A roundup of Wednesday-Friday, intense teaching week

Carrying on from where we left off in the last post we’ll briefly round up the last few days of our intense teaching week for Context and Challenges in Energy and Society (one of our core modules on the Energy and Society course).

Southampton Geothermal.jpg

Southampton’s geothermal resources have been tapped for use in a large CHP scheme operating locally since 1986

So! Wednesday saw a focus on Future Technologies with Andy Aplin opening the batting with a fascinating and refreshing impartial overview of the potential of Fracking in the UK.  Next up in session 2 Charlotte Adams gave a talk on “Developing the UK’s Low Enthalpy Geothermal Resources” and painting the lesser known picture of heat from geothermal in the UK and the potential for this technology to be expanded to serve domestic and industrial energy needs in the future.


After lunch Douglas Halliday gave a talk on ‘Solar Futures‘; updating us on the cutting edge of solar research before Adwoa Asantewaa rounded up the day with a presentation on Electricity in sub-Saharan Africa.

The theme for Thursday was ‘Policies, politics and violence’ (with a touch of wind power at the end!). The day was kicked off with a presentation on the Energy Policy of the EU by Christian Schweiger, next up was The violence of energy politics (including a critique of the Resource Curse) by John McNeish who has joined us for the week visiting from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Third was “Extractive” development in post-conflict Peru, or politics by other means at the extractive frontier’ by Juan-Pablo Sarmiento-Barletti before finishing the day with a presentation by Chris Crabtree on Wind Power.


Moving to Friday Ahmed Bokash gave us a presentation first on ‘Understanding the Grid’ to bring those of us with a little less technical experience right up to speed, before John Bothwell gave an enlightening talk on ‘Bio-Energy’; giving a great overview on bio-energy and biofuels from 1st to 4th generation. With John’s talk and the subsequent seminar session sadly our intense teaching week came to a close; we’ve had a fantastic week and would like to thank all of the speakers we’ve been lucky to hear from over the last 5 days for coming to speak to us.



‘Coal Day’ of intensive teaching week

The second day of our intensive teaching week focused on coal, specifically the rise and fall of coal in the North East of England.

Sandra Bell kicked the day off with a great introductory talk entitled ‘Carboniferous Capitalism and the North East of England’. Sandra started right from the beginning with coal’s early association to the monasteries before explaining how rights to coal mining were then held by the state. This changed locally in 1239 when Newcastle was granted a royal charter to lessen restrictions on the extraction of coal. By 1334 Newcastle was the fourth-wealthiest town in England, based on its coal trade spurred on by demand driven by the growing iron and glass making industry.

The lack of wood in the 18th century led to a growing demand for coal for domestic heating, this drove mines deeper and was aided with the development of the Newcomen Steam Engine in 1712; to pump out the new, deeper mines and later of course James Watts’ improved version from 1769 onwards – a pivotal moment for coal as the relationship between steam and coal was formed. Fast forwarding slightly Sandra explained the vast scale of the coal industry in the north east; the region’s 400 pits employing 250,000 men and producing 56 million tonnes of coal/year at its peak in 1913.

Sandra also explained the shift in power from the coal companies (with their annual bond for 1 year’s labour) to the introduction of a two week contract in 1872, as well as the rise of the unions… A seminar and lunch break later we re-assembled outside of Anthropology for a coal walking tour of Durham; learning about the rich coal heritage that surrounds us as we go about our studies in Durham this year.

We made slow progress into town; stopping frequently for Sandra to enlighten us with her fantastic knowledge of the history of Durham. The last stop of our walk was at the grand Durham Miners Association Headquarters where we were kindly given a talk in the council hall, explaining the history of the DMU, of the building itself, as well as plans for its future.

As afternoon turned to evening we concluded our Coal Day with a drink at the Market Tavern in the centre of town, a tavern where on 20th November 1869 a meeting of delegates met and established Durham Miners’ Mutual Association. A big thank you to Sandra, as well as the DMU, for the time you gave to us today.





9 down, 6 to go…

We’re now over half way through an intensive teaching week which comprises of: a fantastic 15 lectures delivered by 15 different presenters, several group debate sessions, one ‘coal tour of Durham’ and and not to forget, one trip to the pub. Dr Abram has put all of this on for one of our core modules ‘Context and Challenges in Energy and Society’ so it’s about time we fill you in briefly on what we’ve been up to and who we’ve been hearing from…


Monday – Day 1

Lecture 1: Monday morning bright and early we assembled in ‘The Penthouse Suite’ of Collingwood College to have an introductory presentation by Professor Simon Hogg (Executive Director of the Durham Energy Institute) on the state and direction of electricity supply in the UK. Although a broad field to tackle in one session it didn’t stop Professor Hogg from getting stuck into explaining some of the technicalities a changing grid represents… The differing thermal expansion properties of turbines and their casings for example, means the more flexible we want turbines to be, the less efficient they become – a fascinating insight.


Lecture 2: Next up Kamal Badreshany gave a talk on ‘The development of energy intensive ancient technologies: considering social and environmental aspects’. The presentation drew on examples primarily from the Ancient Near East and went into great details discussing the  nature and development of the two ‘eras’ of energy use – the Organic Energy Economy (OEE) of about 4-500,000 years ago to ca. 1700 followed of course by the Fossil Fuel Economy (FFE) of which we remain rooted to up to the present day…


Lecture 3: After lunch in the third session Professor Chris Stokes from the Durham Geography Department gave us an up to date overview of climate change and went on to explore his area of specialism, glaciology, in the second half of the presentation. We engaged with topics such as the rapidly disappearing mountain glaciers, the thinning of Greenland’s ice cap, the number of cities situated at, or below, present sea level and what melting mountain ice caps could mean for drinking water needs of 1/6th of the world’s population.



Lecture 4: And then for the fourth and final session of day 1 Rob Layton came to give a lecture entitled ‘Natural Resource Management – how did we get to where we are at?‘. The talk was wide and varied and drew on Rob’s studies from all over the world, in particular though it drew on his studies of gathering communities in Australia, on sustainable and non-sustainable resource management; the tragedy of commons, as well as following the path of the development of grains and cereals in the Middle East…

A fascinating and very varied series of lectures from our 4 speakers on day 1 of this intensive teaching week; thank you!

The ‘Energy and Society’ class of 2017 – an introduction

A warm hello from Dr Abram’s fresh new arrivals onto this year’s Energy and Society course! We thought we’d take this opportunity to introduce ourselves with a little bit of background on who were are and were we come from which hopefully should add a bit of context to our blogging this year! The photo above shows us on our first site visit of the year, in the first week of term, joined by past students of Energy and Society Ahmed, Chima (featured) and Weni.

Building on from the blog’s inception and its successes last year we’re keen to build it further this year – growing and engaging with our wider audience, yourselves, with all the news of what we’re up to as well as special features on more personal interests we have been exploring in the world of Energy and Society.

First off though, we thought we would seize this opportunity to individually introduce ourselves – enabling our readers to put a face to a name on our future articles…


Mike Westrom

mike-readyMike comes from Chicago (USA) and joins the course with a background in mechanical engineering, having studied this at West Point in New York. A particular interest of Mike’s is renewable energy technology integration which he’s planning on exploring and furthering his knowledge this year on the Energy and Society course. Mike currently serves as a Lieutenant in the US Army and will be returning to the army following graduation.


Joshua Chong

josh-readyJosh grew up in Singapore but studied Sociology in the US at Buffalo State University in New York from where he graduated in 2013. When asked about his particular interests in Energy and Society Josh raised first what he considers a lacklustre change to alter our energy generation and consumption behaviours, despite what he describes as “well known knowledge of the need for change in this area”. He suggests “political and economic bottlenecks” as the reasons for this and looks forward to exploring this further on the Energy and Society course this year. Josh also believes in a need to re-evaluate our prirorities when it comes to environmental conservation, which we hope he will be writing about here in the future. Outside of his studies Josh has a passion for “anything to do with theatre” – a passion he has had since childhood.


Tom Riley

tom-readyTom is from Bristol, UK and has previously studied at Newcastle University gaining a BSc in Civil Engineering and Physical Geography. Stemming from experience in the oil and quarrying industries Tom’s specific interests lie in the transition of energy towards renewable alternatives in general but from a sustainable business standpoint as well. Outside of Energy and Society Tom takes a keen interest in travelling to regions with rich and different cultural backgrounds such as  Macedonia, Morocco and Dubai but also in sport; having represented Avon for hockey and Somerset for his cricket.


Rob Hinchley

rob-readyRob comes from Worcestershire, UK and previously studied Environmental Geography at UCL. Although not from an engineering background he has a long-standing interest in energy and energy production technologies and likes to think openly about finding solutions to energy problems, supply side and demand side. He explored a demand side solution in his final year at UCL with a dissertation that focused on quantifying the role of vegetation in countering the urban heat island effect, which poses a growing problem to cities around the world through unpleasantly warm air temperatures for inhabitants and increased electricity demands (through increased use of air-conditioning). He’s keen to broaden his horizons this year on the Energy and Society course and develop his technical and social understanding of energy as deeply as possible. Away from Energy and Society  Rob can often be found doing something to do with rowing and is coaching the development squad at Durham University this year, when he’s not doing this he loves walking, the outdoors and photography.


Hetty Gittus

hetty-readyHetty grew up near Bury St Edmunds (Suffolk) and studied at Durham University for her undergraduate degree – graduating earlier this year with a BA in Geography. She’s particularly drawn by the differing ways in which low carbon transitions manifest themselves and how they are shaped by the underlying socio-cultural context. She also has interests in Corporate Social Responsibility and the different manners in which firms approach it. Away from academia Hetty enjoys playing a range of sports, keenly supporting the Leicester Tigers as well as baking (which the rest of us are all hoping to sample the fruits of soon!).


Dr Simone Abram

simoneOur leader and course convener Dr Abram! Guiding us and leading us with her vast experience and understanding of the field of Energy and Society… We’re hoping to do an interview on Dr Abram’s current work later in the year.


Amit Karna

amit-readyAmit comes to London with five years experience working for the Nepal Electricity Authority, the organization responsible for generation, transmission and distribution of electrical energy in Nepal. Before this he gained a B.E. in Electrical Engineering followed by a M.Sc. in Power System Engineering from the Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk Campus in Nepal. Looking to broaden his horizons this year Amit is keen to learn more about the societal and environmental sides to energy production on the Energy and Society course. He’s also keen to travel when he has the chance to (off to see London this weekend for example) and make the most of his year at Durham.


Michelle Uriarte

michelle-readyMichelle was born in Mexico City, one of the biggest cities in the world but also one of the most energy hungry cities in the world! With a specialty in Social Responsibility and Renewable Energy Michelle studied Engineering in Sustainable Development for her undergraduate degree. These are exciting times for Mexico as the Mexican Government recently announced that foreign investment will be permitted in the energy industry for the first time in the nation’s history. Michelle explained passionately how “…We are going through an energy transition in Mexico that is not limited to the technical aspects of Energy, but also in the impacts it is having in society and how it could possibly change the future and potential of my country.”. As a student of Energy and Society Michelle aims “to understand from an anthropological and sociopolitical standpoint the impacts of consequences of this new energy transition”. Outside of her interests in Energy Michelle loves to dance, to read and to play video games (and is open to describing her self as being “a little bit of a nerd”).


Itzell Torres

itzell-readyItzell is also from Mexico but comes not from an engineering background but one of International Relations, having previously studied International Relations for her undergraduate degree in Mexico. As with Michelle Itzell is also fascinated by the impacts of Mexico’s energy reform on the society of Mexico but also with energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies and looks forward to furthering her understanding of these this year. Outside of her studies Itzell likes hiking, photography and culture.


Rougang (Rick) Wang

rick-readyRick comes to Durham from studying Management and International Business at Royal Holloway, University of London where he chose to specialise in international business. His broad course in London covered all areas of management as well as marketing, consumption and strategy – all relevant to the world of Energy and Society. Rick believes the rising levels of energy consumption requires more reliable and efficient infrastructure and markets. Coming originally from China Rick mentions the “One Belt, One Road Initiative” development framework proposed by Xi Jinping to create a more efficient and better-integrated energy network around the globe. Rick looks forwarded to embarking on further research into the intricacies of the ‘OBOR’ project this year. He hopes to find out how and if cooperation like this would create affordable access to more energy resources and promote sustainable economic and social development for nations that participate in the initiative.


But that’s not necessarily all of us you’ll be hearing from this year! We hope to have colleagues from other masters courses writing for us as well who are joining us for particular modules…

Honorine Uwase

honorine-readyHonorine was born in Rwanda but has lived in the UK for the last 10 years and previously studied Sociology at Northumbria University. She is now on the Sustainability, Culture and Development MSc course at Durham this year and has chosen to join us for one of our core modules ‘Context and Challenges in Energy and Society’ led by Dr Abram this term. Outside of her studies Honorine is an entrepreneur, having set up her own small business earlier this year but also works for a charity.


Zhiling Ma

zhiling-readyAnd last but by no means least coming from Nei Mongal in China Zhiling is also joining us on the Context and Challenges in Energy and Society module this year and is joins Honorine on the Sustainability, Culture and Development MSc – we look forward to hearing from you soon Zhiling!



Stay tuned for updates from Energy and Society and one off features throughout the year…



A Socio-Technical Turbine


Inspecting the archimedes screw turbine at Freeman’s Reach

In bright sunshine today, we visited the hydro-electric turbine at Freeman’s Reach in central Durham. Students who have recently completed the course met new students, and we had a good look at the turbine.



site-visit in 2014

Things have certainly moved on since MSc students visited the site in 2014, when construction was in full flow. Then we saw the concrete channels being constructed and heard about the building of the ‘bat hotel’ under the site. Today the turbine is installed and commissioned, but a dry summer meant there was no action for us to see. We’ll look forward to coming back another day.

discussing turbines!

We an also look forward to the students taking over the blog very soon!

Why this course is ‘just fantastic’

My name is Suki Ferris, and I have just completed the Energy and Society MSc. I couldn’t be happier with this choice of Masters.grad-1

I have been privileged to gain an in-depth understanding of the current energy market, in addition to gaining insight within potential future sources of energy. This knowledge has been founded upon a thorough understanding of previous energy systems, that have shaped our present energy reality.
The intensive teaching weeks of this course have been truly eye-opening. I have learned so much about human energy consumption, with emphasis placed upon the cultural, historical, political, and economic explanation of how and why we attain energy. The course seminars allow for intensive discussions of specific energy related topics, where the international diversity and work experience of classmates and professors added original perspective.

The world of energy is changing, and it is changing rapidly. It has been inspiring to be part of a class that is passionate about understanding the nature of these changes. I am leaving this course with an overwhelming sense of hope that the future of energy is going to be creative, diverse, sustainable, and with this newly gained knowledge, I am going to help shape that future.

Research by MSc students now available

While MSc students get their heads down to finish their dissertations, I’m stepping in to the blog to tell you about the group research reports they have produced for the ‘field study’ module. Each group worked with an external organisation to produce a professional report, and I’m very pleased to say that these are now available for you to download.

Suki Ferris, Zoe Respondek and Ahmed Bokash worked with the Chilton community to evaluate the investment potential for geothermal energy.

Ije Achara, Seun Akinsoji, Ellis-Anne Dunmall, Alex Hill & Weni Igirigi worked with National Energy Action to investigate the impact of the end of the governmental ‘Green Deal’ energy improvement scheme.

For more information, and to read the reports, follow this link to the DEI website: MSc research papers now online

Do remember to keep up with DEI news via the university’s DEI website, and read all about the forthcoming events such as the annual DEI Symposium on 30 September 2016, which you are very welcome to attend.

Venn Diagram of my Degree

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking, “I wonder what a graphical representation of the MSc Energy & Society degree would look like?”

Well wonder no more:

Degree venn diagram

This venn diagram shows that most of my modules intersect with three main issues: energy, society and the environment. If these are topics that interest you, you would probably enjoy taking this degree! Here’s a brief outline of what I’ve covered in each of my modules.

Renewable Energy & the Environment (optional)
Taught in the engineering department, this module teaches you how to calculate the power output of various renewable energy sources and an understanding of their technical specification. I’ve written about my experiences as an anthropologist taking this module here.

Society, Energy, Environment and Resilience (optional)
An eclectic mix of topics that focus more on environmental issues than any of the core modules. Taught from an anthropological perspective.

Contexts & Challenges in Energy and Society (core)
An interdisciplinary social science approach to the broad-scale political, technical, geographical and social aspects of the history of energy.

Energy, Society and Energy Practices (core)
Another interdisciplinary module that focuses on everyday practices of energy usage, studying energy at an individual or household level.

Other modules that don’t fit in the venn diagram are:

Development Anthropology (optional)
This examines the relationship between development and anthropology, highlighting disciplinary debates in historical perspective.

Field Study (core)
This module does double-duty as a methods module and a project, allowing students to get out in the field and work on socio-technical aspects to energy. I wrote about a trip we took as part of this module here.

Dissertation (core)
The topic of this is co-constructed with a supervisor and makes up 1/3 of the degree.

Of course, there are many other optional modules that can be chosen apart from the ones I have taken. Students can take modules from a variety of departments including anthropology, business, economics, geography and engineering. The modules on offer do change year on year, but there is always a wide selection to choose from.

An Anthropologist takes on Engineering

I have a pretty complicated relationship with my engineering module.

Though I did maths in 6th Form my undergraduate degree was in anthropology so when I was choosing my MSc modules I hadn’t done any serious maths for over 5 years. But a significant part of what drew me to this course was its interdisciplinary nature and it seemed like a waste to not take advantage of an opportunity to learn some engineering. As well as understanding some technical aspects of renewable energy, I hoped to gain an insight into engineering practices to enable interdisciplinary cooperation*, and the module hasn’t disappointed on either front.

One of the main aims of the module is to enable students to calculate energy and power outputs of different renewable energy sources. (Did you know that energy and power are different? I didn’t!) I, an anthropologist, can now do this! I recently completed a project that required analysis of the power output of solar PV, tidal stream and wind technologies, as well as analysis of various financial measures. In the end, calculating the energy output wasn’t even the hard part.

But as an anthropologist, this module has given me so much more along with that. My confidence with more complex maths has dramatically increased, as well as my ability to think through problems in an engineery way. They like to analyse problems numerically (“logically,” they would say). While I would say, “Look, all the UK solar PV companies are going bust, it’s probably not worth investing in them,” engineers prefer you to “prove it” by working out the maths. By gaining these skills I have also gained an understanding of how they think. I love talking to engineers at interdisciplinary events now, because I have much more common ground with them than other disciplines and can speak their language, to a certain extent.

Not only that, I feel like an engineer. I have been relentlessly mocked for proclaiming myself an engineer in the first week of term but the longer I spend working on engineering, the more true it becomes. It’s like I’ve unlocked a certain kind of freedom of thought that allows me to tackle certain problems differently. For example, a recent Independent article indicated that feeding cows oregano may reduce the methane emissions they produce. Having already idly wondered about harnessing cow farts for energy (revision does funny things to a brain), this article gave me the numbers I needed to start thinking about the problem like an engineer, thus:

A cow weighing 550kg produces between 800-1000 litres of emissions per day. Sure, that’s not all methane, but we’re just ballparking** here so let’s say they produce 800l of methane gas per day. According to Wolfram Alpha, the excellent computational search engine, 800l of methane contains 30MJ of energy, or 8.33kWh. Is that a lot? Would it be worth finding a method to extract the methane?

To answer this, I went on to find out the wattage of our kettle (3kW), timed how long it took to boil 0.5l of water (77 seconds) and worked out that 1 day’s worth of cow farts would boil roughly 130 cups of tea. Plus you’d have the milk all ready.***

The point is, I found joy in recreational problem-solving: finding out information, conducting experiments, performing calculations… All useful skills, regardless of how silly or serious the context is. This process even helped with my degree, as I found out how to convert from joules to kilowatthours while performing my calculations.

Photo 24-05-2016, 02 03 34 (1)

SI units poster in my living room.

That’s not to say there haven’t been countless frustrations along the way. I only did physics to GCSE, putting me at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to understanding the science behind what we’re discussing. My maths is very rusty and I couldn’t tell you how to differentiate, but my solid grounding in algebra has saved me numerous times. I’m not used to working with SI units and producing answers like 3.87 x 106 gives me the heebie-jeebies. But I have a bunch of patient physicist/mathematician/engineer friends, an SI units poster in my living room and a lot of determination to gain as much engineering knowledge as I can.

My engineering exam is coming up on Friday, so we’ll see how I feel about engineering after that. But for now my verdict is that it was definitely the most exhilarating, door-opening module I’ve ever done and I would encourage everyone to see how far outside their disciplinary comfort zone they can push themselves.

*In engineering lectures I tend to take notes on what’s happening, as well as the course content. It’s fascinating! Once an anthropologist, always an anthropologist!
**”Ballparking” figures, or roughly estimating them, is one of an engineer’s favourite pastimes.
***This was a fun thought experiment, but collecting the gas would be a bit of a problem. Compressed methane is highly flammable, not something you’d want near livestock. I am adamant that keeping cows in a methane-extracting biodome could work, but the biggest biodome you can build is around 3 acres, only enough for 2 cow/calf pairs. Since methane rises, could we just put an awning over a field and extract from that? Answers in the comments, please…