Western Mail Profiles: Dr Dimitrios Xenias

‘We have to think of ways to change our attitude to energy use and what we need’

Dr Dimitrios Xenias is an environmental psychologist at the school of psychology, Cardiff University.

Dr Dimitrios Xenias discusses his research into environmental psychology and the need to understand public perceptions on energy use

A LOT has been written in recent years about the environment, carbon dioxide, and pollution. We have developed a technological civilisation that serves our needs, and produces waste and emissions as a result. But behind every building, car and product, there are human beings. It is not machines that consume energy or emit carbon dioxide – our behaviour is ultimately responsible.

Understanding how people behave in respect of their surroundings and natural resources, and what may motivate them to change their consumption or travel habits, for instance, is at the heart of environmental psychology.

It is important to know how people relate to their surroundings, how they perceive natural resources and why they may choose to use or conserve them. This way we can do more to tackle the challenges of our times.

Take energy use, for example. There is much talk of the need to bridge the UK “energy gap” caused by ageing infrastructure and increased energy demand. Options include, among others, the construction of new conventional power stations, increase the share or renewable generation, and “smartening” the electricity grid.

“Smart” electricity grids employ technologies for improved resource management and communication between electricity demand and supply. Producing more energy than required results in energy waste and associated CO2 emissions; less energy production can result in blackouts. Balancing energy generation and demand is crucial to maintain adequate energy provision without wasting resources. However, this is hard to achieve with today’s ageing energy infrastructure.

“Smarter” electricity grids will better understand how much energy is produced where and when, where it is most needed, and how to deliver it most efficiently.

However, these technologies alone would only deliver limited energy savings. Understanding how consumers choose to use energy and why, could be combined with “smarter” technologies, to increase energy savings. Research in environmental psychology provides insights into, among other things, how consumers use energy at home, and whether any energy-hungry habits can be changed in order to alleviate network pressure.

Smart grids also promise to enable a broad range of new functions, such as efficient integration of renewable electricity generation at local level, management of large-scale electric vehicle charging, or even remote control of domestic appliances. We need to understand public perceptions of such options, as they will influence the functions which may be acceptable or desirable by the public. This is one of the topics I research in a project funded by the UK Energy Research Centre.

Equally important is the acceptability of new electricity grid physical components, such as pylons, which often influences the course that developments take in the long term. In the field of renewable energy, for example, opposition to wind farms has delayed their implementation for several years, despite the relevant technologies being widely available – which is another area of interest for our discipline.

With increasing environmental resource depletion, pollution, and the necessary reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, environmental psychology will gain further prominence in coming years. Governments, industry and citizens begin to realise that we all need to work together to tackle these major issues and safeguard our future.

To contact Dimitrios pelase email xeniasd@cardiff.ac.uk, or visit the Cardiff School of Psychology website (www.cf.ac.uk/psych). For further information about the smart grids development project can be found at www.smartgridscenarios.org.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 25th February 2013, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.