Smart Prosperity Institute’s Research Network conducts world-class research focused on a stronger, cleaner economy. This Spotlight Series highlights the activities of faculty and student researchers alike, showcasing the breadth of expertise and activities of our Research and Student Networks. 

In this first edition, we caught up with Christina Hoicka, Runa Das, Maria-Louise McMaster and Yuxu Zhao. The team was  awarded funding through Smart Prosperity’s 2020 Call for Research Proposals for their project titled “Diffusion of Multiple Demand-Side Low-Carbon Innovations in a 1.5C Energy Transition“, in collaboration with Jenny Lieu (TUDelft) and Susan Wyse (York University).  


Hi Christina, Runa, Maria-Louise, Yuxu, Susan and Jenny. Your research focuses on the role of low-carbon innovations in contributing to system change and sustainable energy transitions. Can you tell us a bit more about the project and what the “big questions” are that you are trying to answer?

Christina, Maria-Louise and Yuxu: In the context of the urgency of climate change, we need to engage the energy demand side to adopt multiple low-carbon innovations. We want to understand what role energy users, such as citizens, households, organizations and businesses within communities, can play in a low-carbon transition and how they can be supported to adopt multiple “disruptive” innovations. Disruptive innovations create major societal change, for example by introducing new social values and political beliefs and the emergence of new actors and regulatory interventions. We are trying to identify these innovations and their dissemination rates, characterize them, and measure their impact on a low-carbon energy transition. 

Runa: Pro-environmental behaviors are behaviors that reflect environment-related motivations. Researchers and policymakers often try to understand how to influence these behaviors, although they are often looked at singularly. We are trying to understand how interventions to influence pro-environmental behavior can contribute to wide-scale adoption of multiple demand-side innovations by energy users.

Susan: Low-carbon energy innovations have the potential, not only to enable low-carbon energy transitions, but also to both alleviate and perpetuate social inequities. Justice considerations, however, have been frequently absent from the dominant frameworks for conceptualizing low-carbon energy transitions. An important aim of our research is to employ an energy justice framework to investigate this relationship--more specifically, to gain an understanding of how indicators of justice are distributed across various energy users. Through such an assessment, we can gain insight into who is benefiting and who is getting left behind within low-carbon energy transitions.

To learn more, check out this video presentation we have created on the work to-date.


Could you tell us a bit more about the concept of energy justice that you use in this work?

Energy justice is a concept that emerged within environmental activist communities in the 1990s, broadly concerning justice and equity within energy activities. More recently, however, it has been developed within academic literature as a framework for analysis; a useful analytical tool for framing justice questions. Our research follows Sovacool and Dworkin’s (2015) framework for understanding energy justice as a series of principles drawn from justice theorists and connected to energy policy and technology concerns. We have developed four indicators (availability, affordability, information and involvement), which correspond with four energy justice principles, in order to explore how these indicators are distributed across various types of actors within the innovation sphere.


What are the potential policy implications of your findings?

The potential policy implications of this research are quite broad. Through mapping the landscape of low-carbon innovations currently offered to energy users in a specific context (in this case, Ontario), our research can inform energy transition policy on the specific factors that support the diffusion of innovations across a range of cases. It can inform policy makers, industry experts and professionals on how to identify disruptive innovations, the specific factors that influence the successful diffusion of existing low-carbon innovations, and how to simultaneously address justice. By broadening our understanding and measurement of how to engage energy users quickly and accelerate our response, this research provides an important contribution to decarbonization policy that aligns with greenhouse gas mitigation targets within a 1.5°C scenario by 2030. Our sampling and coding methodology can be applied to social and energy systems in other jurisdictions.


Maria-Louise and Yuxu, as the student researchers on this project, any particular lessons you have learned from being so integrally involved in the research process?

Maria-Louise: Working on this project, I have learned a lot about how to ask the right questions and how to answer these questions effectively. I have come to appreciate the importance of a rigorous methodology that complements the available data and intended outcomes of the research. I have also learned a lot about good project management, particularly when working on such a large and complex research project. Organized data processing/management, effective communication, and task prioritization were critical skills that I picked up throughout this experience.

Yuxu:  I think one of the most important things that I learned is how to collaborate on a big project. Our project is large and six of us are working on it. One common challenge of a big project is to ensure everything moves towards the same direction. So before each step, we always have a work plan and some basic rules to follow. Therefore, even when we work individually on constructing the coding scale systems for different variables, we can still make sure that our part is getting along well with other’s work.


Christina, switching focus a bit, you are an active member of the Women and Inclusivity in Sustainable Energy Research (WISER) Network. Can you tell us about what WISER is and the work they do?  

Yes! I co-founded the Women and Inclusivity in Sustainable Energy Research Network and I am the inaugural chair of the steering committee. We are a global network of women and non-binary scholars who focus on sustainable energy research. Our goal is to provide a network to support collaboration among members and to provide the public with a resource to identify a diverse group of sustainable energy experts. We have been recognized as the 125th Signatory of the Equal by 30 Campaign that promotes Sustainable Development Goals 5 (Gender Equality) and 7 (Clean Affordable Energy).


So after this project is complete, what is next for you?

Christina: I am beginning to explore how disruptive innovations in renewable energy can be adopted by communities. I want to understand how the local community and the innovation system (private sector, government, entrepreneurs) interact during planning and implementation, and whether these disruptive innovations can simultaneously address climate change, justice and community participation.

Runa: I am starting research examining building performance in the community housing sector. I think this will be a great opportunity to visit innovations research and see where it fits within this specific sector. I also am working on energy poverty research, and see potential for examining innovations for assisting this particular group, with their energy needs.

Yuxu: After graduating from my Master’s program, I am seeking opportunities in data analysis. Working on this research project, I gained experience with data coding, modeling and analysis, and discovered my love for data and analytics. I also developed strong technical skills in leveraging Python, R, SQL and SPSS to conduct data analysis during my Master’s program. I am excited to deliver data-driven insights to solve real-world problems.

Maria-Louise: After completing my Master’s degree, I am seeking opportunities to analyze and advise on critical energy-climate policy issues. Working on this research project, I have developed an advanced knowledge of energy system transitions and low-carbon innovation, as well as gained experience with quantitative data analytics. I look forward to applying this knowledge in a meaningful way, in order to support low-carbon energy transitions across Canada.


Thank you Christina, Runa, Maria-Louise, Yuxu, Susan and Jenny!

For more on the Smart Prosperity Research Network, click hereFor recent Working Papers produced by the Research Network, click here.

Christina Hoicka

Associate Professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University

Runa Das

Assistant Professor at Royal Roads University

Maria-Louise McMaster

EEPRN and Greening Growth Partnership Student Researcher, 2020-2021

Yuxu Zhao

EEPRN and Greening Growth Partnership Student Researcher, 2020-2021