Energy Publics: mapping public participation in Bristol's energy transition


Introduction

It is increasingly recognised that the process of transforming energy systems will require the increased engagement and involvement of 'the public'. Public participation has traditionally been viewed as occurring through discrete events (e.g. consultations), on singular topics (e.g. the siting of renewable technologies) with an assumed external public. Contemporary energy participation, meanwhile, takes increasingly diverse and evolving forms. Participation through opinion polls, protests, maker spaces and smart technology trials and so on all contribute to making contemporary participation by various forms of 'the public' hard to pin down.

Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in the West of England, where Bristol is internationally recognised as a melting pot of energy-related innovation and civic experimentation in and for a more sustainable, socially just energy system. Nonetheless, we know little about where and how participation is occurring in the West of England.

This project aims to help fill this gap by mapping energy participation in the West of England, between 2015-2017 and then analysing the results using a whole systems approach.

Project Info

Lead Researcher: Dr Jake Barnes

Duration: March - September 2018

Funding: Bristol Sustainable Energy Research Fund (Centre for Sustainable Energy and Bristol Energy Cooperative).


Approach

The project addresses the question: how and where is energy participation occurring in the West of England?

To answer this question, a rapid review of evidence will be undertaken. The project will follow the principles of a systematic review, and therefore use explicit and transparent methods, follow standard stages and thereby be accountable, replicable and updateable over time.

The approach is also experimental. Rather than using a database (e.g. Scopus) to search for published material on a given topic, this review will use a social media platform (Twitter) to search for data on a societal phenomenon (energy participation). To limit search results to the West of England, key word searches will be performed on identified twitter handles (organisations with an interest or active role in diverse forms of energy participation).

The research protocol provides more details on proposed approach.


Outcome

The approach resulted in the identification of 435 instances of energy participation. The basic database listing all instances is available here and includes high-level information about the what, the who and the where and the when of participation. Overall, the approach was successful at capturing a range of formal and informal forms of energy participation, particularly those organized by civil society and local government. It was much less successful at capturing energy participation that occurred at very diffused scales or where the results weren't widely publicised and failed to capture energy participation where participants were recruited through personalized means (emails, letters) or via print newsletters or notice boards etc.

Analysis of the resulting dataset has subsequently revealed a variety of clear trends, including on the amount and diversity of energy participation as well as where energy participation occurred, who were the organisations facilitating energy participation and how participants are framed.


Concluding messages

  • To encourage a more sustainable, inclusive and socially just energy system in the region, diverse forms of public participation should be encouraged to emerge, flourish and connect.
  • To achieve a more inclusive and socially just energy transition will require fostering responsive and responsible forms of governing energy systems change, giving equal weight to how publics are getting involved in the 'doing' of system change, not just what publics say in formal participatory exercises.
  • The process through which more sustainable, inclusive and democratically accountable energy emerge is likely to be messier, more contested and therefore 'heated' than the development of sustainable energy systems guided by experts.
  • Whilst multiple discrete participatory events are useful, more effort should be made to link up diverse instances of participation into more coherent and larger participatory exercises.
  • Due to the diverse ways publics are participating in the region there is a need for experimentation to link different forms of citizen participation with different forms and scales of energy decision-making.

The final report can be accessed here.