Beware a fixed approach to flexibility

Elizabeth Shove, Professor of Sociology at the University of Lancaster warns that a technology-led approach to flexibility could be at odds with the opportunities from changing demand 


In the energy sector the topic of flexibility is well and truly established. It is, for instance, common to discuss quantities of flexibility, measured in gigawatts. In a recent report, BEIS notes that “[A]bout 3GW of new flexibility [has been] contracted since 2016”.

It is also normal to calculate the contribution that flexibility can make to the energy system as a whole, hence the 2016 claim by the Carbon Trust and Imperial College that “new sources of flexibility could reduce the cost of the UK energy system by billions of pounds cumulatively by 2030” .

I suggest that thinking about flexibility in this way has the ironic consequence of helping to fix current patterns of demand in a manner that obstructs rather than facilitates moves towards a significantly lower carbon society.

This needs some explanation. Many flexibility technologies – such as those that make it possible to store energy for use at a later date, or to switch between different forms and sources of supply – take demand for granted. They treat current patterns of consumption as self-evident, non-negotiable needs, but tinker with the ways in which these requirements are met. Other approaches, including forms of demand side management, suppose that the timing of consumption can be modified, but in a very limited sense. The classic example is that of encouraging people to use off-peak electricity and to do the laundry at night rather than during the day. As with technologies of storage, or of switching or substitution, techniques like these also take basic understandings of need for granted.

To continue with the laundry example, demand management is not about whether the washing really needs to be done, the meaning of cleanliness, or how often clothes should be worn before they are put in the machine. Similarly, there is no discussion of how laundering is positioned in relation to other practices, and no reference to the collective forms of sequencing and synchronisation that are involved.

This is important. In taking current conventions and practices for granted, efforts to promote flexibility in the energy sector reproduce and sustain social arrangements that are arguably part of the problem.

Inflexibilities … are tacitly inscribed in contemporary talk of flexibility


If the goal is to reduce carbon emissions and make much greater use of intermittent forms of renewable power, and if the aim is to do so cheaply and quickly, new configurations of supply and demand will be required on a societal scale.

As classic texts such as Thomas Hughes Networks of Power and David Nye’s studies of American electrification remind us, histories of infrastructures, appliances and energy-demanding practices are interlinked.

Forms of energy supply do not simply meet pre-existing needs but are themselves implicated in constructing present and future demand. This continues to be the case, and this is one reason why it is important to articulate the inflexibilities that are tacitly inscribed in contemporary talk of flexibility, and in the interventions that follow.

Energy systems, including infrastructures, appliances and measures to promote flexibility are real in their effects. All contribute to the making and not simply meeting of demand, but they do not do so in isolation. Interpretations of a normal way of life have changed significantly over the last few generations, as have the energy demands that follow. The fact that these dynamic processes are ongoing argues for a much broader concept of flexibility.

Rather than being limited to the potential for storing so many gigawatts, or to the possibility of persuading individual consumers to use energy during off peak hours, it makes better sense to think of flexibility as a feature of how social practices and energy demands evolve and link over time.

This is an approach that would allow the sector to escape the double trap of treating present levels and forms of demand (in the strong sense of what energy is used for) as if these were somehow fixed and of designing systems that help perpetuate what become highly inflexible interpretations of consumer need.

First published in the October 2019 issue of New Power Report

1 comment for “Beware a fixed approach to flexibility

  1. Alastair Martin
    October 18, 2019 at 9:19 AM

    Well said, Janet. It’s also worth questioning what’s included in the 3GW. I suspect that the true amount of customer-side flexibility is considerably smaller than this. There’s a huge hinterland of untapped potential there.

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