Localism and Energy: Negotiating approaches to Embedding Resilience in Energy Systems


Energy Policy is a key research area of mine. Specifically I am interested in the development of decentralised, low carbon, community focussed energy systems as a counter to the inherent vulnerability of conventional energy systems to social, economic and environmental shocks.

As part of my research into this subject, I co-authored a paper, published in the journal Energy Policy, with Dr. Geoff O’Brien from the department of Geography and Environmental Management, Northumbria Univeristy. Here I sum up our main points and findings…

Traditionally, energy system vulnerability has been viewed in terms of technical failure, accidents or operator errors, however, it is increasingly recognised that vulnerability is multi-dimensional and influenced by a wide range of interacting factors such as system complexity, resource availability and constraints, diversity of energy supply and political disruptions. Such factors typify conventional fossil fuel sources of energy, in particular though the problem of diminishing accessible, secure and economically viable reserves and the need to reduce CO2 emissions. The former manifests itself in increased fuel cost, the latter in legislative and economic constraints. This vulnerability can have a devastating effect on end users, whether they be business consumers who require continuity of  price and supply to stay in business, or domestic consumers who rely on a secure, affordable supply of energy to heat and power their homes. In the paper we conceptualise a resilient energy system defined thus…

“A resilient energy exhibits adaptive capacity to cope with and respond to disruptions by minimising vulnerabilities and exploiting beneficial opportunities through socio-technical co-evolution. It is characterized by the knowledge, skills and learning capacity of stakeholders to use indigenous resources for energy service delivery”

Conceptually a resilient energy system brings together two actor groups, broadly those that own and use energy producing technologies and those that develop and deploy those technologies. In the diagram below, energy resources are captured and/or stored, either with embedded or localised technologies. The user interface provides information that enables the user to balance the energy service need to either available or stored resources.

Conceptual representation of a resilient energy system 

In practice, this means a shift from concentrated ownership of generation and distribution capacity and many passive consumers model to a more democratic model with many stakeholders as shown in the figure below.

Conventional and distributed energy systems. 

Besides addressing a number of systemic vulnerabilities of current structures such changes can generate space for new forms of ownership and governance. We do not advocate a single model but argue that the principal driver for resilience building, predicated on entitlements and governance, is learning. Learning must be broad based and not limited to a training function, for example, how to use or install particular renewable technologies. Learning is required in two areas. Firstly, for users a social learning context where experiences, ideas and environments are shared in a process of iterative learning. Social learning can embed good practice, for example, energy efficiency through use of visual displays, understandable energy use information and on-going agency support. Well- informed individuals or groups can make visible their actions in response to climate change by, for example, installing or embedding renewable technologies on their premises or homes; actions which can reinforce positive behaviour in others.

There are some signs of an increase in smaller more localised approaches. The challenge is for policy-makers to act on the signals for change and start to devise policy solutions that can transform the energy system. In Denmark, Netherlands and Germany there is consider- able involvement in wind power, facilitated through incentives, a sympathetic planning system and a flexible banking suppor- tive of small scale projects. Though there is some movement in the UK, we suggest that a more radical policy approach is needed if we are to make a more resilient energy system. Finally we argue that thinking from a resilience perspective allows an approach to a low carbon future where shared solutions, developed through learning, can make a sustainable energy future a reality.

You can access the full paper here, and to reference please use the following citation:

O’Brien, G., Hope, A., (2010) Localism and energy: Negotiating approaches to embedding resilience in energy systems. Energy Policy 38, 7550-7558.