Social (In) Justice and the Smart Grid Transition: How do smart grid technologies aggravate injustices against marginalized groups?

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Abstract

Smart meters are currently being rolled out in the UK and the EU at a steady pace, with an estimated 47% of households in the UK and 37% in the EU having smart or advanced meters as of 2021 – yet several social justice concerns regarding their deployment remain to be addressed. Smart meters bring households into a seamless network of devices which communicate with each other to provide real-time data about energy consumption which can be used to enable demand-side management, construct efficient distribution networks, and support the integration of renewables into the energy mix. Thus, this rollout is being projected as an important milestone on the path to decarbonization by policy makers and industry alike. Due to this smartification push, other smart home technologies (SHTs) such as smart TVs, lighting and assistants that provide better comfort, convenience, and entertainment to households represent a rapidly growing market - in Europe, their market value estimated at 2.7 billion EUR in 2020 is projected to double by 2024. However, several studies point out that the decarbonization capabilities of SHTs may be overestimated, and express concerns relating to the security and privacy of their users, loss of their personal autonomy, and the technical reliability of these systems. Furthermore, using energy justice frameworks, some academic studies have pointed out that the smart meter rollout programs and the policy vision for smart grids lead to unequal access and opportunity. The studies also point out top-down decision making from industry players and unfair distribution of costs for consumers. Simultaneously, literature from global STS scholars is attempting to place SHTs in a broader social justice context – examining them as a classic tool for data extraction: wielding control and surveillance on consumers and creating a new hegemony for powerful big data companies. In this dystopian vision, smart algorithms designed by engineers unaware of their implicit biases constantly learn about their users, make them dependent, and share their data with entities which can use it against them. This is particularly aggravating for already marginalized groups striving for equality. For example, smart algorithms using facial recognition can predict the sexual orientation of users with an 81% accuracy – which can present severe threats to vulnerable users in certain contexts. While there is a growing work of literature on the injustices of SHTs, especially smart meters, there is a lack of overarching analysis connecting them with broader social justice theories such as technofeminism, postcolonial critiques of technology, and digital capitalism. In this study, this gap is addressed through a systematic literature review of smart meter rollouts in the UK and the EU, in which these two strands of literature analyzing justice are brought together and the most important social justice implications for women, ethnic minorities, and lower-income groups are identified using critical social justice theories. From these results, points of intervention in the sociotechnical system of the smart meter roll out are also highlighted so that exploitation and injustices can be prescribed and prevented, as more European households become smarter.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 2 May 2022

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