Connecting energy policy and academia in practice: reflections on one year at the Energy Saving Trust

By Max Lacey-Barnacle, University of Sussex

After moving from academia into policy work after completing my PhD, my time at the Energy Saving Trust (EST) as a Policy Officer has been nothing short of fascinating, working primarily on EST’s three core policy areas; energy efficiency; community energy and low-carbon transport. Needless to say my knowledge of the research-policy interface has greatly expanded.

I have had numerous exciting opportunities to travel across the UK and Europe to meet with civil servants, policymakers and researchers all working to address core energy and climate policy challenges.

In addition, I’ve been able to work closely on fuel poverty and low-carbon transport policy with Welsh government, whilst also devoting time towards a Horizon 2020 project focused on energy efficiency (‘ENSMOV’) and the role of European energy agencies in the EU’s low-carbon transition through the European Energy Network.

The passion, commitment and intelligence of the individuals and organisations I’ve been involved with has been immensely inspiring in the face of the worsening global climate crisis. Moreover, I have learned (and still have much to learn) from the brilliant staff at the EST and their dedication to tackling climate change.

After my year at EST, I’m transitioning to a Research Fellow role in the innovative FAIR project – which is investigating the links between fuel and transport poverty in the UK’s energy transition. The research project will seek to understand how low-carbon energy transition processes may exacerbate and/or alleviate these forms of inequality, alongside understanding the geographical nature of how these two forms of inequality overlap.

Acclimatising to policy

Coming from the academic world of researching, writing and publishing original work, the change of pace was one of the first challenges I had to acclimatise to when confronted with navigating the policy world. Policy certainly moves at a much faster pace than academia. Indeed; having to keep up with the dynamic changes of government policy at multiple levels of governance (e.g. local, regional, devolved and national) requires a keen eye for how multi-level policy shifts influence the shape and trajectory of the low-carbon economy.

Seeing a temporal disparity between the two worlds of academia and policy led me to ask; how can the policy world be influenced by the academic world, when critical changes occur and core outputs emerge at such different paces and timescales?

Getting original research published in academic journals can take anywhere from 3 months to 2 years, whilst policy outputs such as blogs or briefings – or even consultation responses to influence policy – can sometimes take just a matter of weeks. However, in spite of this disparity, it’s clear that both worlds ‘speak’ to each other and this is evidenced through increasing engagement with concerns around the links between social inequality and climate change policy responses.

Areas of convergence between academia and policy

Issues such as ‘energy poverty’ and concepts such as ‘energy justice’ and a ‘Just Transition’ have begun to take centre stage in the policy world, whilst academics have arguably been writing about these concepts for many years. This year alone we have seen the European Green Deal integrate energy poverty concerns and a ‘Just Transition’ mechanism into its future plans, whilst the steady emergence of Just Transition commissions across the world demonstrates the importance of continued academic and policy engagement in how low-carbon transitions are governed and managed.

Being familiar with these concepts, I have sought to integrate these ideas into many aspects of my policy work at the EST. What stood out the most during my time there, was the willingness of the devolved governments to embrace the critical work and ideas of academics, potentially more so than the UK government. For example, both the Welsh and Scottish governments seem to show more progressive attitudes towards tackling climate change and social inequality together e.g. via innovative Welsh legislation (Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015) and Scottish legislation (Fuel Poverty (Scotland) Act 2019). Additionally, Scotland has already established a Just Transition commission and Wales has announced intentions to set up a ‘Climate Justice Advisory Group’ that would perform broadly similar functions – monitoring the economic and social impacts of decommissioning fossil fuel power plants and what this means for fossil fuel industry workers. Currently, there are no equivalents in England, Northern Ireland and at the UK level.

The contribution of social science to energy and climate policy

Connecting these research-policy interactions forced me to think broadly about what social science research intends to achieve when analysing policy; do social scientists want to influence new policies or critically deconstruct the performance of existing ones? Is it possible to successfully do both? In many ways, the ultimate aim is to do both, particularly for policy oriented researchers.

However, one of the core goals of academic research is to shed new light on areas that have been neglected or ill considered. While academics may not see the immediate impact of their research on unexplored policy areas, patience may be a virtue if long-terms trends give rise to a renewed focus on their chosen area of research.

In addition, social scientists rightly feel compelled to highlight the potential exacerbation of social inequality by various policy responses to climate change and to ask such challenging questions in new contexts. For example, academic work on fuel poverty and ‘transport poverty’ shows a strong involvement of academics and researchers in policy on the fuel poverty side and less so on the transport side. This is because the idea of transport poverty is a particularly novel idea in UK policy.

There is therefore room to expand the concept of transport poverty and issues of social equity in low-carbon transport innovations, however, it will be some time before such as concept becomes the ‘norm’ within mainstream policy discourse.

Whilst my year working in policy has shown me that the diffusion of such concepts into policy takes time, it is comforting to know that these ideas are not falling on deaf ears – particularly in Wales and Scotland. As policy responses simultaneously addressing issues of social inequality and climate change intensify, policymakers will increasingly be forced to listen.



Applied energy justice: the growing importance of intermediary organisations

by Max Lacey-Barnacle

Back in 2017, I was thrilled to discover that my abstract was accepted by the prestigious journal Applied Energy for a special issue on Energy justice and low-carbon energy systems’. From what I gather getting accepted was no easy feat. Over 250 abstracts were submitted from across the world, with the special issue boiled down to just 19 papers.

This was my first outing as lead author on an academic paper and initially I found it peculiar that some of my PhD research findings could be published in a leading science journal. However, such is the nature of contemporary academic interdisciplinarity and the increasingly dynamic interactions within energy and social science research. Those of us studying energy transitions from social science perspectives (many within RIPPLES!) see a fundamental need for this interdisciplinarity. For many social scientists, interdisciplinary publications provide a great opportunity to put vital social concerns and impacts centre stage. Indeed, that was certainly a core concern of the paper!

Bringing us back into 2018, myself and my excellent co-author Caroline Bird at the University of Bristol finally had our paper published in May. This followed a year of collaboration, 6 months of waiting for peer review and 2 months of editing. Our paper, Intermediating energy justice? The role of intermediaries in the civic energy sector in a time of austerity draws on my own primary data derived from my PhD, alongside an embedded activist researcher perspective from Caroline.

Our aim was to use the three core tenets of energy justice – procedural, distributional and recognition justice – to make sense of how intermediary organisations are working to create a more ‘just’ civic energy sector in Bristol, defining intermediaries as ‘organisations performing core supportive functions between actors, helping to bring different organisations, initiatives and actors together […] supporting shared goals and outcomes and facilitating information flows’. We saw that a range of actors – from local government, community energy co-operatives and local energy networks – needed to be addressed within our analysis, and we settled on the notion of a ‘civic energy sector’. In our view, this sufficiently captured the variety of local energy actors within our paper. Together, we looked closely at local energy activity in the city of Bristol and the various efforts that are being made by local actors to contribute towards making the civic energy sector more inclusive, accessible and socially just.

Core findings

We found that the context of austerity was crucial to understanding attempts by local energy schemes to localise wealth creation and the economic benefits of low-carbon transitions. One main finding was that intermediary organisations in Bristol facilitated and supported local energy schemes which sought to localise low-carbon energy initiatives as a new economic activity.

We also found that these new forms of local and decentralised energy activity (i.e. community solar or city-led energy efficiency grants) offer multiple opportunities for community engagement and involvement, in contrast to other energy infrastructure schemes such as large-scale offshore wind farms or centralised nuclear power plants. One key point we make is that this new local activity can help advance energy justice into policy and action on the ground by bringing energy and social concerns closer to home.

Energy justice and local energy networks

Our findings emphasise the need for a deeper integration of energy justice principles into local energy networks. Seeing that the local energy sector is growing, we focus on the need to create a ‘commonly understood framework’ of energy justice for a range of actors and sectors, factoring in a mix of academics, policymakers and practitioners. A shared understanding of justice principles, or indeed wider principles of a ‘just transition’, can highlight inequalities and social concerns arising from low-carbon transitions at the local level.

Intermediaries and energy justice

We found that intermediaries were helping to ‘open up’ low-carbon transitions to low-income communities. This finding has proved timely. For example:

  • A report released in April 2018 by the Centre for Sustainable Energy ‘Bringing local energy benefits to deprived communities’, for example, notes the crucial role of intermediaries in reaching out to marginalised communities in its conclusion;
  • Recent research on community renewables in Indonesia highlights the critical role of intermediary organisations in ‘Empowering Communities’, with particular reference to facilitating community ownership of new renewables schemes and enhancing technical, entrepreneurial and managerial capacities;
  • The most recent collaborative paper by RIPPLES acknowledges the vital role of intermediaries in facilitating interactions between a variety of local energy actors to support increased growth in the sector. It calls for further research on intermediaries to enhance our understanding of their future potential for widening inclusion and addressing key justice concerns.

Looking forward

Given this growing research interest, we may be seeing the beginning of a new, broader research agenda addressing the critical role of intermediary organisations. This agenda could address how intermediaries may help local low-carbon energy schemes form a much greater part of the energy mix in future energy systems, whilst also looking at how they can ‘open up’ these energy schemes to previously excluded actors and communities.

This also means that energy justice scholars may want to focus greater attention on the potential of intermediary organisations to address some of their core concerns. This is particularly true in contexts where intermediaries are absolutely vital for enabling and facilitating local involvement in energy transitions, especially when it comes to engaging with the people and communities that lack the capacity to initiate or sustain involvement on their own.