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: https://doi.org/10.1177/2399654419856020 (or send me an email!)

 


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