with respect to energy use and generation, and how does their implementation co-shape energy management practices, householder agency and power relations? 
  • How do wider sociotechnical configurations of smart grids engage and empower (collectives of) householders, such as those involving energy storage and digital infrastructures? (How) can householder co-shape those wider configurations?
  • What are the implications of this analysis for stakeholder strategies and energy policies and governance concerning the co-construction of smart grids at human scales in the near future?

In order to answer the main research questions, a theoretical framework is applied which conceptualizes the interaction between households and energy systems in the context of smart grids. Social practice theory is used to identify two levels of analysis. The first is the situated, single household, which is the site of home energy management (practices). The second level encompasses the wider socio-technical configurations in which (collectives of) householders can participate in smart grids. The engagement and empowerment of householders is investigated in relation to home energy management and in relation to energy managing collectives. Methods were selected appropriate to each analytical level. The empirical work consists of a mix of qualitative methods, including semi-structured interviews, ‘show-and-tell’-style home tours, ethnography-style observations, participatory workshops, and participant observation.

Research chapter 1 analyses recent shifts in goals concerning domestic energy uses. Drawing on two Dutch smart grid projects, it is observed that in the smart grid transition the balancing of (renewable) supply and demand in energy grids becomes the key priority of grid managers. This shift becomes translated at the household level through so called ‘teleoaffective structures’ of energy practices which motivate and direct the behaviour of householders towards flexible timing-of-demand. Domestic practices were analysed for amenability to flexible timing-of-use. Opportunities and barriers to sustainable domestic energy consumption are specified.

Research chapter 2 investigated the potential role of households as ‘co-managers’ of energy in smart grids. An analysis is presented of how home energy management (HEM) is performed in everyday life with a focus on three technologies: monitoring technologies, smart heat pumps and home batteries. Being shared between householders and actors from the energy provision system, HEM practices were found to display particular ways of distributing responsibilities, power and agency over technologies, experts and householders.

Research chapter 3 presents an analysis about how the introduction of home batteries affords new roles and energy practices for householders. Qualitative research involving interviews with householders and other stakeholders engaged with battery storage point to five emerging storage modes in which householders can play a role: individual energy autonomy; local energy community; smart grid integration; virtual energy community; and electricity market integration.

Research chapter 4 examined new business models and digital infrastructures in the form of ‘energy platforms’. Two serious-game style workshops involving Dutch frontrunner householders were convened to examine how householders engage with potential environmental, social, and economic opportunities and risks of energy platforms. The findings indicate that as energy platform members, householders can engage with both the community and the grid in new and different ways, leading to a diversity of possible outcomes for householder engagement.

Four main conclusions are drawn from the research. The first is that HEM-practices are characterised by alignments and clashes between the ‘life world’ of householders and the ‘system world’ of smart grids. A second conclusion is that smart grids both enable and constrain householder agency by introducing new forms of control over and monitoring of flows of energy and energy data. Thirdly, socio-technical configurations of smart grids featuring energy storage and digital infrastructures enable exchange, trade and storage of energy and entail diverse and uncrystallized roles and engagements for householders or communities. The fourth conclusion is that energy storage is paradoxical with respect to empowerment and socio-technically flexible, resulting in a dynamic field of experimentation in which different interests and goals mix and mingle.

The research conclusions are discussed with reference to two features of modernity: space-time distanciation and reflexivity. The smart grid promises engagement but also risks in some sense the alienation of its participants because of the distanciation of social (energy) relations and the limited number of co-present interactions. Moreover, meaningful reflexivity on the part of householders involves critically recasting energy use, generation and management in light of broader sustainability goals (such as combating climate change, renewable self-sufficiency, and local energy neutrality). The decentralizing tendencies of smart grids also open up opportunities for householders to reflexively co-create new kinds of energy collectives and relations between householders, energy utilities and markets.

Several recommendations are formulated. Considering the emerging, complex and uncertain nature of householder participation of householders in smart grids, characterized by diversity (in objectives, organisational forms, methods, engagement), unsettled relational boundaries and not yet crystalized power relations between actors, it is recommended that governance actors pursue a reflexive governance strategy with respect to scaling up smart grid projects. Reflexive governance would entail actively supporting experimentation with home energy management and with social organization of energy managing collectives; and professional facilitation of householders and communities to enable them to articulate their interests and ambitions vis-à-vis powerful established energy system actors and novel intermediaries. Structured, ongoing and mediated interaction can contribute to more human scale smart grids which bring together the interests, needs aspirations of householders and system actors in motivating, meaningful, and ‘system-smart’ collaborations.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Spaargaren, Gert, Promotor
  • van Vliet, Bas, Co-promotor
Award date2 Dec 2021
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463439497
Publication statusPublished - 2 Dec 2021


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    Robin Smale


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