What is energy literacy? Responding to vulnerability in Philadelphia’s energy ecologies

Energy Research & Social Science

Volume 91, September 2022, 102718
James Adams, Alison Kenner, Briana Leone, Andrew Rosenthal, Morgan Sarao, Taeya Boi-Doku


Energy literacy scholarship has taken on the notable challenge of understanding and influencing the way people think about and consume energy to develop more sustainable energy systems. The idea is that information and understanding are the primary missing links between our current society and a future, more sustainable populace. Recent work in this field, however, has presented evidence to the contrary, throwing the value of current frames and programs of energy literacy into question. In this paper, we identify productive tensions and conceptual affinities between energy literacy and energy vulnerability and suggest, as a way forward, their exploration through the use and development of an energy ecology framework. The energy ecology framework focuses ethnographic and analytical attention to the place specific dynamics of energy infrastructures, access, and use that shape people’s relationships to themselves, to other humans and non-human life, to materials and objects, and to their environment. This paper focuses on the energy literacy of more vulnerable energy users who experience inadequate access to affordable and reliable energy services, and also may have less financial and material resources to buffer harm. We use this data to argue that pinning energy literacy to energy vulnerability foregrounds how the knowledge, skills, and practices of relevance to energy literacy change over time and over the course of life, based upon one’s changing position within different energy ecologies and also based upon changes in the relations within and across the open systems of which each energy ecology is composed.

An “energy literate person can be someone who knows the energy consumption of their domestic appliances, knows with what actions they can save energy in their home, knows how to make economic energy efficient decisions, or knows about the relation between energy use and climate change.”

Karlijn van den Broek, behavioral psychologist