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.

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…


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.


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.


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…


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!

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…