Sharing the experience…

Farah Samuel writes:

It was just six months ago when I arrived in the UK, for the first time ever. I found myself fortunate to have landed in Durham, a small, cosy yet a lively town. The first week of the lectures was not only exciting but also thrilling for I could see the challenges I had set myself up for. However, the good news was that I was where I wanted to be and deep inside I knew that. Ever since I had studied environmental sciences back home, I had developed a passion to work in the domain of environment and energy conservation. After working as a professional for six years, I found my niche, I knew what I wanted and so I chose MSc. Energy & Society–a course I found not only unique but also it made a lot more sense of one of the most crucial elements of development – People. Understanding energy is one part of it but linking it with people, their behaviour, their understanding of energy and the challenges they face is altogether another story. At the beginning of the course, I had not realised that there is so much more to energy science than what I had previously known and so initially everything seemed daunting. One of the reasons I struggled initially was the absolute contrast education system in the UK and back home. The fact that our lectures are student-based seminars, made me realise later that it helped me develop my own understanding of energy and the issues around it, which at first seemed quite intimidating. I was immensely nervous at my first presentation before my tutor and peers, however, it gave me confidence so much so that I volunteered to do the second one as well. Time passed by and I realised that we are already in the middle of our first intensive teaching week. As the name suggests, it is an intense one week of teaching with consecutive seminars from 9-5, however, the relief was that I didn’t have to prepare the seminar, but the lectures were delivered by industry experts with an extensive and diverse experience in renewable energy and interdisciplinary knowledge.

Then came the most challenging, excruciating and mammoth like task of the module – essay writing. I found myself in deep waters. For some odd reason, I was absolutely frightened, nervous and felt defeated even before having started it. Mid way through the assignment, I realised what the purpose of such assessment was. It was not to intimidate me but was an efficient mechanism for learning, understanding and reproducing knowledge so to enhance my knowledge of the field.

In summary, I fared well so far. I have learnt more than what I had ever known and what I ever expected. I am in a small town which is so royal not only due to its historic, holy and brutal past but also for its mesmerising beauty. And I have been set on a journey of being the agent of change in this carbon intensive world. I couldn’t have chosen anything better than studying Energy & Society, in pursuit of becoming an Anthropologist.

Farah N. Samuel


A green future for DRAX coal power plant

on the Drax site

by Farah Samuel

On February 13, we visited the UK’s largest coal-fired power plant in the North Yorkshire. DRAX power station is the most advanced and efficient coal-fired power plant in the UK since 1967. Being the largest coal power plant was the first most exciting reason to be there, second to which was to note that since 2003, DRAX initiated co-firing biomass. As of now, DRAX is running three of its six power generating units on biomass, using wood pellets. Almost 60% of the biomass is imported from the US and other countries around the world. According to DRAX, the use of biomass in place of coal reduces 80% of their carbon foot print. One of the most interesting things to learn was the utilisation of the by-products of biomass such as gypsum, being used in the food and construction industries. Seeing this transition of power generation form heavy reliance on fossil fuels to a renewable resource was quite reassuring of a green future for the UK. Even though there is a concern regarding import of biomass from other countries, I personally feel that this transition is a promising step in response to the government’s target of phasing out coal power plants by 2025. The year 2017 was recorded as the most fruitful year for renewables in the UK. If the authorities sustain this commitment, the UK might as well be in the league with other green energy producing countries.

The visit to DRAX power station was one of the most enlightening and an amazing experience to have during my MSc programme. I believe I have a good model of energy transition to take back home.

inside the machine

It is all very well discussing transitions, but how well do you really know what it means in real terms? During a week spent considering how we can make sense of energy issues, the group took a trip to see a power station in action. With a capacity of nearly 4,000MW, Drax is the largest single power station in the UK. Opened in 1973 and later extended, it was built as a coal-fired power station next to the Selby coalfields, at a time when the Central Electricity Generating Board was building up its network of large and larger central power generating units.

Visiting Drax power station 2018

Drax became notorious as the most polluting coal-fired plant in the UK, and was therefore the first to install desulfurisation equipment, becoming then the cleanest plant. It improved its efficiency in 2012 with a major turbine upgrade. However, with the UK commitment to phase out coal-fired generation, the board then decided to convert two of its 6 generating units to biomass generation.

According to our guide, Drax currently takes up some 60% of the world’s production of sawdust-pellets. Beyond this, the market for pellets or other biomass products takes the price of pellets beyond a rate that would enable the plant to produce at a viable cost. Drax therefore continues to use both coal and biomass to generate electricity, but will have to phase out coal before 2025 to accord with UK climate commitments.

Coal ‘field’

For our group, seeing the scale of the power station was itself a significant experience. On a brisk windy day, with snow whirling round our bus as we left Durham, we arrived to find Drax generating from several of its units, and steam swirling around the cooling towers.

The turbine Hall

Christopher reminded us that this one plant could produce more than three times the whole of the generating capacity in Panama, and the scale of the plant impressed itself on us as we toured the plant in a little electric bus with tarpaulin doors. We were free to photograph all but the control room, where one of the controllers explained his duties. Seeing the huge turbine hall, the biomass stores, the mammoth storeroom for collecting gypsum from the coal-boiler-residue, and the fields of coal stretching away reminded us of what is meant by ‘sunk costs’, ‘path dependency’, and ‘life-cycle analysis’. This side of everyday energy practices was made evident in contrast to the usual use of energy services that we too often take for granted.

Thank you to Drax for giving us so much time and for your hospitality.

in the visitor centre

on the bus

Energy insights atop Mount Diablo, California

Student Mike Westrom finds new perspectives in the Bay Area of California:

Mike enjoys the view at Mount Diabolo

After finishing my MSc in Energy & Society Programme at Durham, I decided to stop by the Bay Area of California to visit some family before returning to my hometown in Chicago. We drove up to the top of Mount Diablo to take in its breathtaking views. I saw something on the top of that mountain that I wouldn’t have seen a year before. The surrounding energy infrastructure, usually hidden away and unnoticed, was—for me—in the foreground of this stunning view. My camera lens was not wide enough, nor am I a skilled enough photographer, to capture all three sites in one picture, so I’ve included two. In the first, you see the remains of a mineral extraction site.

a mineral extraction site in the Bay Area of California

This sits to the left of a gas power plant on the water (in the second photo), which sits directly across a huge wind farm that appears to be on an island or peninsula. Wow. Can you imagine a better combination of structures that would annoy liberals and conservatives, alike? While the lefties shake their head at the skeletons of our resource and fossil fuel intensive lifestyles, those to the right scuff at those noisy, ugly, money sucking wind turbines. All this disappointment in one view! Aside from these emotionally charged interpretations of which types of infrastructures destroy the landscape, lead to economic development, and resemble American values and which don’t, some very important questions arise from this vantage point. For me, these questions are about control, something way beyond what I can see on top of Mount Diablo.

a gas power plant is dwarfed by the turbine array seen from Mount Diablo

However, we can use this holistic view to start to formulate the sort of questions we need to ask when thinking about how energy arrangements reflect and engender different forms of control. The Park Ranger told me that back in the day, people used the vantage point on Mount Diablo to survey that area of California. Today, standing on that same mountain, connections become a bit clearer when you zoom out of neighborhoods, expressways, and wind farms and follow the electric wires that link these places, organizations, policies, resources, and ideas together. Studying this kind of stuff at Durham for the past year gives me a starting point, at least. For instance, let’s stop using the word, ‘they’. ‘They put up those wind turbines, they use gas to power that plant, and they closed the extraction site awhile back’… In each case, ‘they’ are very different collections of people, at different levels, with very different interests. We should start out, instead, by asking ‘who?’. Who owns these different sites and under what arrangements? Do organizations lease land, from whom, and what does that empower owners and government organizations to do? Why were these particular sites selected? Why, on the outskirts of one of the most expensive areas in the US, is there a wind farm? From this view, I wonder how these infrastructures are connected, if at all? Most importantly, I learned from my MSc program that answering these questions is not an easy task and takes a lot of time and digging. At the very least, I’ve learned to see energy infrastructures not as merely technical pursuits or symbols for political values, but mechanisms of political control that enable different people to exert different forms of influence tied to sources of energy provision.

Deadline for scholarships extended to July 15 2017

DONG Energy are offering a number of scholarships for outstanding UK students who will be starting the MSc Energy and Society or MSc New and Renewable Energy courses in October 2017. The scholarships will have a value of up to £6,000.

This is a unique opportunity as these scholarships are only available to UK students who wish to study on these courses at Durham University.

The deadline for DONG scholarship applications is 15th July 2017. Find out more at

Funding to join exciting new European project – PEOPLE-centred development approaches

A new EU Erasmus+ project will bring an opportunity for four Masters students to join students and energy academics from Slovenia, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic (Czechia) to work on people-centered development. The project is embedded into the compulsory Field Study module for the MSc Energy and Society course; the selected students will take this module as a 30 credit module. They will be awarded mobility funding to work in collaboration with a UK company, Kemuri Ltd to help develop user friendly elements within the company’s current products and services.

Apply now to the MSc Energy and Society course to join this exciting new initiative! Find out more at PEOPLE project funding.

A research report from Orkney

This summer, Michael Westrom traveled to beautiful Orkney, Scotland for five weeks to study the local experience of governance that accompanies the transition to decentralized community renewable energy. Orkney is a collection of islands north of the mainland of Scotland that generates over 100% of its electricity from renewable sources, most of which comes from community-owned wind turbines. Mike’s findings will be written up for his MSc dissertation.

Here he tells us more about what he found:

For three of the five weeks, I lived on the small island of Shapinsay, home to about 300 residents. The Shapinsay Development Trust (SDT) is a community charity group that owns and manages a 900 kW wind turbine (see photos below of the turbine and SDT). Aside from earning revenue by exporting the electricity on to the grid, the SDT is a part of a 10 million Euro funded project to convert some of the electricity that would otherwise be curtailed (due to grid restraints) into a hydrogen fuel. Orkney Islands Council (OIC) has agreed to purchase the fuel to power a fleet of council vehicles, to heat the Shapinsay primary school, and eventually to power ferries, adding more revenue to the community.

I studied how both the revenue from the wind turbine benefits scheme and the partial ownership over the production and distribution over hydrogen fuel has empowered the SDT charity and changed local governance. Now the SDT charity, headed by a small group of residents, has a new and strong influence over island policy, provisioning of social resources, and even transport relative to the local council government, as related to their control over the renewable energy facility.


EAGA grants now 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!