Sustainability on Sustainable Energy Research

Article by Manuel Bickel examines research field with regard to its sustainability

  • News 04.03.2020

One of the central goals of the Great Transformation is to establish a sustainable energy system. Science plays an important role in the related societal decision-making processes, especially the field dealing with "sustainable energy". Therefore, the topics and ideas circulating in this scientific field are highly relevant for decisions on how to shape the future energy system. Whether the ideas in this field, which describes itself as "sustainable", actually contribute to the establishment of a sustainable energy system is by no means self-evident. For better understanding the structure and orientation of the research area on "sustainable energy" and identifying possible gaps, the study "Reflecting trends in the academic landscape of sustainable energy using probabilistic topic modeling" by Manuel Bickel, Research Fellow in the Product and Consumption Systems Research Unit in the Sustainable Production and Consumption Division at the Wuppertal Institute, examines the global thematic research landscape.

The study uses modern text mining methods to analyse more than 25,000 scientific abstracts published since 1990. The results show that the research field focuses on the development and optimisation of the energy infrastructure towards 100 per cent renewable energies using modern key technologies. These include materials science, (biological) process engineering and (digital) monitoring and control systems. The results of the study show trends towards an increased utilization of energy storage, photonic materials (for example for solar cells or artificial photosynthesis), nanomaterials or bio fuels. Decreasing trends are identified in particular for aspects relating to sustainable development in general and the associated economic, ecological and political issues.

The author of the study concludes that the discourse latently follows a technology-oriented paradigm and, thereby, can make important contributions to the establishment of a sustainable energy system. However, he also highlights that social science or psychological approaches, for instance, are only of secondary importance. The integrative and global perspective that originally motivated the research field is currently not a central reference point. A multi-faceted concept of sustainability as used, e.g., in social-ecological research, is not present in the global research field of "sustainable energy" currently.

In order to establish sustainable energy systems, future research must not only focus on the technical infrastructure, but also clearly focus on questions that can only be preceived and answered with a holistic perspective, the author adds: "In the future, the interplay between the energy system and material flows, for example, energy efficiency versus material efficiency, should be taken into account to a greater extent and the integration of the social sciences should be strengthened."

The open access article was published by Springer in "Energy, Sustainability and Society" and is available in the link below.

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