Assembling community energy democracies

By Bregje van Veelen, Uppsala University / Durham University

Late last year Will Eadson and I published a new paper, ‘Assembling community energy democracies‘. In it, we demonstrate (conceptually and empirically) how an assemblage-lens can offer new ways of understanding energy democracy and the role community energy groups can play in achieving it.

By adopting an assemblage lens we do actually also challenge the notion that energy democracy is something to be ‘achieved’, but I’ll get to that.

To take a step back, the idea of energy democracy can be traced back to social movements in Europe and North America, who argue that energy transitions offer an opportunity to establish energy systems that are not only more climate-friendly but also more democratic and just. Community and voluntary groups play a central role in this vision: community groups as owners of energy technologies and voluntary organisations (‘the third sector’) as ‘intermediaries’, supporters and enablers who help community groups achieve this, for example by connecting them to each other or to more powerful actors.

Such a perspective often sees democracy (alongside justice) as an outcome, something to be achieved. We argue, it is more fruitful to think about democracy-as-process. This shifts the focus away from democracy as a particular set of institutions to democracy as an ‘evolving reality’ that requires ongoing work, highlighting the processes and connections through which democracy is enacted. We do so by bringing in assemblage theory to explore (energy) democracy, asking what does democracy-as-process look like and how is it given form?

Here is, we argue, the second important contribution of assemblage theory (in addition to its focus on processes and relations): its emphasis on material, as well as social elements. There is a rich literature on the social aspects of community energy, and how both internal elements (e.g. motivations, skills, organisational forms) and external ‘intermediaries’ shape what form community energy projects (and their governance) take. In this paper, we show how that community energy projects are shaped through (1) the connections between these social and other elements, and (2) the ways in which these elements are transformed through these connections.

We explore this by looking at the process through which community energy projects – one in England and one in Scotland – are assembled: what elements are part of this assemblage, and what connections are formed between these elements? In doing so we show that the configuration of human & non-human elements and the relations between them are key in shaping the ‘democratic public’ and the enactment of democratic governance.

One of my early attempts to map how & when different elements came to be part of the assemblage. These mapping exercises did not make it into the paper, but did help us think through how community energy assemblages are shaped, and the differences between our case studies.

Here, we also diverge from existing literature on ‘intermediaries’ – organisations that connect community groups and external actors (such as policy makers, energy companies or financial organisations). By adopting an assemblage-perspective we show that intermediation as a function does not rest in a particular type of organisation, but that every element in the assemblage performs an intermediating function – connecting different elements. Furthermore, from this perspective, intermediaries do not simply transport or connect elements, in doing so they also transform and modify those elements. This in turn helps emphasise the political ambiguities of participation, conveying its situated nature, the ways in which opportunities for participation are open(ed) or closed, and the domains from which new institutions and opportunities emerge.

By focusing on how community energy projects are assembled (through processes of intermediation) we show that such projects are neither wholly the bottom-up empowering process that proponents would like them to be, nor a simple expression of neoliberal beyond-the-state governance that critics are concerned about. We show how relations are proactively as well as reactively produced, how these relations can be simultaneously empowering and limiting, and are bidirectional: there is interplay between different elements.

This view on community energy action challenges how we consider democracy within and beyond individual projects: for instance, in terms of imposing particular understandings of democracy on any set of actors, who are in turn constantly negotiating with different competing and overlapping intermediating processes. This emphasises democracy as a reflexive process of becoming, through the constant (re)formulation of relations between (human) actors, historic norms, technologies, regulations, financial models, and so on. This in turn, also demonstrates its inherent emergent, contingent and uncertain qualities. In other words: (energy) democracy is a process that is never finished, but always in the process of being made – and at risk of being unmade. We should therefore not only try to develop and support the emergence of democratic processes of energy governance, but also focus on how to sustain them and ensure their longevity.


Caught in the middle? Understanding the opportunities and barriers for intermediaries to facilitate low-carbon transitions

by Bregje van Veelen

One of the core reasons why I (and many fellow RIPPLES members) are interested in renewable energy is not only because of its potential to combat climate change, but also because of its potential to foster a distributed energy system, which enables individuals and communities to have more ownership and control over the generation of energy. But for these small-scale forms of energy generation to deliver widespread social and environmental change, they need to become more numerous. However, communities who want to develop renewable energy projects often face social, regulatory, technical and financial challenges – many of which are regional, national or international in nature. But how do you do tackle these, especially as a small – and often voluntary – group of people?

The importance of intermediaries in facilitating low-carbon transitions

Intermediaries are a key type of actor that shapes the interactions between communities, policy, regulators and markets. Such intermediaries are not a specific type of organisation: they can be public, private or third sector organisations, and sometimes they are individuals rather than organisations. Instead, what defines an intermediary is its ‘in-betweennessand its role in connecting different organisations, often navigating between community groups and national actors such as policymakers or regulators. 

There has been some great research recently that has emphasised the important functions such intermediaries fulfil in enabling low-carbon transitions. Intermediaries are particularly important in the context of local energy initiatives: they play a key role in providing training and sharing best practice, connecting communities with external actors and helping them overcome structural barriers. This facilitates the replication of successful initiatives in different contexts 

However, while this research has helped shed light on what intermediaries do, it was not always clear why or how intermediaries do what they do. To understand whether intermediaries can successfully fulfil the important role assigned to them, we therefore also need to ask: how are intermediary functions shaped? 

To answer this question, I look in my recent publication at the spaces that intermediaries occupy, and how these spaces for action are shaped, and by whom. While the findings are influenced by the peculiarities of the community energy sector in Scotland, the lessons learned are transferable to other contexts. 

How the ‘contracting state’ and funding uncertainty shape intermediaries’ actions

The findings of this research can be grouped into three related themes. Firstly, it show the importance of recognising the broader political and economic context in which intermediaries operate. The space intermediaries occupy – and functions they fulfil – is strongly shaped by the context of the ‘contracting state’. The double meaning of contracting – getting smaller, and a new (financial) relationship – is important here. As the state gets smaller, intermediaries become more important, as they, and the communities they support, are expected to deliver services that may have previously been delivered by the government. At the same time, many intermediaries are also subject to the same uncertainty of funding and funding cuts, as the community groups that they seek to support. Interviewees explained how these constraints shape the ways in which intermediaries interact with the community groups they support: 

My contact with [intermediary], I get on very well with, and he’s realistic. But he has to push, he is pushing and pushing and pushing, because they need results. […] if they don’t get results, they’ll not get funding to pay their people and they won’t get funding to pay us. (Community group member) 

Other interviewees lamented that due to funding cuts and an overriding focus on delivering ‘value for money’, intermediaries can feel pushed towards prioritising cost over quality of service delivery.

Secondly, this uncertain environment also affects the type of relations intermediaries form, affecting the ways in which they provide services. Some intermediaries have developed new, positive, collaborative relations with one another – in order to deliver services for a lower cost, or simply because different intermediaries may have different forms of expertise or networks. However, in other cases, intermediaries don’t collaborate, but compete, with one another, which can (indirectly) hamper the support provided to communities. It also affects how intermediaries interact with communities in another way. A few intermediaries were accused of seemingly not wanting communities to become too empowered, to ensure that their support services are still needed in the future. While such negative stories are small in number, it reiterates the importance of thinking about intermediaries not solely as neutral actors working for the greater good, but also as political actors in their own right, whose actions might seek to protect their own existence (for often very understandable reasons, I must add!). 

However, thirdly, the intermediary landscape is continuously changing, which also opens up continuing opportunities for new or different ways of delivering intermediary functions. In particular, those community energy groups who are lucky enough to generate a substantial income from selling that energy, may become intermediaries (often referred to as ‘anchor organisations’ in this context) in their own right. Because these organisations receive their funding from the energy they generate and sell, rather than short-term streams of funding, they might be able to develop new ways of working and supporting others that are not reliant on the whims and priorities of external funders. 

Why does this matter? 

Intermediaries perform an important role in facilitating low-carbon transitions, but to fully understand their potential we also need to understand what barriers there are to intermediaries fulfilling the functions expected of them. At the same time, it is also important not to underplay the agency intermediaries have: they do respond in different ways to similar (funding) constraints. For example, while some adopt a competitive approach, others are developing new collaborative relations. However, the competitive nature of the funding environment is a key factor that shapes how intermediaries support community groups, and sometimes this is at odds with both policy goals and communities’ needs. Funders and policy makers would therefore do well to (re-)consider how funding structures are shaping the likelihood of achieving the outcomes they would like to see.  

Read my article in full: van Veelen, B. (2019) Caught in the middle? Creating and contesting intermediary spaces in low-carbon transitions. Environment and Planning C. Available online at: (or send me an email!)


What does the USS strike mean for early career academics?

by Bregje van Veelen

As the strike over USS pensions has entered its third week, most people reading this blog will be aware of the details: proposed changes transfers the retirement risk from employers to staff, meaning that academic staff (including lecturers, researchers, and support staff) at a large number of UK universities could lose up to 50% of their retirement income.

RIPPLES members come in all shapes and sizes. What we have in common, however, is that we all define ourselves as early career academics. As we will likely bear the brunt of the proposed changes to the USS pension scheme, I asked my fellow RIPPLES members what the current dispute and strike action means to them.

Our pensions are important…

Our current pension provisions may look fairly generous to outsiders, but are not as great as you may think. RIPPLES members might define themselves as ‘early career’, but the days of being 21 are long behind us. The nature of academia, and the offer of often precarious employment post-PhD means that many of us don’t start paying into a pension until a relatively late age:

I am already in my 40s and have had a pension for a relatively short time. I got my first permanent academic job a year ago. My pension was already going to be fairly modest, and the changes look to effectively halve that modest provision.

I think being guaranteed a secure pension after an underpaid and insecure start to our careers is a small ask and something I certainly think is worth fighting for.​

Although UUK is apparently using early career researchers as an excuse to move away from a defined benefits pension scheme, RIPPLES members were generally clear: they don’t want flexibility, they want stability. The only scepticism expressed regarding the need to preserve our pensions was over whether it would benefit people of our generation: even if the current action is successful, what are the chances that the pension scheme in its current form will still be in place in 30 years’ time?

… but the current action is about so much more than just pensions

What came through in pretty much all responses, however, is that the current action is about so much more than pensions. It is about broader trends and principles; about how universities value their staff and their culture of learning; about how lecturers’ real wages have fallen by 16% since 2009, while seeing how VCs and other senior managers are paid; about feeling you are being exploited because you love the job and want to make a difference. While those working at post-92 institutions are not directly affected by the proposed pension scheme, they too are concerned that if the changes go through with the USS I feel it is likely to lead to other changes either to other pension schemes or general working conditions across all universities.

Others pointed out that it is not only about us: I feel like the outcome of this dispute might set a precedent for how other people’s pension schemes, especially teachers and other public sector workers.

Withdrawing our labour?

Although everyone was in agreement that the current dispute is important, many struggled with the idea of taking strike action. While some did decide to strike, the decision did not come easy:

There are many reasons why I considered not striking – the impact on my students’ future, increasing the workload of my non-striking colleagues, cancelling outreach activities and more selfishly, losing a significant amount of pay and potentially jeopardising my future career by rocking the boat.

Several members of RIPPLES – myself included – are full time researchers, and questioned the benefit of withdrawing our labour.

As a researcher I’m not sure the impact that withholding my labour has on the university, as ultimately I will still deliver the research for the project and so the university will receive its funding.  As a result, I have done a small amount of research work while I’ve been on strike, which I have felt very uncomfortable and conflicted about, but ultimately decided it needed doing to fully value the contribution of participants’ time.

I feel the same: as a full time researcher, the main person impacted by my absence is me. I did ask myself whether there was any point to striking at all, but I decided it felt like the right thing to do, and if anything, there is strength in numbers. This was somewhat of a luxury position though, there is a bit of flexibility regarding my work and upcoming deadlines, and with a line manager and collaborators who are also on strike, I feel I work in an environment where my decision is supported.

With these considerations in mind, I asked the others if they thought strike action is the most appropriate form of action? On the one hand, many felt that withdrawing one’s labour is pretty much the only position of power that employees have. On the other hand, while going on strike is presumably never an easy decision, early career academics face a number of particular challenges when deciding whether or not to strike, as they are more likely to be in lower-paid and/or more precarious positions:

In my part-time staff role, I am currently at “risk of redundancy” as my fixed term contract ends in four months.

The whole thing is complicated by my contractual situation. I currently have two part-time contracts: A 1 day/week research contract with a striking institution, and a 3 day/week teaching contract with a non-striking institution. So my teaching must go ahead as planned, even though it contributes to an MSc course for a striking institution. Crossing a picket line for a strike that I support is a horrible feeling and I will strike on my research day (Friday) in the final week if the action is still ongoing by that stage. 

As a fixed term researcher, with primary data collection in full swing, I feel I need to keep working just now to keep my project going. So my options are to ‘strike’ but keep working – effectively work for free; or ‘really’ strike, jeopardise my project, and therefore my future job prospects… neither seem great. So I’m working from home to avoid physically crossing picket lines, feeling awkward about being a protest free-rider, and wondering what else I could do.

So, what else can we do?

  1. Make sure junior colleagues are aware of the UCU Fighting Fund and any local Hardship Funds. Claims for strike pay from those on low pays and insecure contracts are prioritised, so that loss of pay alone should not be a barrier to taking action.
  2. Speak out and organise against the much wider trend of casualisation in academia. Having members of staff at the start of their career decide they cannot strike because they cannot afford to lose the pay or because they are worried about their job prospects is not right. These are symptoms of a broader issue with casualisation and precarity in academia and beyond: having people regularly working unpaid on days off and with no prospect of job security any time soon is not right either. Oh, and don’t just leave it up to those early in their career to organise against this. There is a great argument here about why senior colleagues should join the fight against casualisation too.
  3. Speak to junior colleagues about taking industrial action, what it means, and the implications. Remember: many of us have potentially never been on strike before, it can be a somewhat daunting prospect. If you are a senior academic, especially if you are managing junior colleagues or PhD students who teach on your course, remember you are likely to be not just a manager, but also a mentor, you can help make the process of taking action less daunting.
  4. Use the proposed ‘freedom’ and ‘flexibility’ of a defined contribution pension scheme against the USS. One option might be to withdraw from making any further contributions into USS, with an open letter telling them why. There are plenty of other defined contribution type private pensions out there, many with ‘ethical’ investment options. Perhaps this is the neoliberalisation of protest – treating everything as shopping; but it might ‘hit them where it hurts’ more effectively than me working for free?

Looking across borders – the recent rise of the Dutch Green Party

by Bregje van Veelen

Looking across borders – the recent rise of the Dutch Green Party

Although we’re a network of mostly UK-based researchers, we like to keep an eye on what else is happening in the world. This month: a closer look at the recent rise of the Dutch Green party.

Image result for groenlinks

A week before the parliamentary elections on 15 March the Dutch Green Party (GroenLinks – GreenLeft) arranged an election hustings in a concert hall in Amsterdam – 5,000 people attended. As many followed the event online. The following week the party won 14 seats: a significant increase from the four seats it held during the previous parliamentary term. While still only the 5th largest party (out of 13) in the 150-seat Dutch parliament it was the best ever national electoral performance for the party. It also looks likely that the Greens will be part of the governing coalition. That’s right, 6 weeks after the election there is still no government – they like to take their time to form a coalition in the Netherlands.

So what  helped the Green party do so well and does this mean the Netherlands is now a country of environmentalists?

“What makes the Green party so sexy?”

It’s difficult to imagine this question being asked about the Scottish Green Party or the Green Party of England and Wales, but it does reflect the current image of the Dutch Greens: suddenly the party has moved away from its ‘geitenwollensokken’(1) image and has become trendy. This is not least because of the party’s new, popular, young, Justin Trudeau look-a-like leader Jesse Klaver. Klaver is a youthful 30 years old and it is perhaps not surprising that the party is currently polling particularly well among the 25-34 age group. The party’s message is one of sustainability, Europe and focused on the future, the antithesis of the right-wing PvV (Freedom Party) led by Geert Wilders. Some have attributed Klaver’s popularity to his hopeful message. Highly-educated young people (among whom the Green Party does particularly well) feel like they have grown up in a world of cynicism and negativity, but do not personally tend to see globalisation or migration as a threat. They are young enough to not be overly concerned about mortgages and pensions but are concerned about issues such as inequality and the environment. Plus, they’re sufficiently optimistic that a better world is possible, and want to contribute to that.

But surely, everyone in the Netherlands is an environmentalist anyway, otherwise you’d be under water?

No, not really. Perhaps influenced by images of millions of cyclists, people are sometimes quick to assume that the Netherlands is at the forefront of radical environmental policy. Whilst there are indeed more bicycles than people, the country does not perform as well in other areas. It is performing poorly on renewable energy, and currently it looks like the Government will miss the 2020 targets. The Dutch target is for 14% of all energy to be produced by renewable sources by 2020 (which in itself is already lower than the 16% European average target). Last year it managed to achieve just half of that (7%).

With the Green Party (possibly) in government, is the Netherlands is going to lead the way on climate action from now on? 

Again, probably not. Dutch political culture is known as the ‘polder model’, a consensus-based approach to decision-making. The approach partly stems from the proportional representation electoral system which favours collaboration over adversary. Coalition governments are the norm: all governments in the last 100 years have been collaborations between two to five political parties. In environmental decision-making the consensus-based model has also been extended beyond the realm of political parties, bringing other stakeholders into the decision-making process. For example, the 2013 Energy Agreement, which sets out energy policy until 2023, was developed through a collaborative process, including 47 stakeholders ranging from Shell to environmental NGOs. While this means that the Agreement has a broad support base and have therefore perhaps a higher rate of success, it also means that any decisions are supported by incumbent interests and thus are unlikely to be very radical in nature. The new government, if they manage to form a coalition, will consist of the Green Party, D66 (comparable to the British Liberal Democrats) and the centre-right VVD and CDA parties. While the VVD tried to project a ‘Green Conservatives’-like image during the election campaign, it’s policy record from the last four year shows little evidence of any transformational environmental policies. While a government including the Green Party and D66 will be somewhat more environmentally-inclined, few think it will deliver radical change.

What about local action? Are communities going to lead the way?

As in the UK, there has been a lot of talk in recent years of a move towards a more participatory society, where people are expected to take on roles and duties that may have previously been delivered by governments. One fundamental difference with the UK is the number and relative strength of local authorities. There are 388 of them, which is almost identical to the UK’s 391 local authorities, but covering a much smaller area and population. The largest local authority in the UK is Highland council, covering 25,657km2, more than 55 times the size of the largest Dutch local authority. Dutch local control and decision-making powers than their UK counterparts. And a number of them are implementing more radical environmental measures than the Dutch Government is. Some of the larger cities are taking the lead with innovative projects, trying to ‘outgreen’ each other. In smaller places there has been a real growth in collaborative projects between authorities and community groups, which does not appear to be as common in the UK. Of course not all environmental action is collaborative and cooperative in nature. In 2015 a group of Dutch citizens took the government to court for not doing enough on climate change, and won. The state has appealed the decision, but if upheld, then it will force the government to implement more radical change.

At the moment it therefore looks that despite the electoral success of the Green party, it might be citizens and lower levels of government who’ll be leading the way on climate change.



(1)  Geitenwollensokken drager. Literal translation: someone who wears socks made of goats’ wool. Meaning: a tree-hugger.

Image credentials: the local Schouwen-Duivenland GroenLinks branch,