‘Why I chose to study Energy and Society’ – Hetty’s perspective

A field trip to Cape Town in April 2016 inspired me to pursue a masters in energy; I was in my final year of studying a BA in Geography at Durham. The fieldtrip gave me the chance to experience a low carbon energy transition first hand, with the added dimension of the complex apartheid history of South Africa. The research explored the dynamics of solar energy in two low-income settlements, with the intention of establishing the extent to which the solar transition in the Western Cape is as a result of international actors or local ambitions. It was made clear that there is an intricate set of networks that are required to facilitate the transformation of an energy system, with various stakeholders required to drive the technological changes alongside the behavioural changes required for the adoption of new technology.

 

The Energy and Society MSc has been the perfect opportunity to explore energy from an interdisciplinary perspective, more specifically it has enabled me to investigate key social challenges relating to a wide range of energy systems. I particularly enjoyed exploring the socio-political and economic issues associated with oil in an extended essay, as it demonstrated the way in which carbon has become locked into society. Understanding these issues are vital for ascertaining the obstacles to the low carbon energy transition. Furthermore, what has been made clear by my experiences in South Africa and on the masters course is that there is an increasingly complex set of actors and governance networks involved in transforming how society produces and uses energy.

 

I’m planning on taking this further for my dissertation in the coming months. I will be exploring the governance networks relating to reducing carbon emissions in the UK supermarket meat supply chain; a sector of paramount importance. Given the current political climate I think it’s going to be fascinating to research where this sits on the agenda of the different stakeholders involved; from government, to suppliers to consumers.

 

EAGA grants now offered

http://www.eagacharitabletrust.org/grants-offered

Eaga Charitable Trust invites applications for its postgraduate bursary awards. These encourage graduate students to research and write dissertations related to the causes and impacts of, and solutions to, fuel poverty issues in the EU. The subject of research needs to demonstrate direct relevance and application to UK fuel poverty policy.
Current master’s students and those with a confirmed place on a master’s course during the next academic year are eligible to apply as are PhD students in the second or third year of study. All applicants should be based in the EU.
A maximum of three bursaries worth £2,000 are available.

Energy and Tango?

A blogpost from Silvina Zublena, Environmental Engineer from Buenos Aires, Argentina

tangoIn my recent visit to Durham University I attended the Energy, Society and Practices Intensive course, which was organized by Durham´s Energy Institute. Surprisingly, after the final lecture was over I could only think about one thing and that’s TANGO!

TANGO is a partner type of dance, very typical in Argentina, the country where I come from. In order to dance tango, two dancers have to synchronize their movements in a close embrace to move from point A to point B.

This certainly reminded me of Energy Practices and the Social Contexts and how, just like TANGO dancers, these two should be articulated together towards a better understanding of energy use and consequently allowing to find solutions for energy-related issues.

The thread that united all the dissertations within the program was the need to link these two worlds, for there is no energy project that can be reliable, sustainable or successful by only paying attention to the technical and financial aspects of it, rather than also including the culture, habits, location or even the geography of the society that is going to embrace it.

We learnt through the course that this argument could be as applicable to a small scale program such as a rural biogas digester in Nepal as to a large scale energy grid transition to wind in the European Union.

I would definitely like to participate in more courses like this coming forward, not only to be able to hear such a wonderful selection of lecturers on the most diverse Energy related analysis but also to share experiences and inputs with other fellow students coming from all sorts of backgrounds, just like I did this time. What a wonderful and nourishing experience it has been!

One final thought: Energy Use and Sustainability; Social practices and Resource use; Engineers and Anthropologists. I certainly think these would be some interesting dancing partners worth to watch in the near future. After all, it takes 2 to TANGO!

Day trip to the Offshore Catapult, Blyth

Wednesday saw us make a journey up to Blyth, a coastal town not far north of Newcastle. Found where the River Blyth meets the North sea Blyth grew rapidly in the 19th and early 20th century; by the early 20th century Blyth boasted one of the largest shipbuilding yards on the North East coast, with five dry docks and four building slipways. The economic prosperity of Blyth was also much aided by a thriving local coal industry, and to a lesser extent salt industry – all meriting Blyth worthy of a visit, but on this occasion, we were visiting for a much different purpose…

Blyth is now home to the ‘Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult’ of which we were kindly given a tour.
blyth-sign

The 20 acre site is a hotbed for R&D and testing of offshore renewable energy technologies, in particular offshore wind, although to a lesser extent tidal and wave energy technologies as well. Sadly pictures were not allowed and so we can only attempt to describe the scale of the facilities with words – simply enormous! As the sign above suggests the site is home to a 100m blade test facility; which shakes, twists and torments the biggest wind turbine blades in the world to their limits, to make sure they are performing to designed operational parameters and are fit for deployment…

hull-the-blade-with-credit

A 75m Siemens offshore wind turbine blade on display in Hull this week; no co-incidence in being in Hull town centre; Siemens is investing £160 million in a blade manufacturing plant in the town, thought to bring with it 1,000 jobs (Read more).

As well as blade testing the Catapult also has a 15MW nacelle test facility under development, which as the name suggests will be able to test the next generation of the biggest nacelles in the world – this means being able not just to drive 15MW of power through the test nacelle but also vary the application of this massive load; to simulate unequal loading that can be felt by turbine nacelles by gusty and turbulent winds and apply it at a slight angle; to test the resilience of the unit to the limit and make sure it will survive and operate as intended in the tough conditions of an offshore wind farm.

vesta-8mw-nacelle-on-ship

An 8MW Vesta V164 being loaded onto a ship – the unit weighs over 400 tonnes and will be mounted at a height of about 120m above sea level.

size-of-biggest-wind-turbine-today

Adding context; the size of today’s largest wind turbines…

Following our site tour we loaded back up into the bus for a look a closer look around Blythe, including a top-notch fish and chips lunch on the beach, in the sun too! Can’t complain…

blyth-beach-shot

Thank you Catapult for your time and for the fascinating tour of your facility.

A mid week reflection on teaching week 2 by Mike Westrom

I’m writing a mid-week reflection on our intensive teaching week for the Energy Practices module.  What struck me is a realization of how energy practices penetrate almost every aspect of our lives.  Dr. Sandra Bell lectured us on Practice Theory and Dr. Simone Abram followed up with a lecture on Actor Network Theory.  Both of these frameworks illuminate the way in which practices pertaining to energy use associate with an essentially unlimited amount of different actors.  If there is one lesson to glean from both of these presentations it is that most actors, to include human and non-human beings, are connected in unexpected ways.  These perspectives provide the scholar a vocabulary for explaining these associations.  We were asked to think of an energy practice such as turning off the lights when leaving the house.  At first glance this practice may seem like simply a matter of individual choice.  However, upon examination, it is clear that many actors play distinct roles in this practice.  For instance, some cultures highly value entering a ‘warmly’ lite home.  Some people, especially those who live alone, feel a sense of comfort when entering a house with lights.  Additionally, lights provide a sense of security for some when they are away from the house as a means to ward off predators.  For people with limited mobility, the low placement of switches may be too much of a hassle.  From a different perspective, cheap electricity (or electricity perceived as clean from low-carbon sources) lower the incentive to switch off the light when leaving the house.  It is clear from this small list of factors that the practice of turning on or switching off lights is not only a matter of individual choice or a product of structure, but a practice positioned within a web or interrelated actors.

Where are they now? An occasional series on MSc graduates. 1. Luke Garrett

Luke was one of the first students to join the MSc Energy and Society. Here, he tells us a little about his subsequent career at NEA:

Class of 2013

Class of 2013

“I joined National Energy Action, the UK’s leading fuel poverty charity, as a Research Assistant two months after finishing the MSc Energy and Society course in 2014.

My dissertation focused on how microgeneration technologies (solar photovoltaics and air source heat pumps) might be used in the social housing sector to help alleviate fuel poverty. The research was a great focal point for me to refer to throughout my interview for the position at NEA.

Initially, I was involved with projects such as the evaluation of the npower Fuel Bank™ – which involves giving food bank service users a fuel voucher for their prepayment meter when they receive a food parcel. I was also involved in a socio-technical appraisal of multi-storey buildings in Newcastle in order to identify how these structures might be made more sustainable, and improve the quality of life for residents as a result.

In July 2016 I was promoted to Research and Policy Officer here at NEA, and my first lead project is the evaluation of a National Grid Gas Network pilot scheme which aims to ensure vulnerable households are reconnected to their gas supply (following the disconnection of a condemned gas appliance) as quickly as possible. This project is still in the early stages and evaluation is yet to start.”

Reflections on Term 1; Mike’s view

I’m excited to say that I just finished my first term in the Energy & Society program at Durham University, including the course Context and Challenges in Energy and Society! My biggest lesson from this term is this: energy is complicated.

Energy extraction, processing, transmission/ distribution, storage, and use is everywhere. After spending pretty much all day everyday thinking and talking about energy, I notice it in places and aspects of life I would have normally ignored. Now, I ask different questions than when I was a Mechanical Engineering student.

Among the typical views of grassy fields and sheep out of the train window, I have become aware of wind farms, solar farms, and power stations. Even during my holiday to Spain I couldn’t help but notice huge wind farms amidst the dry, mountainous landscape. Instead of wondering solely about the height of the turbines, the wind speeds, and other technical concerns, I’ve become more curious about political and social questions.

Who owns this wind farm? Why is it here instead of other places with suitable geographies? What do the locals say about this development and how do the express and act upon their opinions? Does the wind’s intermittency affect the patterns of its use? How did the wind project overcome institutional and infrastructural resistance?

The Energy & Society Program enabled me to consider these questions because we discuss similar issues regularly. We are learning how to manage energy from different general frameworks, to include a socio-technical lens. Instead of viewing energy as merely dependent on financial and technical requisites, we’re learning to examine some of the political and social factors that contribute to the success or failure of energy technologies.

I’ve also had the opportunity to think about and start planning my dissertation topic. Although in the nascent stages, I want to study the relationship between public acceptance and renewable energy transitions in Orkney, Scotland. The island of Orkney has over 20,000 residents and obtains over 100% of its electricity from renewable sources, mostly wind and wave energy. Since we spent an entire seminar on energy transitions, the Context and Challenges module helped introduce me to some of the literature on energy transitions.

In addition to energy transitions, I am also interested in studying the topic of energy vulnerability next term in the Energy Practices module. I’m home for the holidays at the moment but will soon be ready to get back to work next term!