Debating energy futures on Lewis: Energy transitions, emergent politics, and the question of the commons

By Dr Annabel Pinker, James Hutton Institute

It is widely accepted that we are in the midst of an energy revolution, transitioning from carbon-based fuels to renewable and increasingly decentralised forms of energy production. But does this entail a new politics as well? How do new renewable energy schemes reconfigure existing arrangements of power, technology, infrastructure, expertise and everyday life, and what sorts of emergent politics do these changes imply?

These questions, partly inspired by the work of Timothy Mitchell (2011) on the role of fossil fuels in shaping political life, were some of the initial framings that guided a Leverhulme-funded research fellowship on energy transition in Scotland I began in 2015. Two years later, they led me to begin around a year of ethnographic fieldwork on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis, where concerns over the form that energy transition should take are particularly acute.

In what follows I first want to tell a story – as briefly as possible given its complexities – about the fault lines over Lewis’ energy futures made visible through an ongoing controversy over plans to build the island’s first large-scale windfarms.  I’ll then wrap up with a few thoughts about some of the larger questions around energy transition raised by what is unfolding on Lewis.

The Stornoway windfarm and the ‘Gang of Four’

At the time I first arrived on Lewis, in the Autumn of 2017, a heated debate was underway around one of the proposed windfarms in particular. Lewis Wind Power (LWP) – a consortium made up of EDF; the Stornoway Trust (Scotland’s oldest and largest community landowner); and Wood Group (a multinational company specialising in energy infrastructures) – was planning to build a 36-turbine, 180-megawatt development on common grazings land belonging to the Stornoway Trust estate.

Four crofting communities that exercise use rights over the land proposed for development were opposing the scheme. They argued that community land should be used to build community-owned windfarms, not windfarms owned by large multinational corporations, on the grounds that the former are of greater benefit to local people. This ‘Gang of Four’ – as some of their supporters fondly refer to them – planned to contest the Lewis Wind Power scheme via three principal means:

  • Firstly, they aimed to use Section 19A of the crofting act to register their objections to the Stornoway windfarm;
  • Secondly, they intended to use Section 50B – which had never been used before – to gain new rights to develop their own wind farms on common grazings land;
  • Thirdly, they intended to seek planning permission to build four wind energy projects on the site already pegged for the Stornoway windfarm.

I was intrigued. I had never heard of such a determined and multi-pronged response – deploying legal, political and technical tools – to a proposed windfarm development in the UK. Except perhaps on Lewis – where plans to build what would at the time have been Europe’s largest windfarm on Barvas Moor, to the north of the island, were rejected by the Scottish Government in 2008, after sustained opposition from local people, external supporters and some NGOs.

It seemed that some on Lewis did not necessarily regard wind energy projects as a panacea to fossil fuel use, as they are so often cast by governmental and dominant environmental narratives. There was little doubt amongst windfarm opponents that commercial wind energy infrastructures could be as tied up with extractivist logics as any oil-rig.

On the other hand, Lewis is no stranger to extractivism; a significant proportion of its workforce sustain livelihoods (and crofts) on the island by virtue of offshore contracts in the North Sea. The question of how to transition to low-carbon energy arrangements thus appeared no simpler or less contested on the island of Lewis than it is anywhere else.

If anything, the particular density of connections between different aspects of life on Lewis (grid infrastructures, political networks, religion, everyday practices, land) – linked partly to its being an island – seemed to make all the more visible the multi-layered and highly ambivalent implications of crafting alternative energy futures.


A tale of two interconnectors

Much of the contestation around the Stornoway windfarm, and the future of wind energy on Lewis more generally, revolves around the weighty question of the interconnector, the undersea cable that transports electricity between Lewis and the mainland.

The Stornoway scheme is not the only windfarm planned for Lewis. Proposals for two other windfarms on the island – a 48-megawatt development planned in Tolsta, to the north of Stornoway, and the 162-megawatt Eishken scheme in the Lochs area have recently been granted planning permission. In all three cases, developers have applied for planning permission to increase the windfarms’ installed capacity.

The planned windfarms are all designed to export the electricity they generate to the mainland. However, the current interconnector, which passes between the islands of Harris (to the south of Lewis) and Skye, has reached its full capacity (around 20 megawatts).

Given the substantial increase in generation that would be introduced by the proposed windfarms, Ofgem (the UK’s energy regulator) tentatively approved plans to install a new interconnector with the capacity to carry some 450 megawatts of electricity between Stornoway and the mainland earlier this year.

But the approval came with a caveat: the costs of building the new interconnector could only be justified if sufficient energy production could be guaranteed on Lewis. This would mean that both the Stornoway and Eishken windfarms would need to win the Contract for Difference (CFD) auctions, the Government’s subsidy mechanism for supporting low-carbon electricity generation, which would enable them to go ahead to construction.

This September, there was a surprising twist in the long-running tale of the Stornoway windfarm. It was reported that whilst the Tolsta and Eishken schemes had both been awarded subsidies, the Stornoway development had failed in its bid.

Given that the Stornoway windfarm is highly unlikely to go ahead without a CFD subsidy, the proposed construction of a new subsea interconnector has been thrown into doubt.

The promise of a new interconnector

Despite the Stornoway windfarm’s failure to win a CFD subsidy, many – including the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (the Western Isles Council) – continue to see the construction of a new interconnector (and the commercial windfarms that would come with it) as a crucial lynchpin of Lewis’ economic future. Until now, they have regarded the existing commercial proposals for energy generation as the most reliable means of pursuing this goal.

If both the Eishken and Stornoway windfarms were constructed, the Council and the Stornoway Trust would – if they had the resources to invest – garner a reliable source of income over the 25-year life of the schemes. In 2018, Lewis Wind Power offered the Council a 30% share in the Eishken windfarm (which Lewis Wind Power has since returned to the landowner as they did not feel it was a viable development for them; it is not clear whether this agreement remains in place with the new developer) and the Stornoway Trust a 20% share in the Stornoway windfarm.

The Council and the Stornoway Trust also point out that a new 450 (the case has been made for 600) megawatt interconnector would have enough surplus capacity to permit the installation of a number of smaller wind energy schemes. Some have proposed that these could potentially be developed by a group of the island’s community landowners and development trusts, of which some already manage highly successful renewable energy schemes.

The promise of energy self-sufficiency on Lewis

By contrast with the above position, there are some that argue that the Stornoway windfarm’s failure to secure a subsidy could be seen as an opportunity, pointing out that if no new interconnector is built, there is potential for crafting an altogether different approach to energy generation on the island. Where a subsea cable would carry electricity generated on Lewis for mainland consumption, the argument goes, its absence could open up possibilities for islanders to seek ways of increasing energy demand and storage in situ.

Islanders often point out that energy prices on Lewis are disproportionately high by comparison with the mainland. Some ask why electricity generated by current and future island windfarms shouldn’t be used by residents and businesses based on Lewis, rather than distant consumers – and not only for light, but for heat too.

In this view, limited connectedness with the mainland is regarded not as a loss, but rather as a means of stimulating more connectivity on Lewis – not only in terms of developing new grid and energy generation infrastructure, but also in terms of constituting and revivifying new and existing forms of collective life.

A hybrid approach to energy generation

Others (including members of the four crofting communities who are contesting the Stornoway windfarm) tend to espouse a middle way. They are keen to use any means of establishing more community-owned energy installations on the island – including by exporting electricity through an upgraded and larger version of the Skye interconnector.

Their key concern is that windfarms built on the island should be owned not by multinational corporations, such as EDF, but by local people, who would reap financial rewards far greater than the amount commercial developers typically make available to localities in the form of community benefit.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky prospect, they argue, pointing out that many community landowners and development trusts on Lewis have successfully installed large-scale wind turbines in order to support community projects. Amongst these, Point and Sandwick’s 9-megawatt windfarm, Beinn Ghrideag, remains the largest community-owned wind energy scheme in the UK.

Powering the opposition to the Stornoway windfarm

Point and Sandwick’s example has served as a key source of inspiration for the four grazings committees not only in opposing the Stornoway windfarm via the Scottish Land Court, but also in putting together (and submitting for planning permission) their own wind energy projects for the same site Lewis Wind Power seeks to develop.

Wind energy consultants working on these projects declared to me last year that they had never before heard of two separate projects submitted for planning permission by two separate developers for the same site in close succession. One of the arguments made against the crofters taking forward a project of this kind is that they do not have the capacity or experience to do so. Part of the crofters’ aim in developing their schemes is to demonstrate that this view is mistaken.

A similar observation might be made of the crofters’ legal struggles. On July 17th 2019 the Scottish Land Court handed down a judgement rejecting the appeals of the four grazings committees against the Crofting Commission’s refusal to grant them permission to build turbines on the common grazings (via 50B of the Crofting Act) – in large part because their proposals were considered detrimental to the Stornoway Trust’s existing plans to build a windfarm on the site.

The process is not over yet. There are suggestions that – if necessary – the crofters may seek to take their case regarding their right to install turbines on the Lewis Wind Power site to Scotland’s Court of Session. Meanwhile, a further land court hearing regarding Lewis Wind Power’s application to build the windfarm could be held in Stornoway early next year. Whilst the crofters’ attempts to oppose the scheme have thus far not borne fruit in legal terms, they and others point to the ambitious precedent they are setting in mobilising crofting law as they have done.


A few reflections

The multiple legal, political, technical and material entanglements implied by the dynamics surrounding the Stornoway windfarm are already fairly evident in the broad brushstrokes of the case I’ve given above (for those interested in learning more about the issues at stake, see Malcolm Combe’s excellent blog post on the legal ins and outs of the case, and Kate Laing’s detailed reporting on behalf of the crofters’ cause). Many points could be unpacked from them. But I’ll limit myself to three:

  1. Debates about energy futures are highly political

The issues thrown up by the installation of renewable energy infrastructures are never narrowly technical, despite the claims of policy documents, developers and others. They are also highly political, in that the various proposals made for organising energy production on Lewis imply different imaginaries of the future – and with them different arrangements of power, expertise, and collectivity.

  1. Renewable energy infrastructures open up questions around land, what it’s for, and who owns it

Debates about energy infrastructures tend to be closely tied up – directly or otherwise – with debates over land, what it’s for, and who should control it. This is markedly so on Lewis, where it is the crofting system that has enabled the ‘Gang of Four’ to contest the Stornoway scheme. Without it – as one of my research participants put it – the Stornoway Trust could have gone ahead with its windfarm project unopposed and the crofters would not have been able to lay any claim to the development site or propose their own uses for it.

However, even as crofting has provided the framework for the communities’ legal and political campaign, members of the ‘Gang of Four’ and some of their supporters acknowledged that the construction of large-scale wind energy projects on common grazings land could lead to the commodification of land and the crofting system.

Some in fact have made the case for transforming common grazings from crofting land (since only a small minority of Lewis residents continue to graze sheep beyond their own crofts) into common land, with multiple potential uses – including the construction of infrastructure, such as turbines and housing.

Thus, debates about energy futures are woven into ongoing conversations about the future of land and crofting on the island.

  1. The decentralisation of energy may contribute to the decentralisation of power relations

Renewable energy infrastructures have the potential to expose, disrupt and rework existing power relations. This is already manifestly the case on Lewis where, since the 1923 formation of the community-owned Stornoway Trust to manage land gifted by Lord Leverhulme, and the spate of land buyouts on the island from the late 1990s onwards, some 70% of its land mass is now in community ownership.

A high proportion of these buyouts were facilitated – at least in part – by the promise that wind energy schemes, subsidised by generous government feed-in-tariffs in existence at the time, could become a vital source of income for nascent community landowning trusts. A number of trusts on Lewis (both those that own land and those that don’t), buoyed by funds particularly from renewable energy infrastructures they have installed, are now coming into their own as drivers of local development.

This process is in turn slowly beginning to shape existing institutional and power dynamics on the island, which have tended to revolve around the joint activities of the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), the NHS, the Crofting Commission, and the development agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

A similar process is underway with respect to the four grazings committees that have been opposing the Lewis Wind Power scheme. The inspiration and support of existing community energy developers have enabled them to fight a case (with the aid of top-flight legal representation) that is opening up and reworking the politics around how land is used and who decides over its use in an era of transition.

Wind has always proved disruptive on Lewis. Anyone on the island who remembers the uproar over the Barvas Moor windfarm and the hurricane of 2015 could tell you that. What is new now is that wind power is being harnessed in locally-scaled ways, by community trusts and crofting groups, with effects that are helping to shape debates around the sorts of troubling question that are being asked in many other places – but as they manifest on Lewis.

Questions such as: What does community look like and how can it be sustained in lively and dynamic ways at a time when many declare that what has in the past been its central fulcrum – crofting – is dying out? In these times of austerity and the existential threat of climate change, how, by whom, and for what purposes should land be managed? What kinds of future are generative and sustaining for humans and non-humans alike, and how far can they be achieved through existing institutions and configurations of power?

On Lewis, wind energy is undoubtedly playing a role in opening up new political spaces through which to debate such questions.

Shaping energy markets through community energy policy

By Will Eadson and Mike Foden

“If you see Sid… tell him!” So went the tagline to the 1986 government advertising campaign for shares in the previously nationalised British Gas: the first step in the privatisation and attempted marketisation of UK energy supply. Three decades later this inescapably political project remains incomplete.

Energy systems are beset by persistent market failures as well as negative social and environmental ‘externalities’. In short, the imagined ‘self-regulating’ market has not materialised. Consequently governments continue to play a central role in both creating and regulating energy markets. This presents a dilemma in countries like the UK, where an ideological commitment to deregulation is confronted by a social responsibility (and electoral imperative) to mitigate the market’s worst effects on people and the planet.

One response has been to enrol other actors and technologies to implement and enact governance at arms’ length. This has notably included making use of ‘community’ across multiple policy domains, including energy.

Using communities to shape energy markets

Our recent article in Geoforum explores just this: how the UK government has sought to use communities to shape energy markets. The article follows two interests: in why, despite 30 years of concerted effort, energy has resisted attempts at marketisation; and, more broadly, in how governments mobilise others to enact national policy.

Our focus was the development and implementation of policies within the UK government’s Community Energy Strategy. We adopted a strategy of ‘zooming in’ on different points within the process, from the development of the strategy itself to the impact of policies on the community energy sector as a whole, on local projects, and finally on the cultivation of energy consumers through community-led projects.

Across each of these sites of intervention it was striking how market imperatives repeatedly came into tension with a range of other logics of action, often just as potent as the governmental desire to marketise energy. The resulting negotiation between market and non-markets logics played out in different ways, but it was consistently observed at multiple sites of focus: we call this a ‘fractal double-movement’, drawing from Karl Polanyi’s classic analysis of the continual interplay between efforts to build a market society and counteracting pressures to ensure social protection.

This approach allowed us to re-appraise seemingly linear attempts to marketise energy: for instance even during the policy making process, we found that both market and non-market logics were advanced within and outside government and the civil service. As such, market/beyond-market pressures cannot be straightforwardly read-off as ‘large companies’ versus ‘civil society’ or ‘state’ versus ‘community’.

Looking at the community energy sector we explored how various market instruments like feed-in-tariffs had shaped the dominant modes of ‘doing’ community energy, with perceptions that there was a shift in focus towards financial returns and less focus on community development. But at the same time feed-in-tariffs and the resultant growth in finance options for community energy had also provided opportunities for community energy projects to subvert or reappropriate market forces in order to meet environmentally and socially oriented goals.

Moving our attention to two specific, community-facing programmes designed to encourage better market engagement among energy users, we found a similarly conflicted story.

One of these schemes focused on collective switching – a kind of bulk-buying club for energy tariffs – with the rationale being that bringing together large numbers of energy users would encourage energy suppliers to offer reduced tariffs. However, appeals to market choice failed to entice energy users to switch supplier, with evidence even suggesting that the more choice energy users had, the less likely they were to act; meanwhile energy companies failed to offer market leading prices.

Yet at the same time, the (primarily) socially-focused local authorities and community groups delivering these market-oriented programmes were able to harness them to achieve their own ends. For instance funding helped local organisations get a “foot in the door” (research participant) to pursue wider and longer-term goals from tackling poverty to carbon reduction, lacking funds to address these concerns directly.

Further, particular governmental priorities were utilised as leverage within organisations to negotiate internal politics: just as national governments rarely speak with one voice, nor do local state/non-state actors. As one representative from a community organisation explained, “I was always saying we need to get projects on energy and everyone was a bit ‘yeah why?’, but now it’s become a real topic.”

Why does this all matter? Well, we think that our research has highlighted three things:

  1. The continual work required to create functioning energy markets and different ways that energy’s specific materialities and social history make it resistant to marketisation; in particular some of the more low-profile work involved in maintaining this vision.
  2. That the work of making energy markets is political. Our analysis reveals contestation between pro-market and pro-social logics recurring at different levels of focus: not just in the arena of formal politics or between state and commercial entities, but within sectors, within organisations, even down to the conflicted priorities of individual actors. Although policy is often treated as an object resulting from strategic decision-making by elite actors, we have highlighted its continuing contestation and negotiation.
  3. That using communities to socially embed energy markets is interesting as a strategy because it simultaneously marketises/disembeds community energy. Community has been deployed to escape the dilemma of needing to intervene without being seen to intervene. While avoiding the overt political confrontation of (for example) directly regulating energy companies, this form of indirect, diffuse intervention through communities instead created a dispersed and devolved set of micro-tensions at different points within the energy system, to be managed locally.

Read our article in full here: Eadson, W. and Foden, M. (2019) State, community and the negotiated construction of energy markets: Community energy policy in England. Geoforum, (100), p21-31. Open access and available online at:

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!)



by Mike Foden

Way back at the beginning of January I took a brief pause from the day job for what has fast become the traditional RIPPLES new year get-together (episode IV). After previous meetups in Edinburgh, Sheffield and Stirling, this time it was the turn of Tim Braunholtz-Speight and his colleagues at Tyndall Manchester to kindly host us.

As in previous years, we started by sharing our experiences of the past 12 months and the various successes and challenges that it brought. Tim then led us in a lively mini-workshop on the future of community energy, drawing on his ongoing work at Tyndall. We talked about our own individual and collective plans for the year ahead, from funding bids and job applications to conference sessions and writing projects. We ate, drank and laughed together, and were even welcomed along to the Tyndall institution that is Falafel Friday, which frankly every workplace should replicate.

Towards the end of proceedings, after spending the best part of 24 hours in each other’s company, we tend to turn to the existential question: what is RIPPLES for? This year was no different. Does our little community still serve the purpose it did three years ago when a bunch of like-minded, largely unpublished postgraduate students and early career researchers got together for solidarity, mutual support and to explore opportunities to think and write together?

Instrumentally there has been much to celebrate in our work together. For example, 2018 saw the publication of not one but two co-authored papers on the roles of community in sustainability transitions, together drawing on the combined experience and expertise of 11 (eleven!) RIPPLES members. Other pieces of collaborative writing remain in progress (watch this space!).

But for me there’s something much more important. Clearly, we are immensely privileged, and as critical social scientists this should never be far from the forefront of our minds. But at a career stage and in a sector that feels increasingly fraught, where academics (and everyone else) are asked to do more with less, when students are paying more but available resources seem to be diminishing, and above all where success in employment, job security and career progression often pits us against our closest colleagues and friends, many of us are battling physical and/or mental ill-health.

For me, and I hope for others, RIPPLES means respite. A few times a year, whether at an organised meetup or coming together in the course of our respective work, we get to create our own space that (while far from perfect) feels different, where we can celebrate with and support each other, hatch plans, ask provocative questions in a not-too-threatening environment, and laugh.

In a year when some of us had our first taste of successful (albeit challenging) industrial action, the value-yet-hard-work of solidarity is clear to see. Here’s to the year ahead and creating those spaces however, wherever and whenever we get the chance.

A brighter long term future for community energy in the UK?

by Tim Braunholtz-Speight

Despite the short term crisis in UK community energy, the changing energy system may offer new opportunities for greater citizen participation in the longer term. This blog outlines some of these, and introduces my project’s ongoing work looking to the future of community energy.

Looking long term

Since the 2015-16 cuts to the renewable energy Feed-In Tariff (FITS) and other support mechanisms, times have been tough in the UK’s community energy sector. Many new or smaller groups have seen their projects stall; a few established organisations are building what they can while FITS still exists; everyone is busy trying to work out what to do next.

Step back and look longer term, however, and the picture is different. Energy folk talk about a future of decentralised renewable generation, and a much greater focus on ‘consumers’ – or should that simply be ‘citizens’ – as active players in the energy system. Surely that’s what community energy is all about?

So the UKERC Financing Community Energy research project that I work on is moving from studying the sector as it is now, to putting together a positive vision of the long term future for UK community energy. We want to make a vision that combines practical realism with inspiration and a sense of possibility. To do this we’re looking at what the future business models of community energy could be – in other words, what will community energy groups do, who for, and how will they organise themselves and obtain the resources they need to do it?

One future: community energy – community data?

As a step in this work, I and colleagues attended the BIEE biennial research conference ‘Consumers at the heart of the energy system?’ in September, where one of the big themes was smart energy systems and data.

What’s the connection? Well, if we are to rely more on renewable electricity, whose generation is ‘intermittent’ i.e. it can’t be totally controlled or predicted, then the ‘consumption’ of electricity has to be more flexible to match. The ability to deliver this matching becomes more and more significant. This can be done through having lots of gas-powered capacity on standby (the present day); through batteries; or through being able to get households and businesses to shift their patterns of energy use. Understanding and managing consumer demand patterns is where the big data comes in. And with a shift to electric transport expected to increase household electricity demand substantially, this is a big deal.

Some energy companies seem to think their business will become as much about data, as about energy. But with various data scandals on everyone’s minds, is there a role for community energy in being the trusted managers of this data – capturing the financial value of demand management and flexibility, and ensuring the digital divide doesn’t become an energy divide too?

‘Community’ can be a double-edged thing, of course – one person’s ‘support network’ is someone else’s ‘nosy neighbour’. Research by Emilia Melville and others notes that privacy concerns are indeed keenly felt by participants in one local energy management trial. But they also find that there is appetite for local action too, and that it’s quite possible to design data systems to protect individual privacy.

And it needn’t stop at energy. The same cables that link up smart meters can also be used to carry broadband, for example; the town of Summerside in Canada is already doing this with a municipal services company (as noted by the Scottish Government’s 2015 Community Energy Policy Statement).

Community – consumers – voters?

But there’s more changing than just data systems. With a few exceptions, community energy groups have not been able to sell the energy they generate to local consumers. Changes in tech and regulation – and projects such as Energy Local and Mull ACCESS  -may change that. Membership of an energy coop could be based simply on paying your electricity bill, without having to invest in community shares. The distinction between the cooperative model – where membership is based on buying community shares, and the community development trust model – where membership is based on local residence, could blur or dissolve entirely.

A further force for change is the growing engagement of local authorities in the UK energy system, as others in RIPPLES have explored. Will the UK be more devolved, more federal, in decades to come? Will we see more community energy organisations partnering with municipal companies to create a ‘civic’ energy sector? The beginnings of this are already visible, from Plymouth and Bristol to Edinburgh and many points in between.

It’s not inevitable: but another energy system is possible

And there’s more. Community energy activists are long used to navigating choppy seas and shifting currents, and ideas of new ways to do community energy abound: renewable electricity producing hydrogen; EV charging; heat networks; national solar coops; new sorts of energy networks connecting localities (who says community energy must be 100% local? not RIPPLES!);  energy services companies; offshore wind farm coops

Some of these actually exist on the ground (though not all in the UK); some are being piloted, with what funding there is; others are as yet only on paper. All of them, and many more – far too many to list in one blog post – may be possibilities; but they are not inevitabilities.

In short, it’s all to play for. My project is not trying to pretend we can predict what will happen. What we do want to do is to create a clearer sense of what could happen; what the potential prize to be won is. We hope this will increase interest – even excitement! – from the supporters community energy needs in energy, government, finance and beyond. And, last but not least, give the UK’s community energy activists some reasons to feel cheerful.


by Gerry Taylor Aiken

What is over-research?

At this years’s RGS-IBG conference, I co-hosted a session on ‘over-researched places’ with Cat Button. It was nice to finally have the session as the idea had gathered attention elsewhere, and was sponsored by the Social & Cultural, Political and Participatory Geography Research Groups. We also got quite a bit of coverage before and during the conference on Twitter. I think I can see why ‘over-research’ struck a chord. Here, I want to collect some notes on what over-research is, why it comes to be, and also what we can do about it.

Basically over-research is the idea that certain research themes, case studies or locations become paradigmatic examples of a particular issues, to a less than helpful degree—there is a clear value judgment in the idea of OVER-research.

Some examples

I suspect that almost all fields and subfields have an over-researched subject. My own focus on low carbon communities has more than its fair share of contenders. In the last ten years the Transition (Town) movement has exploded both on the ground and in terms of academic research articles, masters and PhDs. The Findhorn Foundation on the Moray Firth are usually expected in discussion of ecovillages, the Isle of Eigg in discussion of community energy, and in urban contexts LILAC in Leeds seem to have taken the place of BedZED as the go to example.

This is a UK-centred selection, but in each case, even only within the UK, there exists a wide range of examples and activities that are hidden, or obscured from view. It’s not that there’s necessarily a problem with Transition, Findhorn, Eigg or LILAC, or even with research on them, but that research on eco-communities has a lot more to say than can only be found in these high-profile cases.

Over-research is not only empirical though, but also theoretical. Sticking with low carbon community, there is also a narrow way in which the emergence and growth (although this is a contested term) of these examples has been understood. The major theory of change here has been through the cross-cutting platform of ‘Sustainability Transitions’, where a discourse of ‘niche’ initiatives growing into more established ‘regime’ actors dominates.

What’s wrong with over-research?

Part of the thinking behind the session on over-research is that the focus on totemic examples of any topic—which may or may not be fair representatives of the field—is a problem. First, and most basically, it’s a problem in the type of social research I carry out for those being researched. Basically, when one group or place becomes ‘The Place” where this research is done, it seems everyone wants a piece of the action, and those on the ground can become swamped. There are some ways around this, for example by using participative methods, and being as clear and up-front about one’s aims and objectives as possible. More and more tools and guidance is being produced to help in this regard. Indeed, Transition have described themselves as “overwhelmed” with researchers coming in, taking up time, and giving little in return—research becomes an unwanted distraction. Transition have even gone so far as to develop their own guidebook to prevent these types of problems. But it is unfair to expect each and every research subject to be this organised, especially research on/with more marginalised people and places without the resources to adequately hold off pushy researchers.

Over-research is not only a problem for those being researched, it is also a problem for those doing the research. An over-reliance of one or two case studies, can lead to distorting the accuracy of one’s data and results. It’s not that research cannot reach sound judgement on a given field from only a select case study, Flyvbjerg has comprehensively dealt with that concern. It’s more that the dominance of headline case studies often fails to represent a field adequately. There’s also the issue that certain examples are more preferable to academics, funders, and for gaining media traction, which of course are also partly influenced by a host of other biases: class, gender, language. In my field I think Transition are a pretty good proxy for collective action on environmental issues in the UK, but they are far from being the only one to the degree that research in this area seems to indicate. Over-research here is closely tied up with under-research—of other ideas and participants overshadowed by signature examples in the literature.

Over-research fails to accurately represent the field, but it can also worsen the quality of the data gathered. In qualitative research, interviewing, ethnographic and participative evidence and experience is dulled by being ‘yet another’ researcher among a steady stream. As the quantity of research increases, interviewees become jaded. Participants can also begin to try to work out what is expected of them from a researcher. I remember being surprised by one interviewee a couple of years ago who stopped me to ask “How is that? Am I doing ok?”. I had no idea what she meant, but thinking back upon it, this participant clearly had some notion of what counted as being a valid response to a university researcher.

A further, third, issue was raised in our session where the distorting effects of over-research were felt far away – a problem for those beyond those being researched or doing the research. When an example becomes paradigmatic of how an particular phenomena is carried out (empirically), or understood (theoretically), descriptive very easily slips to normative, and it becomes how things should be done. The idea of ‘best practice’ looms large here, where one approach begins to overshadow a wide variety of ways things can be carried out. One participant in our session pointed out that the over-reliance of certain cities as being the ‘greenest’—Freiburg or Vancouver are the usual suspects here—means that more ‘normal’ cities then try to shape their own efforts for sustainability to ape these paragons. Over-research is a sort of absent presence here. While researchers can be absent from these ‘normal’ cities, the effect of building up paradigms of sustainability such as Freiburg mean policymakers triangulate their efforts in response to what they see as the right, correct or best way to act. I have experienced something similar to this to a much smaller degree. When one of the councillors in my hometown in remote rural North Scotland heard my PhD had been on the Transition movement—he got in touch with me to “see about getting one going up here”: completely failing to recognise the citizen-led, emergent ethos behind such groups and movements. The idea of Transition Towns had become totemic, overshadowing any and all ways in which citizens can carry out environmental action collectively.

Why over-research? Bandwagoning, Price’s law and others.

So far, this is a fairly one-sided picture of over-research: Over research is bad! It’s damaging! And it’s not good research! Well, I think over-research is a negative thing, but I also think there are some understandable reasons why over-researched places come to dominate particular sub-fields. There are many surface reasons, like researcher’s conservatism in pushing new boundaries, or solid researchers sticking to tried, trusted and dependable examples: ‘what works’. Further to these, there are secondary surface reasons—reviewers of both papers and proposals immediately ‘get’ an example they’ve heard of before, but need to do much more thinking to get their heads around a new idea, or empirical example. New topics also need a lot more explaining which can take away from the flow and quick pace of writing. There is also the familiar rhetorical trick in social science of taking an example supposedly well-known, and giving a new hidden or unseen twist that brings it to life again—much harder to do when introducing something new in the first place. With a comparatively under-researched topic none of this is possible in the same way. This could very easily develop into a ‘rut’ in a given research track, which deepens and establishes particular examples as the traditional or established way to do research.

Understanding these mechanisms, and where the factors that produce over-research come from is important if we are to find a way past this impasse. Moving forward, I want to dig a bit deeper into the more sedimented reasons for over-research. Most of the above critiques fall into the broad category of bandwagoning. Bandwagoning is basically the idea that someone is more likely to say something, adopt a believe, or carry out a course of action, if it is already well-established, or legitimised. In methodology textbooks bandwagoning is normally discussed in focus groups: where one or two more dominant figures in the focus group declare something, making it far more likely that the rest of the group will follow or agree. Over-research can be seen as a side-effect of a general bandwagoning in any field of research.

Other more general principles or trends in academia can be helpful to understand over-research too: Matthew effect, Price’s law and Lotka’s law, and network effects.

The Matthew effect describes how being already successful academically is the best predictor for future success: those who are more likely to win the next grant already have one. Price’s law and Lotka’s law describe how in any given sub-field, or discipline, citation practices tend towards a hierarchy. Each of these is an attempt in some way to describe the gathering or bunching up that happens in various research fields.  There are also ‘network effects’ where when one example or theory is already known another paper, research project on the same topic more easily fits into and benefits from the increased exposure to that issue.

In all of these there is a positive feedback mechanism at work, where researchers who are already cited or have won funding, are cited more and win more funding. These principles, model’s or laws are describing researchers, their grant income, or citations but each of these in turn are tightly interwoven with actual coal face research. These principles might help us explain why certain research themes and examples also bunch-up, and become over-researched. Processes like Price’s law and bandwagoning show what Deleuze might call ‘arborescent tendencies’. The challenge of over-research is to find a way beyond this arborescence or ‘bunching-up’, towards a far more representative distribution of our cases and theories.

Of course there are also factors in research which serve the opposite ends: the desire for novelty or the pursuit of originality. Fortunately too, we have tools at hand to tackle the tendencies that produce over-research. Bandwagoning is a well-established phenomena in focus groups, where one person can find themselves (perhaps inadvertently) leading the discussion down one particular path or viewpoint. The importance of good moderator is key here.

One of my highlights of the RGS-IBG conference where we had the over-research discussions was Will Eadson’s talk where he riffed off a Deleuze and Guattarri metaphor of a flock of birds, where no bird comes to predominate, rather each takes turns at the front, as a collective finding a way to move each individual from the centre towards the edge. Finding something similar in academic research choices would be a very useful way beyond over-research.

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.

Making the academic, creative: A graphic novel about community energy

by Sioned Haf

Drawings from the graphic novel ‘Tick-Tock’

During the past few years of attending academic conferences, I have been to several workshops that talk about the need for academic research to be more clear, accessible and intelligible for non-academic audiences. Workshops have ranged from refining presentation skills, reaching influential policy makers, engaging with the public and using clear language in journal papers.

Using personal creativity as a means of disseminating academic research however, has never really been discussed, at least not in my experiences in such workshops. Is it that researchers tend to be regarded as uncreative types? (A myth – as in my opinion, we are all creative beings!). Would your integrity in academia be compromised, if you were to create an animation, a painting or write a song about an element of your work?

However, there are a number of creative pursuits that some academics have engaged in. One of my favourite examples, is the Bright Club  comedy circuit in Edinburgh – a stage given to researchers in Scottish universities, to condense their research experiences and findings into short stand-up performances. Other examples of creative academia include PhD Viva presentations being partly delivered through poetry – which also reminds me of a conference talk I once saw delivered with the aid of a ukulele. Type ‘Dance your PhD’ into YouTube, and you’ll see that there are a number of early career researchers, willing to take a shot at explaining their research in a completely abstract way – through dance. I’m not sure how keen more established academics would be to use interpretative dance methods in disseminating their work? Gauntlet. Thrown.

In 2011, I conducted some research of my own into the role of the creative industries in developing a wider understanding of sustainable development issues amongst society. This work entailed conducting interviews with people who had produced some creative work within the broad theme of sustainable development. This included authors, scriptwriters, visual artists, poets, arts and crafts practitioners and filmmakers.

The conclusion of this small study supported existing evidence that unpicking and presenting issues through creative formats can enrich understanding of sustainable development issues. This is of particular importance when considering that sustainable development is the most used term in political rhetoric but the least understood by the public (see Sustaining Spin by Gordon James).

So, if the theory is correct, the creative arts could be a means of disseminating and clarifying some complex and esoteric subjects amongst a completely new audience. Artistic discussions of ideas branching from scientific research are crucial for deeper and wider societal understanding of the challenges that face humanity.

The main character, Gwenno, learning about community energy in the graphic novel ‘Tick-Tock’.

Energy infrastructure, use, ownership and engagement with energy and climate change matters could be some such complex subject matters that could be subject to such artistic dissemination. As my PhD research touched upon many of these themes (from looking at community energy experiences in Scotland and Wales), it was at the forefront of my mind to let others know about what I had found out, particularly outside academia. I also wanted to give voice to the concerns of the participants that had given their time to contribute to my research. I wanted to do this in a more creative way than just presenting findings in conferences and writing academic journals. Having made a few comic strips in the past, I decided on creating a graphic novel – a chance to create a narrative of my research findings, but also, a chance to doodle and paint!

Through a small grant from the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC) in Bangor University, myself and author and climate change activist Angharad Penrhyn Jones, cooperated on developing a short graphic novel (a novel told through pictures) about community energy. Although the initial aim was to create a package that would be available for schools in particular (Key Stages 2-3), the story itself, being in graphic novel format (which is quite the ‘hip’ format as of late) was also written as a story accessible to all age ranges.

Gruff, explaining community shares in graphic novel ‘Tick-Tock’

The process of writing, editing, illustrating and final proofing of the story, took about 6 months in all (which was the timeline allowed by the funders).  It was a true pleasure to be able to write ‘freely’ and creatively for once (although merging true voices amongst the characters in the story too). Having a break from traditional journal paper writing, for this project, is something I would encourage all other early career researchers to have a go at. As a first attempt at a graphic novel as a part of a teaching resource, I am immensely proud! I’ve also learnt about more technical, fiddly artistic things, like how to make storyboards, and that watercolours don’t scan very well – so there’ll be room for artistic improvement next time!

‘Tick-Tock: a graphic novel about energy, ownership and community’ (and additional teaching resources), is now available for free download from the Welsh Governments digital learning website here or for more information about developing the story and also to download, you can visit the project’s website here.


Building effective partnerships: a tale of two networking events

by Jen Dickie

Throughout my academic career I have always jumped at the chance to develop my national and international research networks. But networking can be difficult. We’ve all been in that awkward situation at a conference or workshop where we’ve desperately looked around, hoping to make eye-contact with someone to instigate a conversation with, only to find that everyone in the room is in deep conversation with someone else. If that isn’t hard enough, building meaningful and sustainable networks is even more challenging. In this blog I want to reflect on my experiences at two quite different networking events. I’ll also share some thoughts on what I think helps effective networking and what I (and organisers) might do differently in the future…

The first I attended was a Newton-Bhabha workshop (4th – 8th September 2017) held at the Indian Institute of Science Education  and  Research (IISER), Pune; this brought early career UK and Indian social and physical scientists together with practitioners and innovators to tackle the challenge of ‘Translating Clean Energy Research to Rural India’. The second workshop was part of the RCUK’s Global Challenges (GCRF) engagement programme in Delhi. This meeting was a large international event aimed at showcasing the opportunities available through GCRF and to create new networks between researchers from a wide range of disciplines. Both events had networking at the heart of their remit but I want to pick up on some of the pre, during and post conference activities that I felt impacted, for better or worse, on the success of my networking.

Firstly, pre-conference activities – many of the ‘top tips’ for effective networking highlight the importance of doing your homework and planning whom you want to meet in advance (e.g. “The Eight Steps to Effective Networking at Academic Conferences”). In preparation for the Newton- Bhabha workshop we were provided with a ‘biog booklet’ (with photos – v. important!). I found this incredibly useful. I identified key people I wanted to talk to and even attempted to learn some names in advance, something that I find quite difficult to do when meeting people face to face. I was able to annotate the biogs during the workshop and have kept them for future reference when my face/name recognition skills fail me. I’m lucky, I enjoy meeting new people and can (mostly) strike up a conversation with anyone but I know that some people find it incredibly difficult – I think being prepared like this can help alleviate some of the anxiety around who is going to be there. It can also give you ideas for ‘conversation starters’.

In contrast, the GCRF meeting organisers only sent us a list of names without any indication of disciplinary background or research interests. Their argument was that they wanted us to ‘network’ to find out such information. I can see their reasoning for this but I’m not sure it worked particularly well; this was a 2.5 day event that had a large number of participants. During the event, however, I thought their ‘soapbox sessions’ were an interesting way of giving participants an opportunity to say something about their research interests, tout for collaborators or pitch an idea. The 2 minute limit was great because it meant we got through most people. It demonstrates why we should all have an ‘elevator pitch’ ready and waiting! This is a method that I think I’ll use in future when time is limited, but I’d make sure all the soap box sessions happen earlier on in the workshop to maximise the opportunity to follow up relevant interests, otherwise the soapbox approach can become a flurry of business card exchanges, and little else.

Building meaningful and sustainable collaborations takes time, and the Newton-Bhabha workshop had this on its side. It was more participatory and was facilitated in a way that meant we could explore different disciplinary perspectives and learn about each other’s expertise in a way that didn’t feel forced. (I’m not going to go into details here but if you are interested in how this was done you can look at Sara Shinton’s excellent blog and the workshop report). We were often pushed out of our comfort zones, having to deal with complex disciplinary differences and I often struggled to see how I could contribute to some of the more technology-based projects. It got the key ingredients right though; everyone respected and listened to each other and everyone was given the opportunity to contribute. To me, this is what really helps build strong and meaningful collaborations. And don’t forget, spending a bit of time together before submitting a bid is incredibly useful – working with people you like makes such a difference.

I really enjoyed both events and found them useful in different ways. Not only have I started to build what I hope turns out to be a strong and sustainable inter-disciplinary collaboration but I’ve also picked up some useful pointers on running effective networking events.

There are lots of great resources out there to help you, and cover much more than this blog (e.g. this page on the value of networking) but a top tip from me – don’t forget your business cards. It doesn’t look great handing out your contact details on a napkin…

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?