Habitable Air

Unveiling Insights into Holistic Energy Systems: A Profile Feature of Katja Mueller

In the expansive realm of energy production systems, where the interplay of technology, society, and the environment forms a complex web of influences, Katja Mueller emerges as a prominent researcher unravelling the intricate tapestry. one researcher stands out. Affiliated with the Habitable Air project, Mueller’s journey into this multifaceted domain has been inspired by a quest to understand the profound intricacies of energy systems and their impact on humanity. At the heart of her passion lies a profound curiosity – a curiosity that ignited while exploring diverse energy landscapes, ranging from renewable to fossil energy production. Get to know Katja…


Q: What inspired you to become a researcher in this field, and how did you become involved in the Habitable Air project?


A: I have been working on energy production systems, both renewable and fossil ones. I want to know how people make sense of open-cut coal mining, wind turbines or solar parks, why they work with or against them, what bothers them and what do they like about these at times quite controversial energy systems. The air is but one aspect that people perceive in this regard (as polluted, useful, or noisy), and hence question or accept as a more or less habitable one.


Q: What is the focus of your research, and what questions are you hoping to answer?


A: I’m interested in holistic views about energy production systems – from the economic and technical side of it, to its social and environmental impacts. Some energy production systems work as nodal points – characterising a region’s economic, social, cultural, and political constitution – and hence evoke a ‘Strukturwandel’ when introduced or exnovated, while others work more subtly. Yet, energy production is so central that it does entail potential for system change as well as for system reinforcement (in the wider sense). How technology, political economy and society intertwine in energy systems is the focus of my research.


Q: Can you describe your field work experiences and what it’s like to conduct research in the areas you are studying?


A: I have been doing fieldwork in rural Eastern Germany, and at selected points also in India. It is both challenging and rewarding.


“I want to know how people make sense of open-cut coal mining, wind turbines, or solar parks, why they work with or against them, what bothers them and what they appreciate about these at times contentious energy systems?”


Q: Can you share any interesting or unexpected findings from your research so far?


A: After three years doing field research on and off in Eastern Germany, the mayor of one village seemed to have changed his views on engaging with his citizens and energy production: Rather than continuing to block public local community discussions on energy production, he himself organised a meeting and called all local farmers to hear their thoughts about the current investors’ solar rush for land. What might sound trivial, is in my view a glimpse of how research and continuous engagement can have some form of real-life ‘impact’.


Q: How do you think your research will contribute to our understanding of climate change and its impacts on human health?


A: Talking with a scientific background to local people about energy production is something most people and communities appreciate. It is sometimes a much-appreciated alternative to pseudoscientific babble and helps understanding risks and myths about energy production – including its impacts on health and climate.


Q: Can you describe any collaborations you have had with local communities or other researchers in your field?


A: It is important to create trust through repeated/continuous/long term research in and with a community. This includes a lot of talking about everyday things rather than energy production, a lot of tea or coffee drinking and – in Germany – also the occasional beer at local festivities. Trust and respectful cooperation cannot be overestimated.


“My curiosity fuels my excitement”


Q: How do you think your research will influence policy or decision-making related to climate change and health?


A: My research features in reports and scientific papers, but as the one example above indicated, it is the more direct interaction over a longer period of time that might influence policy and decision-making bottom-up – the harder and longer way than a top-down decision making, but arguably a more sustainable one.


Q: What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in this field?


A: If pursuing a career in energy production systems, get an engineering degree that also comprises courses in ‘technology and society’. This way you will be best prepared for rethinking, conceptualising, and constructing future infrastructures.


Q: Finally, what are you most excited about in terms of the future of your research and the Habitable Air project?

A: My future research will turn to the digitisation of energy production systems – which might or might not interlink with questions about habitable air. I’m curious to find out.


About the Author

Katja Mueller conducts research into digitisation, museum studies, material culture, and visual anthropology, as well as energy and environmental humanities. She holds the position of Visiting Professor at the University of Technology Sydney and is a recipient of the Heisenberg funding for ‘DigitalEnergy’ research in Digitisation and Energy Transitions. Among her notable works are ‘Digitization and Low Carbon Energy Transitions,’ ‘Beyond the Coal Rush,’ and ‘Digital Archives and Collections.’ Her writings illuminate digital technology’s impact on energy systems, delve into the coal rush’s echoes in Germany, Australia, and India, and explore online access to heritage material in India and Europe.