Timetable information in the Course Catalogue may be subject to change.

University Homepage
DRPS Homepage
DRPS Search
DRPS Contact
DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Geosciences : Geosciences

Postgraduate Course: Energy & Society I; Key Themes and Issues (GESC11010)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Geosciences CollegeCollege of Science and Engineering
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate) AvailabilityNot available to visiting students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
Summary 'The struggle for life is the struggle for available energy'. This quote attributed to the physicist and philosopher Ludwig Boltzmann highlights how important energy is in our lives. Indeed, all our other material resources could be provided for (and indeed recycled) if we had a limitless supply of cheap energy. Alas, the dream of civilian use of nuclear fusion remains 50 years away whilst our current energy system has proved to be rather expensive once we started to observe and learned to account for all the social and environmental harms it creates.

Some of the most iconic inventions in human history are directly related to the increase of energy services e.g. the control of fire, the invention of the wheel, the telecoms and digital data revolutions. Our innate understanding of the importance of energy is evidenced not only though our dreams and creativity but even through our spirituality. Take for example the first page of the book of Genesis: God's first act of creation was to switch the light on before eventually creating the consumers of this energy service energy. It is a vision of creation which features the ultimate engineer, taking a supply-side approach to our energy needs (and by inference, designing humans to use the daylight that was pre-provided).

Many of the energy challenges we face in the 21st century are more to do with demand side understanding the complexity of human desires, values and behaviour in relation to energy use. It would be a gross simplification to see these challenges, summarised in the energy trilemma (clean, affordable & secure energy), as mainly technical problems; they are more to do with the social and political issues associated with changing our energy system. In other words, the operating space of human engineers is determined by social, economic and political processes.

Most existing post graduate courses on energy are of a technical nature. But energy is a meta-resource and its use is a key dimension structuring lives, communities and societies. This course encourages students to look at society through the energy lens and unpack our overdependence on scarce and contested resources, the disconnect between consumption and wellbeing, the social impacts of energy provision and the lock-in and externalising effects of energy provision under incumbent (and unsustainable) energy regimes and associated technologies. The course cuts across scales from the domestic to the national and international, seeking to draw lessons from historical energy transitions and from comparative analysis in different national, geographical, political and socio-economic contexts.
Course description This is a core course for the MSc in Energy, Society and Sustainability (delivered collaboratively by the schools of Geosciences and Social & Political Sciences), and it was set up in recognition of the pedagogic imperative for students to explore the numbers behind politicized discussions on our energy future (e.g. the cost of new nuclear, the intermittency of renewables, the scope for improved energy efficiency), as well as to learn to draw on social science thinking (beyond economics!) and even humanities to develop a deeper and richer understanding of energy transitions as societal transitions and draw on historic, geographical and sectoral analogies to explore the possible futures of the transition we aspire to now; i.e. the fair transition to a low carbon society - in the face of the threat of runaway climate change. The course will seek to cover a broad range of energy topics, but in the lectures we will draw particular attention to (a) energy justice and (b) urban governance.

Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2024/25, Not available to visiting students (SS1) Quota:  0
Course Start Semester 1
Timetable Timetable
Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 200 ( Lecture Hours 22, Seminar/Tutorial Hours 11, Supervised Practical/Workshop/Studio Hours 4, Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 4, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 159 )
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 0 %, Coursework 100 %, Practical Exam 0 %
Additional Information (Assessment) Assignment 1a: energy literacy project (40%); 19 October, 12:00 noon.
Assignment 1b: energy literacy reflections (10%) 02 November, 12:00 noon
Assignment 2: long academic essay (50%); 18 December, 12 noon

The first assignment encourages students to improve their energy literacy, exploring consumption from a range of more personal perspectives and collecting a range of 'data' from daily life - using numbers as well as many other forms of qualitative data. It is a collaborative, experimental and free-form assignment, which seeks to maximise peer learning.

The second assignment is a classical academic essay about energy & society. Students can pick and build on any themes explored in the course, but they can go beyond that, picking any topic under the (very) wide umbrella of energy & society and use this assignment to explore a potential focus for their dissertation.
Feedback Not entered
No Exam Information
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. Enhance energy literacy through self-guided fieldwork, exploration, experimentation and peer learning.
  2. Recognise the role of access to energy in historical and current processes of societal change.
  3. Examine the social nature of technology adoption, and the political nature of energy policy choices in the context of energy systems change.
  4. Explore the relevance of the social sciences in developing a deeper understanding of transition pathways, trajectories and barriers to systemic change - at different spatial scales.
Reading List
Energy & Society research is growing, the topic is evolving and the purpose of the course is to create a flexible learning space where you can read widely and engage with the latest stuff that comes out, on specific sub-topics that excite you.

But to give you some starting points (especially if you want to read in advance, which I strongly endorse), below are some papers that I like & use, on key topics we will cover in the lectures. This list gives you a first flavour of the range of topics, research methods, writing styles and disciplinary orientations that are relevant for this course.

As you can see I didn't include books; no disrespect intended but they take longer to write and to read - which does not always suit a rapidly evolving topic like this (and on top of that then there may be access issues). Also, as you can see, these are relatively 'old' papers (though some of these were new when I first read them..). These papers are highly cited so that allows you to trace the evolution of certain ideas, concepts or research topics.

DeWaters, J.E. and Powers, S.E., 2011. Energy literacy of secondary students in New York State (USA): A measure of knowledge, affect, and behavior. Energy policy, 39(3), pp.1699-1710.
Fell, M.J., 2017. Energy services: A conceptual review. Energy research & social science, 27, pp.129-140.
Geels, F.W., 2002. Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research policy, 31(8-9), pp.1257-1274.
González-Eguino, M., 2015. Energy poverty: An overview. Renewable and sustainable energy reviews, 47, pp.377-385.
Hargreaves, T., 2011. Practice-ing behaviour change: Applying social practice theory to pro-environmental behaviour change. Journal of consumer culture, 11(1), pp.79-99.
Jenkins, K., McCauley, D., Heffron, R., Stephan, H. and Rehner, R., 2016. Energy justice: A conceptual review. Energy Research & Social Science, 11, pp.174-182.
Kruyt, B., Van Vuuren, D.P., de Vries, H.J. and Groenenberg, H., 2009. Indicators for energy security. Energy policy, 37(6), pp.2166-2181.
Lockwood, M., 2018. Right-wing populism and the climate change agenda: exploring the linkages. Environmental Politics, 27(4), pp.712-732.
Middlemiss, L. and Gillard, R., 2015. Fuel poverty from the bottom-up: Characterising household energy vulnerability through the lived experience of the fuel poor. Energy Research & Social Science, 6, pp.146-154.
Mitchell, T., 2009. Carbon democracy. Economy and Society, 38(3), pp.399-432.
Seyfang, G. and Smith, A., 2007. Grassroots innovations for sustainable development: Towards a new research and policy agenda. Environmental politics, 16(4), pp.584-603.
Staddon, S.C., Cycil, C., Goulden, M., Leygue, C. and Spence, A., 2016. Intervening to change behaviour and save energy in the workplace: A systematic review of available evidence. Energy Research & Social Science, 17, pp.30-51.
Stephenson, J., Barton, B., Carrington, G., Gnoth, D., Lawson, R. and Thorsnes, P., 2010. Energy cultures: A framework for understanding energy behaviours. Energy policy, 38(10), pp.6120-6129.
Wilhite, H., Nakagami, H., Masuda, T., Yamaga, Y. and Haneda, H., 1996. A cross-cultural analysis of household energy use behaviour in Japan and Norway. Energy policy, 24(9), pp.795-803.

Inevitably, I also draw on some of my own (co-produced) research, e.g.

Hardman, S., Steinberger-Wilckens, R. and Van Der Horst, D., 2013. Disruptive innovations: the case for hydrogen fuel cells and battery electric vehicles. International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 38(35), pp.15438-15451.
van der Horst, D., 2007. NIMBY or not? Exploring the relevance of location and the politics of voiced opinions in renewable energy siting controversies. Energy policy, 35(5), pp.2705-2714.
van der Horst, D. 2008. Social enterprise and renewable energy: emerging initiatives and communities of practice. Social Enterprise Journal 4(3), 171-185.
van der Horst D. (2018). Justice in the eye of the beholder? looking beyond the visual aesthetics of wind machines in a post-productivist landscape. Environment, Space, Place 10(1), 134-153.
van der Horst, D. and Vermeylen, S., 2011. Spatial scale and social impacts of biofuel production. Biomass and Bioenergy, 35(6), pp.2435-2443.
van der Horst, D. and Staddon, S., 2018. Types of learning identified in reflective energy diaries of post-graduate students. Energy Efficiency, 11(7), pp.1783-1795.
van Veelen, B. and van der Horst, D., 2018. What is energy democracy? Connecting social science energy research and political theory. Energy Research & Social Science, 46, pp.19-28.
Webb J. and van der Horst D. (2021). Understanding policy divergence after United Kingdom devolution: Strategic action fields in Scottish energy efficiency policy. Energy Research & Social Science, 78, p.102121.

Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Not entered
KeywordsEnergy systems,Social theory,Technology adoption,Societal change,Innovation
Course organiserDr Dan Van Der Horst
Tel: (0131 6)51 4467
Course secretaryMrs Lynn Taylor
Help & Information
Search DPTs and Courses
Degree Programmes
Browse DPTs
Humanities and Social Science
Science and Engineering
Medicine and Veterinary Medicine
Other Information
Combined Course Timetable
Important Information