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Research for Tomorrow's World - Introducing the Leibniz Research Network “Energy Transition”

Hanno Michel & Ute Harms

The reduction of CO2 emissions is one of the greatest societal challenges of our time. A low-emission supply and efficient use of energy is urgently needed to counteract climate change and preserve our environment for future generations. To this end, Germany aims for a transition from an energy system largely based on nuclear energy, coal, oil and gas, to a system that almost exclusively comprises renewable energy sources - the “Energiewende”.

However, this transition process brings with it enormous technical, economic and social challenges. Technically, issues need to be resolved such as the coupling of energy sectors, the development of new technologies for energy storage and their integration into a flexible network. At the same time, the introduction of these new technical infrastructures requires new business models, well thought-out rules and laws and – last not least - individual participation. Ultimately, this also leads to the great importance of educational processes for the successful implementation of an energy system transition.

Overall, the ”Energiewende” continues to enjoy broad political and societal support, but local conflicts and political opposition are increasing. As these developments unfold, it is therefore important to weigh conflicting interests and assess the costs and benefits of different paths towards an economically viable, socially just and ecologically sustainable energy transition.

The questions and challenges associated with energy transitions can hardly be dealt with from a purely technical perspective. What is technically feasible is not always economically feasible or socially conveyable.

It is not yet clear what knowledge and skills citizens needs to develop to participate in the social and individual changes associated with energy transitions. This affects both present and future generations. Inter- and transdisciplinary research approaches are needed for the main areas of conflict associated with energy system transformations. Hence, 20 Leibniz Institutes and several other institutions have joined together to form the Leibniz Research Network “Energy Transition” (LVE). The network brings together scientific expertise from fields as diverse as plasma physics, social sciences, spatial research, economics and educational research.

In the joint project ReNEW of the LVE (Research Network on Energy Transitions: Bridging disciplines to address core challenges in Germany's Energiewende; www.ipn.uni-kiel.de/ en/forschung/projekte/renew), scientists from various member institutes and expertise are working on three defined core challenges that appear to be central in the context of energy transitions:

- Establishment of centralized versus decentralized systems (A)

- Dealing with public versus private interests (B)

- Attention to local versus global effects (C)

The IPN leads and coordinates the work in core challenge (C) within the ReNEW project.

Central issues in this field include, for example, the complex interplay of state policy, regional governance, local participation and educational issues (e.g. in the context of smart cities or electric mobility).

How can participation be organized effectively when considering regional factors and preconditions? What do active citizens need to contribute? And how can we convey relevant knowledge (e.g., knowledge about the causes and risks of climate change) and skills (e.g., assessment skills, communication skills) in a meaningful way in schools or in out-of-school learning environments?

We at the IPN draw on comprehensive work on understanding the energy concept and on education for sustainable development. Social innovations and related research are essential to stimulate behavioral changes at the individual level that ultimately make the common goals of energy transitions possible.

The LVE's unique approach lies in its practical orientation. By cooperating with two "living labs" - the EUREF Campus in Berlin and the Energieavantgarde Anhalt - it is possible to implement and test new approaches and social innovations with partners from politics, business and society directly and thus actively shape the energy transition process. This reference to reality ensures that the research results are highly relevant to current social and technological change. 

We rely on five core activities in the Leibniz Research Network “Energy Transition” to meet the challenges of the ”Energiewende” together:

1. Interdisciplinary scientific exchange

In 2016, the first joint conference on the topic "(De)zentrale Energiewende - Wirklichkeiten, Widersprüche und Visionen" took place, the results of which were subsequently published in a periodical volume. On June 14th and 15th, 2018, this year's conference in Berlin, entitled "Breaking the Rules! Energy Transitions as Social Innovations" focused specifically on the social innovations necessary for the successful implementation of energy transitions, their framework conditions and possible effects. Further information on this conference can be found on the LVE homepage (www.leibniz-energiewende.de).

2. Joint interdisciplinary research projects 

Member institutes frequently work together on interdisciplinary research questions concerning energy transitions, raise research funds and publish their results in scientific articles. For example, a special issue of the journal "Utilities Policy" focusing on the energy transition in Germany was published under the auspices of the LVE. The variety of the projects as well as further information and contacts for the individual projects in the association can easily be found on the LVE homepage.

3. Communication with the public

In addition to its own research, the LVE focuses on communicating the results and their implications to the general public. Within the framework of the "Leibniz Energy Talks", for example, exciting aspects of energy transitions are regularly open to public discussion with guests from science and practice.

4. Political consulting

With event platforms such as the "Berlin Seminars on Energy and Climate Policy" we bridge the gap between science and politics. At the Leibniz Conference "Science2Power - What research do we need for the “Energiewende”?" current challenges, but also future perspectives of energy transitions were discussed with extensive participation from politicians and administrators.

5. Supporting young scientists and researchers

The LVE regularly organizes doctoral colloquia where junior researchers can further their education and at the same time establish an interdisciplinary network. A mentoring program also supports young scientists in their career planning.