GLANCES OF THE LANDSCAPE: Energy sector’s infrastructures are a politically hot topic

Our blog series Glances of the landscape offers sneak peeks of the global research infrastructure landscape and the research process of the RISCAPE project. Sneak peeks are provided by the researchers of the RISCAPE project. It is time to take a look at the energy research infrastructure landscape with Jari Kaivo-oja, Marianna Birmoser Ferreira-Aulu and Mikkel Knudsen.

Picture: Steve Johnson / Unsplash

Since the RISCAPE project started in 2017, a lot has happened in the political atmosphere all over the world. Different political tensions have risen and at the same time, the urge to act in front of climate change has gotten stronger. Needless to say, the energy sector is in pressure.

“When the pressure towards the energy sector increases, so does the pressure for cooperation inside the sector”, says Jari Kaivo-oja, a work package leader of RISCAPE. He and his colleagues from the University of Turku, Marianna Birmoser Ferreira-Aulu and Mikkel Knudsen, are studying the energy research infrastructure landscape. One of their tasks is to find out how the cooperation possibilities look like throughout the landscape.

“The fact that the energy sector is very critical for many countries’ economies, reflects in their willingness to cooperate or open their operations to others”, Kaivo-oja says.

Looking from the European perspective, the team suggests the cooperation possibilities look quite different in different regions.

“For example, in the United States the cooperation possibilities do not look good at the moment. But it does not mean that it will always be like that. The time horizon for a research infrastructure is long. You have to be able to look to 20−30 years from now and develop the infrastructure patiently. This is why one presidency does not mean that all is lost”, Kaivo-oja explains.

The team sees that there might be fairly good cooperation opportunities between the European and Australian and Brazilian research infrastructures, for example. Especially in Australia, the energy infrastructures have a strong long-term financial commitment from the government and the RIs bare resemblance to the European ones. This would be a good starting point for cooperation.

You can not separate energy from politics

One good example of politics affecting research infrastructures can be found in Brazil. Marianna Birmoser Ferreira-Aulu visited Brazil on the turn of the years 2018−2019, coinciding with the inauguration of a new president. A president with significantly different policies than his predecessors.

“You would think that we need energy no matter if the government is left or right wing. But the effects of the new government’s budget cuts were clearly visible in Brazil. Even in the big and strategically important research infrastructures. When I went to do an interview in one energy infrastructure the employees, including the managers, were protesting outside and asking for their rights and if they have a job next year”, explains Birmoser Ferreira-Aulu.

She thinks that the experience was a good learning lesson.

“When we start cooperating with other countries we need to remember that the environment for the organisations there can be more vulnerable to the prevailing political situation. We should take into account that other societies can have more challenging environments than in the European Union.”

Big and small scale infrastructures

The team has studied around 25 energy infrastructures around the world. Infrastructures matching the right conditions can be found almost everywhere, except for the Spanish-speaking Latin America and Africa. The infrastructures vary in size and type.

“It seems that we have a bias towards nuclear sector in terms of large scale facilities. Often the facilities in renewables have less longevity and they are also smaller scale, which means they can not quite be considered as research infrastructures yet. In Europe, the energy sector’s research funding is now mostly going to renewables”, says Mikkel Knudsen.

Still, all energy infrastructures have national importance and many require high levels of funding for their operations.

“I was surprised to see that even though you are working with the kind of money that RIs usually are, you can be very inaccessible. We had difficulties even finding out some infrastructures’ managers names let alone their email addresses. If your external communication is not very open, then the frameworks and targets are not clear either, which makes cooperation rather difficult”, Knudsen says.  

Marianna Birmoser Ferreira-Aulu reminds that we need to keep an open mind.

“Organizations might operate in a different way than what the Europeans are used to but it does not mean that the European way is the best. If we wish to cooperate we need to keep an open mind. I would not say that difference is necessarily worse.”

Dr Jari Kaivo-oja is a Research Director and Adjunct Professor (Faculty of Sciences, University of Helsinki and Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lapland). His special fields are foresight methodologies in sustainability analyses, in international energy economics, Big Data foresight, Industry 4.0 management futures and general societal development of globalization. He is the scientific ambassador of European Integration Studies-journal. He has been reviewer in 15 scientific journals, for example in the Sustainability and in the Energy Policy and in the International Journal of Sustainable Development Research.

Project Researcher MA. Marianna B. Ferreira-Aulu is a Futures specialist with a Master’s Degree in Futures Studies. Her background is in Social Sciences and Sustainable Development. She is interest in the connection between social, cultural and ecological aspects of development, and in how to move towards more just and sustainable futures. In addition to RISCAPE, Ferreira-Aulu works on projects related to Bioeconomy and Justice, Manufacturing 4.0, Futures of education and learning, and Food security.

M.Sc. Mikkel Stein Knudsen is a project researcher at Finland Futures Research Centre, University of Turku. He is working in the fields of energy research, foresight, and industry transformation for the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland. He has participated in various expert- and advisory groups for the Danish government on energy policy and the national Horizon 2020-reference group for energy research, as well as acted as national contact point for other H2020 energy research projects.