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.