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.

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International Student Energy Summit 2017

by Michelle Uriarte

First a little bit about the event, according to the official web page the SES is:

The Student Energy`s International Student Energy Summit (SES) is a global event that brings together the world`s brightest students to learn and discuss the current issues and trends in energy.

Past events were hosted in Bali, Indonesia in 2015 and Trondheim, Norway in 2013, this year it was celebrated at Merida, México, and as the official page explains it brings the best speakers in the Energy sector of the world, talking about topics from democratization of energy to technical aspects of the wind and solar plants; it is intended for undergrad and postgrad students with an interest in Energy. The whole aim of the summit is for students to get to know the latest trends of energy and get involved with them.

This year Durham University gave a £500 travel bursary to the winner of the three-minute thesis competition, I was lucky enough to win this competition talking about the topic of my dissertation “The Birth of Waste to Energy in Mexico: Lessons to be learned from the UK” and was able to travel to Mexico, which is also the country I am from.

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The Summit started with two of the main figures of Energy in Mexico Pedro Coldwell Director of the Energy Ministry and Dr. Antonio del Rio, Director of the Institute of Renewable Energies in Mexico, welcoming the students and speakers followed by a small cocktail party.

The following days we had different seminars such as “Democratization of Energy”, “The Sustainable Development Goals and the Future of Energy”, “Energy and People”, and “Cities and the Energy Transitions”, etc. Throughout the conferences we were reminded how the students are the ones that will shape the future of energy and therefore of the world, the speakers were eager to answer all the questions we had and even got the time to speak one on one after their conference finished.

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I had the opportunity to speak with H.R.H Princess Size Djigma who is an Ambassador of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency of Burkina Faso, she gave an impressive speech incentivizing the students to create their own companies and research about energy, she also talked about the role of developing countries to tackle climate change.

After all the seminars and conferences were over we were invited to a gala dinner, where we could meet more students and speakers and do networking, as well of course to enjoy Mexican food and hospitality. Then on the last day of the summit we had workshops, I chose the workshop “The Complex Dynamics of Energy Markets” where through a board game we could experience how the energy markets act like in Nordic countries.

Overall, it was a really enriching experience, which I feel really proud of being part of.

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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.

 

Memoirs of the 6th Symposium for CONACYT Scholars in Europe

Michelle Uriarte Ruiz

The sixth edition of the Symposium for CONACYT (Mexico’s entity in charge of the promotion of scientific and technological activities) Scholars in Europe was organized and hosted by the European Parliament and CONACYT on 29, 30 and 31 of March of 2017 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France; with the participation of over 130 scholars from 13 European countries.

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This symposium aims to gather Mexican scholars throughout Europe to discuss, share and collaborate on their research topics, there were roundtables and seminars given by the scholars in 9 main different topics proposed by the Scientific Committee. I was lucky enough to present my dissertation topic in the roundtable of Climate Change and Energy, the title of my presentation was “The Social and Environmental Impacts of Waste Management in Mexico City”

I explained how Mexico City has expanded in the last decades from a rural to an urban area with an ever increasing population (20 million people in the metropolitan zone), even though Mexico was the first Latin American country to sign the Kyoto Protocol in 2012 and became one of the world pioneers in Climate Change Regulations, the quality of life in Mexico City has been severely affected due to the greenhouse gas emissions. The lack of urban planning, increased population and climate change mitigation actions, has driven Mexico City to a tipping point, where is absolutely necessary to reconsider the urban planning, as well as short, medium and long measures of how to improve the citizens quality of life. With the improvement of the life quality and the population growth, the volume of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) has also increased, currently more than 13,000 tons of MSW are generated and the average generation per capita is 1.31 kilograms per day, which is higher than the global average of MSW. This has a great impact over the environment, only in 2010, 31 millions of CO2e emissions were emitted, and this would represent 5% of the total emissions of the country in that year. Fourteen per cent of these emissions came from the MWS management and disposal.

In order to avoid what many consider an environmental and social crisis, the government has looked for technological solutions. Waste to energy treatment seem to be the logical solution, but it is not the whole solution, the waste management problem in Mexico City is really complex, and all the social implications of this problem have to be explored, I compared what the UK has accomplished since the 90s in waste management which includes:

  • 45% of the MSW were recycled
  • The total MSW destined to landfill decreased by 71% (in comparison with the year 2000)
  • The volume of MSW destined to Waste to Energy was tripled (2.4 million tons in 2000 to 7.8 million ton)
  • Methane emissions were reduced by 61% (in comparison with 2002)
  • The Waste Management sector made profits of £18.7 billions
  • 10 TWh were generated in Waste to Energy

Finally I pointed out what were the lessons that Mexico could learn from the UK in waste management including landfill tax, emphasis in waste prevention, invest in research and community projects and creating a waste hierarchy focusing in waste reduction.

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My presentation was well received, and many people had questions in the topic, people that are from Mexico City pointed out that even if they are not studying something related to waste management or environmental issues in the city, they were aware of the impacts and wanted a solution, they liked the comparison between the UK and Mexico and were impressed of what the UK accomplished in such a short amount of time. Overall it was an amazing experience to be able to share my research and I was able to meet a lot of students that are also interested in Energy and Climate Change. M3

‘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.