New ways to harness renewable energy will help reduce the world’s dependence on petroleum.

University of Alberta associate professor Sheena Wilson, who heads the Future Energy Systems energy humanities program, observes that the world has to stop depending on oil long before it runs out of it.

Advocating decentralisation of energy through the development of wind, solar, biofuels and geothermal resources, she says it could mean communities no longer need to be centralised. Without access to conventional energy sources and lives organised around auto-mobility, the shape of our cities will look different, Wilson noted.

Decentralisation of energy will also mean that societal power structures defined by those who presently control energy and wealth could also fundamentally change. If a person living in a remote location unconnected from the grid could have the same reliable energy as someone living in an urban centre, it’s one less reason for anyone to continue living in the city.

According to Wilson, communities might need to be organised in entirely new ways – around social and environmental sustainability, instead of around the easy flow of traffic and consumer goods.

Based in Campus Saint-Jean, Wilson has been exploring the social aspect of the energy future for years.

The Petrocultures Research Group, co-founded by Wilson, explores humanity's next step post the oil-dominated economy.

Wilson’s energy humanities theme, which is part of the Future Energy Systems research initiative, has brought a group of interdisciplinary humanities scholars into the program to work closely with scientists, engineers and social scientists.

Wilson and her team recently made a mainstage presentation about the energy humanities program and their research into alternative energy futures at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conference in Edmonton.

Energy humanities researchers from diverse backgrounds and disciplines including art and design, English and film studies, sociology, political science and history are working with scientists, government, artists, activists and Indigenous communities to foster inclusive dialogue on possible energy futures.

The fine arts will also play a role in imagining those futures. A seven-year Future Energy Systems project called Speculative Energy Futures, collaboratively led by art and design historian Natalie Loveless under a larger research initiative called Just Powers, for which Wilson is the research lead, will produce a large-scale, evidence-based exhibition and a series of publications to provide visual perspectives on the social and cultural impacts of energy transition.