Background: For the development of a sustainable energy system, the public’s contribution to the sustainment of the system’s current operations will become vital. The public’s role is expected to change from that of passive service abiders to active service providers, as anticipated by visions of prosumers, smart grids, demand side management, virtual power plants, and electric vehicle management. Smart technology and new business models will increase system complexity and the experience of uncertainty and risk for all parties. Actionability of the public’s participation in the opportunities arising from the transformation of energy systems will become a problem.
Methods: With a qualitative functionalist method, we analyze the prerequisites of the public’s participation: the capacity of social mechanisms, such as trust, for the solution of social problems. Functional problems affect the continuation of communication, i.e., the possibility of the sustainment of social reality. We isolate three case studies that illustrate concrete effects of trust, distrust, and confidence on three parties, respectively: consumers, investors, and those affected by grid extensions.
Results and conclusions: We argue that the social mechanisms of trust and confidence are more vital for consumers, investors, and those affected than previous research has noticed. These mechanisms determine the achievement of sustainability in energy systems by sustaining actionability as a favorable expectation (trust, confidence), or an unfavorable expectation (lack of trust, distrust). Even lack of trust and distrust can be valuable contributors on the road to sustainability, since they uncover flaws and setbacks of a fledgling smart grid.