A number of strategies and policy measures are being implemented at the regional, national and European levels to facilitate the transition towards a sustainable, low-carbon energy system and ultimately address one of the greatest challenges of our time: climate change. As outlined by the United Nations in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development [1
], two are the primary goals that should be achieved to cope with climate change and mitigate its impact: ensuring universal access to affordable, reliable and clean energy (Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7) and promoting sustainable energy production and consumption patterns (SDG 12).
Several are the actions that can be implemented in order to achieve such goals [2
]—in particular, those targeting (i) an increase in the production and consumption of renewable energy, (ii) the significant electrification of relevant sectors such as heat and transport, and (iii) broader adoption of sustainable habits. The transition from the current electricity system, which is centralized and fossil-fuel-based, to one mainly based on distributed renewable energy generation, presents several challenges (technical, infrastructural, regulatory, and social) [3
]. Renewable Energy Sources (RES) are hard to predict and intrinsically variable, and the electrification of the heat and transport sectors significantly increases the energy demand and reshapes the load curve. Moreover, to manage such changes in the energy system, the ICT infrastructure of distribution networks must be enhanced.
Lopes and colleagues [4
] outlined 11 relevant challenges for future power systems (PS), all related to the simultaneous increase in renewable generation and the electrification of the economy. The authors claim that the changes in the PS will pass through the power electronics converters to increase the volume of renewables connected to the grid— a multilevel energy storage solution to balancing load versus generation and relieving local technical constraints—and the participation of the consumer in the grid management to adjust the consumption with the available generation resources.
Much work is being done to address the technical and regulatory shortcomings of the current energy system. However, we also observe increasing attention to the social challenges of the energy transition. Several initiatives aimed at fostering citizen engagement on the energy matter (e.g., calls for citizen participation in the European Green Deal [5
]) and promoting the implementation of Renewable Energy Communities (RECs) and Citizen Energy Communities (CECs) [6
] have been launched.
Around 29% of global energy consumption is due to households [7
]. Therefore, increasing people’s energy literacy is a key prerequisite for energy transition [8
]. An energy-literate person understands the role of energy in daily lives, the impacts and consequences of his/her habits, and thus can make informed energy use decisions [9
]. Several studies on the relevance of energy literacy [10
], as well as its dimensions and influencing aspects [11
], have been conducted. What emerges from the existing literature is a general, low level of energy literacy [12
]. Energy education is even more crucial for those people and communities living in rural areas [8
] or very complex geographic contexts like, for example, Madeira Island (Portugal).
Madeira Island is a total energy island, meaning that due to the isolated nature of its electric grid (i.e., not interconnected to continental Europe), it can be significantly affected by the uncertain and intermittent nature of renewable production [15
]. Furthermore, the island has only one Distribution System Operator (DSO), a publicly owned company that is responsible for the entire electrical grid infrastructure as well as for energy generation, transmission and distribution. As such, there is no competitiveness in the electricity market on the island, being the energy prices regulated by the National Regulatory Authority of Portugal. Moreover, being Madeira an autonomous region, the regional legal framework differs from that of mainland Portugal. Being an island and also one of the outermost regions makes it hard, expensive and time-consuming to access multiple options (i.e., suppliers, installers, etc.). Raising people’s awareness of such constraints and helping them understand how these affect the local energy system is fundamental to foster citizens’ participation in energy management and ultimately further boost energy transition.
In Madeira, some initiatives such as workshops have been organized to foster energy literacy. Moreover, energy-awareness campaigns were conducted, and flyers to share best practices for improving energy efficiency at the household level have been circulated. Nevertheless, most of those initiatives were addressed to experts and policymakers and did not directly engage citizens.
Despite the effort on energy education, there is evidence of the poor energy performance of the island. Among all the Portuguese regions, Madeira has one of the highest rates of energy consumption, with an average of 3.235 kWh per inhabitant in 2019 [16
]. Additionally, a relevant portion of the island consists of rural areas. The average consumption of rural areas is higher than that of urban areas (4.178 kWh per inhabitant vs. 3.746 kWh per inhabitant of the capital, Funchal) [16
]. In terms of energy poverty, Portugal is still considered one of the most vulnerable countries in Europe, despite all the measures that are being implemented to fight against it. Madeira suffers from the same circumstances as the mainland, with high levels of energy poverty. Madeiran citizens face several issues, in particular those related to the inability to keep the house warm, due to the lack of heating equipment in the households [17
]. Madeira, in line with Portuguese regulations, has the highest electricity prices in Europe when measured with the purchasing power parity [17
]. Considering the replacement of old appliances with new and more efficient ones, Madeira has low replacement rates, only 20–29% [17
], which could be attributed not only to economic factors but also to the lack of knowledge about the energy labels and how appliances work. In terms of building efficiency, most of the buildings (73%) are certified with Energy Class “C” or lower, meaning poor levels of energy efficiency [18
]. In terms of small-scale renewable energy installations, Madeira is far from meeting the potential of PV installations, with a registered number of 834 units in 2018. Finally, a study conducted by the National Energy Regulator Authority (ERSE) in 2020 [19
], concluded that Portuguese people, in general, have low levels of energy literacy, with an index of 42.8%, and particularly, people from Madeira island show even lower levels on this matter.
This lower performance in terms of energy efficiency and efficacy in Madeira, despite the economic factors involved, reveals low levels of energy literacy. Additionally, the outcomes expected from the initiatives held to improve this issue were not successfully achieved, as revealed from the status of the energy context mentioned. We verify those initiatives as lacking a fundamental aspect that they did not focus directly on “bringing people into the conversation”; instead they targeted specific publics and marginalized the empowerment of general consumers as key players in attaining more energy efficiency behavior if educated and better informed about energy.
The lack of initiatives and energy education programs for citizens was also observed by the authors of the present article during the research activity conducted under the scope of the H2020 Smart Island Energy systems (SMILE) project. While recruiting participants and performing project dissemination activities, members of the local community reported having several issues in retrieving and understanding context-specific energy-related information. In particular, energy users—whether consumers and/or prosumers (i.e., users equipped with small-scale energy generation unit(s), for instance Solar Photovoltaic (PV) panels, which function as both energy producer and consumer [20
])—argued that existing information is widespread, sometimes contradictory and not easy to understand (i.e., extensive use of technical or legal jargon). Several prosumers also highlighted that the variety of existing sources makes it difficult to distinguish reliable from unreliable information, especially when it comes to local rules and requirements for renewable energy production.
In order to develop more ‘solid’ energy education initiatives, one should adopt a user-centered design (UCD) approach and HCI methodologies. UCD focuses on the users’ needs and interests by making products that are usable and understandable. It does so by following the four following principles created by Norman [21
]: (1) Make it easy to determine what actions are possible at any moment; (2) Make things visible, including the conceptual model of the system, the alternative actions, and the results of actions; (3) Make it easy to evaluate the current state of the system; and (4) Follow natural mappings between intentions and the required actions, between actions and the resulting effect, and between the information that is visible and the interpretation of the system state. In a nutshell, bring users’ needs into focus by using methodologies and processes that focus on the user throughout the product life cycle [22
]. As such, it includes three key principles: an early focus on users and tasks, empirical measurement and iterative design [22
]. Rather than just bringing users in the testing phase, it advocates for users to be integrated into the design in the early phases of research through surveys, interviews, contextual inquiries, shadowing or participatory design [22
]. By empirical measurement, it means conducting usability evaluation throughout to improve ease of learning and error-free use, and iterative design by collecting experiences, designing and modifying these with users as often as needed, with diverse prototyping techniques and interactivity levels. These principles can be used to sustain a smoother transition in terms of energy initiatives and actions because the information will be gathered and presented according to users’ needs, interests and knowledge level. This approach allows for tailored interventions that directly address users’ needs, not just at the level of energy and renewable products but also the knowledge needed to make informed choices when purchasing such equipment according to their regional constraints, needs and resources. Only this way will users be more likely to understand and participate in energy-related initiatives. HCI methodologies offer the most adequate strategies to leverage user’s energy-related knowledge because these suggest which ones can be used to optimize the collection of needs, how to test and refine the prototypes and how to measure the user experience throughout the whole process [22
In fact, energy has become recognized as a crucial subject of interest for HCI research, mainly regarding the area of sustainable HCI [23
]. Although the utmost of the HCI research centers on eco-feedback technologies (i.e., the technology provides the feedback on behaviors to reduce environmental impact), other works focus on the study of energy as an intricate design concept (i.e., both an immaterial concept but also a commodified and functional resource) [25
] and investigate the ongoing changes at the energy infrastructure level (i.e., peer-to-peer energy trading between self-consumers) [26
Engaging communities on the energy matter is gaining increasing attention. In such a scenario, the adoption of an HCI perspective could offer a fundamental contribution by providing the methodological tools to bring the users into the conversation. Here we present a user-centered design project meant to achieve this goal.
This paper illustrates the different phases that led to the development of Energias Madeira
], an information platform for energy consumers and/or prosumers. The goal of Energias Madeira
is to gather reliable and user-friendly information in a single place to engage people in energy transition/efficiency, raising awareness and fostering sustainable behaviors. The information platform is part of a larger pilot developed in the context of Madeira Island in the SMILE project.
We emphasize that the work described in this manuscript is an example of how HCI methodology can guide and inform the development of interactive systems aimed at raising awareness in sustainability and increase energy literacy. This should be considered as a case study to demonstrate the value of adopting an HCI perspective in the design of such interactive systems.
The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. Materials and HCI methods used to build the information platform are thoroughly described in Section 2
. In Section 3
, the results of the different phases tested with users can be found. Finally, discussion and conclusions are presented in Section 4
and Section 5
Access to reliable information about energy consumption and production without overwhelming the users will be an essential condition to sustain a transition towards a higher share of renewables. Similarly, as done in the UCD approach, focusing on the users’ needs and interests [21
], it will do so by bringing more users to get involved in the energy management and generation, by becoming themselves energy collaborators in the design of this renewable future. Our work uncovered information gaps and lack of resources faced by consumers and energy producers, which later were used to build an information platform we believe will help sustain the transition mentioned above.
In spite of the large number of initiatives to raise awareness and foster sustainable behaviors, the “top-down approach” used through the creation of new policies, technological improvement, economic incentives, etc., fails to reach consumers’ needs and concerns. More specifically, it does not address the first and most important problem that prevents users from getting involved, which is the low energy literacy as seen in [12
]. This case study intends to demonstrate a “bottom-up approach” while looking at end-users and their needs, which is at the heart of HCI practice and UCD approach [21
]. Despite HCI being involved only at the end of the design process (validation/usability/testing), the current work presented an example of how HCI methodologies could be used throughout the entire design process, from ideation to validation. For this particular case, it works from users’ current knowledge assessed in the early phases of the design process, without assuming users’ knowledge levels. By doing so, the chances to reach more effective and less “expensive” actions or measures are much greater. Nevertheless, we would like to emphasize that our main focus is on the process and methodology adopted to design the platform, which should therefore be regarded as a case study.
When user needs are considered and directly collected, users are more likely to participate, feel heard, and more prone to engage in green energy-related initiatives [9
]. The key to user engagement relies on the supply of information that is directly relevant but also provides benefits that are clear for the users. As a result, for certain cultural contexts, some benefits might be more relevant than others. As such, the HCI process and methodologies that aim to increase user engagement seem the most adequate because they will consider the unique characteristics of each location [6
]. Being that Madeira has a complex geographic context, this methodology seems to be adequate in delivering the energy education needed to address the low literacy levels as suggested by [8
]. In fact, these methodologies are a great contribution since its practices for modeling the link between interactive technologies, human values, and lived experiences were the perfect tool to adopt in this case study. Its focus is particularly fundamental when designing digitally mediated experiences aimed at raising awareness on environmental issues and energy efficiency. In particular, energy literacy, essential to have users on board to learn of other ways they can increases energy efficiency within their households [7
The process used here, namely, research through design, was the most appropriate approach to design the platform, as it combined an iterative approach where user’s needs in the ongoing research project were thoroughly analyzed. At the beginning of SMILE, the team faced great difficulties recruiting users that could join the project, which later came to explain that the island’s energy literacy was still far from the numbers reported in other European areas—not due to the lack of attempts, but to the lack of reliable and centralized sources of information that could help users understand, learn and participate in the energy green initiatives, energy production being one of them. This work provides a description of the steps and how HCI methodology was used to bring these users into the conversation on energy efficiency and smart grids. At least the remaining users, which were a large section of the population, as part of the ones eventually recruited to the project, were essential to structure and model the knowledge gaps into the tool we described—the information platform.
Increasing energy literacy meant matching the current information gaps in terms of energy consumption and production, directly relevant to the ongoing research project. As a result, the iterative nature of the work conducted involved transforming the content in several stages, where the main concerns were removing unnecessary complex language, complementing technical descriptions with diagrammatic representations, in-depth descriptions when necessary, and finally, the use of visual language to support the step-by-step learning experience. Such strategies helped leverage the knowledge as measured in the prototyping and testing sessions. The preliminary analysis of the user access to the information platform indicates that a user-centered approach does attract users to explore the information and come back to it, retaining them throughout time. Further work would be necessary to evaluate if the knowledge gain was sustained over time. Being that the platform an always accessible and living tool, it can be consulted at any time the consumers feel the need to and will be updated according to changes that may occur about the sections displayed.