Assembling community energy democracies

By Bregje van Veelen, Uppsala University / Durham University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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