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!

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