Smart local energy systems (SLES): A framework for exploring transition, context, and impacts

Authors: Rebecca Ford, Chris Maidment, Carol Vigurs, Michael J. Fell, Madeleine Morris

Published in:  Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Volume 166, 2021, 120612, ISSN 0040-1625    

Date Published: 6 February 2021


Energy systems globally are becoming increasingly decentralised; experiencing new types of loads; incorporating digital or “smart” technologies; and seeing the demand side engage in new ways. These changes impact on the management and regulation of future energy systems and question how they will support a socially equitable, acceptable, net-zero transition. This paper couples a meta-narrative literature review with expert interviews to explore how socio-technical regimes associated with centralised systems of provision (i.e. the prevailing paradigm in many countries around the world) differ to those of smart local energy systems (SLES). Findings show how SLES regimes incorporate niche technologies, business models and governance structures to enable new forms of localised operation and optimisation (e.g. automated network management across energy vectors), smarter decision making and planning, by new actors (e.g. local authorities, other local stakeholders), and engaging users in new ways. Through this they are expected to deliver on a wide range of outcomes, both within the SLES boundary and to the wider system. However, there may be trade-offs between outcomes due to pressures for change originating from competing actors (e.g. landscape vs. incumbents in the regime); understanding the mapping between different outcomes, SLES elements and their interconnections will be key to unlocking wider benefits.

Keywords: Smart local energy systems; Decentralised energy; Energy democratisation; Smart cities; Community energy; Energy transition; Meta-narrative review; Expert interviews

Insights for EnergyREV:

Using a meta-narrative review and expert interviews, we shed light on various ways that SLES are conceptualised. 'Smartness' is provided by technology, data, automation and control, while 'localness' can be defined by the goals, actors or infrastructure involved. Mapping desired outcomes - local and wider environmental, social and economic benefits -  to system elements is key to their delivery alongside energy services. The work can be used by those researching and developing SLES to structure thinking about the different ways in which SLES can be conceived of and arranged, and how this might affect their outcomes.