Across the EnergyREV consortium, a wide variety of evidence is being identified and generated on the emergence and impacts of smart local energy systems. Further evidence is being uncovered through other strands of the PFER programme and, of course, there is much relevant evidence already in existence from previous research relevant to this area.
In any given topic, synthesis, or the drawing together of different strands of evidence, is necessary to help answer questions like: What are the areas where research has consistently arrived at similar findings? Where there have been substantial differences? What are the areas that lack much or any research evidence at all?
However, by doing this for independent topics only, it is likely that important interactions and trade-offs with other topics might be missed. In a hypothetical example, there could be good evidence that the reliability of local electricity systems gets higher with more participating electric vehicles. However, separate evidence may suggest that people’s productivity is higher when more active forms of transport are used, due to reduced congestion and improvements in wellbeing. Only by considering these strands together (along with others) can we consider the implications of different courses of action in a fully informed way.
The Synthesis team in EnergyREV will undertake this kind of whole system evidence synthesis. The aim is to provide decision-makers in policy and practice with the information they need to optimise SLES outcomes across multiple measures of success.
We will be applying a ‘realist’ approach to evidence synthesis. What this means is that rather than simply looking what measures resulted in successful outcomes, we will seek to understand why certain measures worked and others didn’t, and – importantly – how the context in which a measure was tried contributed to its success or failure. Rather than asking ‘what works?’, we are asking ‘what works, for whom, under what circumstances, and how?’.
This approach has several key benefits:
- SLES projects will, by their very nature, be highly context-dependent. For example, rural projects will have different potential to install renewable generation to urban ones. More affluent communities are likely to differ in their ability to invest in electric vehicles to less affluent ones. The realist approach appropriately foregrounds the importance of context.
- the focus on realist synthesis is on how measures work, it allows us to look at lessons from quite different topic areas and apply them to SLES. For example, learnings on how to ensure affordable project financing might usefully be drawn from the local food sector and applied in local energy – if contextual considerations suggest they will be relevant. This opens up a much wider pool of evidence that can be drawn upon, which is especially beneficial in areas where evidence directly relating to smart local energy systems is lacking.
Our realist synthesis will be theory-driven – that is, we will set out in advance our beliefs about how outcomes might come about, and test these against the available evidence. This initial ‘theory of change’ as far as possible will reflect the expectations of the whole EnergyREV consortium. As more evidence becomes available from further reviews and research, and is incorporated, the theory of change will be adapted to reflect what the evidence shows. In this way it will not only help structure our review work, but should also provide an accessible overview of the state of the evidence and an intuitive way to see where specific pieces of evidence fit into the overall picture.
In the preparatory phase of our work we are developing a provisional theory of change, based on wider discussions within the EnergyREV consortium. We are also conducting a broad, high-level scoping review mapping the nature and extent of previous research looking at SLES, as well as engaging with key stakeholders to determine what types of evidence they find most useful.
The main part of our activities will be based around a series of Rapid Realist Reviews. These will be deep dives into specific subject areas identified in agreement with representatives from across the consortium. The topics will be selected on the basis of relevance to the broader PFER programme and the wider policy landscape.
We will draw on evidence being produced across EnergyREV as well as evidence from previous research, to produce reports and briefings summarizing the state of the evidence on the topic in question. We will also use the findings or these reviews to update the theory of change.