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Energy governance, digitalisation and decarbonisation: conducting a policy-relevant PhD

18 November 2020

3 minutes to read

Energy governance, digitalisation and decarbonisation: conducting a policy-relevant PhD

Emily Judson is a third year EPSRC-funded PhD student in the Energy Policy Group based on Exeter’s Penryn campus in Cornwall. Her research explores governance challenges emerging from energy system digitalisation and assesses institutional change in response to these challenges. Her work is supervised by Dr Iain Soutar, Professor Catherine Mitchell, and Dr Rosie Robison

My research

The UK energy sector is undergoing a rapid shift towards widespread use of digital and data-based technologies, referred to as ‘energy system digitalisation’. In the sector, the core rationale for digitalisation is to support more responsive and flexible balancing of supply and demand, enabling the system to cope with higher levels of renewable generation and new patterns of demand resulting from the electrification of heat and transport (e.g. heat pumps or electric vehicle charging).

Digitalisation also opens up the sector by enabling actors such as households, start-ups and community groups to more actively participate in energy system services.

While this paints a rosy picture of technological potential, the outcomes of digitalisation are not guaranteed to align with environmental or socio-economic policy goals for the energy sector. For example, the formation of new digital monopolies or ‘data lakes’ can construct barriers to accessing data that could otherwise be used to help cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Appropriate governance is therefore required to ensure digitalisation aligns with a fair transition to a Net Zero energy system. My research addresses this need by developing a better understanding of governance emerging from energy system digitalisation in the UK and exploring institutional responses to these challenges.

How did I get here?

After graduating from my BA in Politics I chose to go directly into work and spent several years gaining experience as a Policy professional.

I don’t have a Master’s degree, so my professional experience was considered in lieu of this during my PhD application. Although my work roles were not directly related to my current research subject, skills developed in past workplaces have been valuable during my PhD.

For example, experience of project and stakeholder management have proved extremely useful! On the other hand, returning to academia can be intimidating – particularly if you have forgotten how to do basic things like using reference software or academic databases. It can be easy to develop imposter syndrome in moments where you realise that you aren’t up to speed, however a supportive supervisory team and research group are an enormous help.

Research and policy engagement

Given the climate imperative for decarbonisation of the energy sector, I am keen for my research to be conducted in a manner that is as policy-relevant as possible. To support this goal, it is has been important to keep up with current policy debates and to build trusted networks in the sector. I have approached this in a variety of ways including submitting responses to government consultations, contributing to policy networks, attending relevant meetings and events, and taking up an industry placement.

Although these types of activity may seem to sit outside ‘core’ academic duties, they have been helpful in supporting research participant recruitment and providing channels for results dissemination beyond the academic community. They have also enabled me to develop a range of ‘critical friends’ who have helped test ideas and assumptions from different angles, improving the robustness of my research design.

For any other researchers looking to develop policy engagement as part of their studies, one of the most important things I have learned is the need to adjust communication style and terminology for different audiences. Unfortunately, a sentence that seems crystal clear in my own head can unwittingly mean completely different things when read by a programmer, an engineer or a civil servant! Although this may seem tangential, I have found gaining teaching experience really helpful in developing a clearer communication style and finding different ways to explain ideas.


Emily Judson


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