Later this week, the University of Manchester will host an international conference on the spatial, social and environmental dimensions of energy vulnerability. I have already announced the call for papers and participants for this event several times on this blog … The gathering, which is supported by the Meeting Place of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), will run from midday on the 21st of May until midday on the 23rd of May. It includes an early career symposium with papers by more than 20 researchers working in this field (21-22 May), and a research colloquium (22-23 May) featuring presentations by a range of leading academics and policy-makers. More than 60 participants from across the UK and Europe are expected to attend.
In a broader sense, the event is aimed at discussing ways in which the current definition of fuel poverty can move beyond the energy affordability-efficiency nexus onto wider questions of recognition, need, and social justice. We will also open a discussion of the community dimensions of fuel poverty, especially in terms of the extent to which area-based, local government-led interventions can provide effective policies to address the issue. A number of contributions at the event will attempt to link fuel poverty debates more explicitly into the climate change and decarbonisation agenda – particularly with respect to the UK’s multiple future energy supply scenarios.
Several papers will argue that a much more ambitious and comprehensive approach to tacking fuel poverty and energy efficiency improvements will be necessary if we are to genuinely start addressing the driving forces of this predicament – not the least given its stubborn persistence and significant extent in the UK and beyond.
I was interviewed by the Greek political ecology magazine ‘Oikotrives’. The full text of the interview (in Greek!) can be found here, and the magazine in its published form is here. The interview mainly focuses on the political and social issues associated with the rise of energy poverty across Europe, as well as the relationship between energy vulnerability, affordability and decarbonisation.
At the beginning of April I visited Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo as part of an initial research and networking trip on the EVALUATE project. The trip highlighted some of the infrastructural issues faced by these countries in the process of post-socialist transition, which, however, vary widely according to local context. While in Macedonia (and to a certain extent, Kosovo) there are major difficulties in providing energy to households with lower incomes (which encompass a very significant part of the population – Macedonia has one of the highest Gini coefficients in Europe), in Albania such issues are compounded by the nature of the underlying socio-technical assemblage supporting the energy sector. Decades of under-investment resulted in a lack of electricity supply during periods of high domestic demand and low production (albeit this was recently alleviated thanks to the construction of a high tension line with Montenegro), while creating situations where basic safety standards were not met (see the images below). In addition, energy efficiency is a key issue in all three countries.
Followers of this blog may be interested in the presentations and outcomes associated with the Roundtable on Health and Well-being Impacts of Energy Efficiency Improvements, held in Copenhagen last month as part of the International Energy Agency study on ‘Capturing the multiple benefits of energy efficiency’. The relationship between housing and energy was one of the key themes at the conference, featuring presentations by well known authors in this field, such as Brenda Boardman, Ute Dubois, Veronique Ezratty and Christine Liddell.
I co-organised two sets of sessions at the conference. The first was titled ‘Politicising energy consumption‘ and involved Conor Harrison (UNC Chapel Hill), Rosie Day (Birmingham) and Matt Huber (Syracuse) in the organising team. The session featured presentations by Gareth Powells (Durham), Heather Rosenfeld (Wisonsin-Madison), Gordon Walker (Lancaster), Andy Karvonen (Manchester), Sara Fuller (Hong Kong), Saska Petrova (Manchester), Autumn Thoyre (UNC Chapel Hill), as well as two of the organisers (Conor and Rosie). The 8 papers at the session explored the different ways in which energy consumption can be conceived as a political site and practice. They highlighted the multiple and complex relationships between energy circulations within households and communities, on the one hand, and the everyday politics of technology, nature and social inequality, on the other.
The second set of sessions was titled ‘A golden age of gas? Understanding the geographical political economy of natural gas‘; I co-organised this with Durham University’s Gavin Bridge. There were seven papers at this session, including presentations by Joseph Dutton (Leicester), Arielle Hesse (Penn State), Deborah Kittner (Cincinnati), Adrian Duhalt (Puebla), Bret Gustafson (Washington), Carlo Sica (Syracuse) and Matthew Fry (North Texas). Gavin and I also presented papers, while Mike Bradshaw acted as a discussant. The speakers provided a range of different perspectives on the importance of the political economy of fossil fuels to the development of a broader energy research agenda.
A very limited number of places are still available for this three-day seminar at the University of Manchester, which aims to lay the groundwork for conceptualizing the components, underlying factors and socio-spatial implications of energy vulnerability. The event will bring together academic researchers, policy representatives, and the third sector to consider the ‘pathways to vulnerability’ through which individuals, communities, places and states are affected by the relationships between energy affordability, housing stock issues, and household practices and needs. It includes a two-day early career researcher symposium with 20 selected presentations, and a one-day seminar with 12 invited high profile speakers.
I recently gave a plenary talk titled ‘From transition to transformation’ at the RGS-IBG mid-term postgraduate conference at the University of Birmingham. The title of the talk was a response to the theme of the conference: ‘Geographical transitions’. It highlighted, inter alia, the new relevance of integrated thinking across geography, particularly in terms of the expanding conceptual and spatial register of notions of ‘politics’ and ‘landscape’.
More broadly, the postgraduate forum was a major success – it attracted a record number of attendees from across the country, and sponsorship from a wide range of organisations. Energy was a major theme at the conference (there was an entire string of sessions dedicated to it), reflecting not only the growing popularity of this topic among early career researchers, but also the expanding potential for geographers to respond critically and productively to the contemporary crisis of capitalism, democracy and the environment.
Stefan and I have just returned from an ESRC seminar on ‘home space within social policy and governance at the Open University’. It was fascinating to attend a discussion of the political articulations of domesticity within a disciplinary setting that is quite different from the one in which I have usually participated (while there were plenty of human geographers at the seminar, many speakers and attendees had a social policy or public health background). The seminar featured some excellent presentations and conversations about the implications of austerity for cotemporary meanings, as well the paradoxes of home in contemporary living. Several papers explored the idea of ‘personalization’ from a critical perspective.
There are important intersections between these debates and those centring on efforts to reduce energy consumption in the home that remain to be explored, particularly when it comes to vulnerability and precariousness.
I recently gave a plenary talk on ‘Energy poverty in Eastern and Central Europe’ at the ‘Energy Action Fuel Poverty Conference 2013‘ in Dublin, Ireland. This was a two-day event organised by the Energy Action charity, which has hosted two such gatherings to date. Much of the discussion and papers in the conference highlighted the diverse and complex circumstances of domestic energy deprivation in the European context. Christine Liddell, for example, provided a comprehensive discussion of state-of-the-art research on the health aspects of fuel poverty, while Sharon Turner explored the legal dimensions of recent efforts to establish a common European legal and policy framework to address the issue. Ute Dubois gave us an excellent overview of France’s nascent ‘energy precariousness’ policy, which was followed by Sergio Tirado Herrero’s extremely detailed investigation of energy poverty – orientated retrofits in Hungarian context. I was particularly impressed the incisive and critical analysis of the key distributional aspects of the Green Deal in England, provided by Pedro Guertler from the Association for the Conservation of Energy.
The need for movement towards a common EU policy was one of the central themes of the conference. There seems to be an emergent consensus around the need for much more decisive and focused joint measures to address domestic energy deprivation at the European scale. Many speakers addressed the lack of clear EU-level action on the issue, and it was emphasized that formulating a clear definition of the terms ‘energy poverty’ or ‘fuel poverty’ (which were used interchangeably) might provide a useful first step in this context. But given the lack of comprehensive knowledge on the subject, I would be concerned that moving towards a common definition at this stage may marginalise some groups at the expense of others (the French case, where fuel poverty policies disproportionately target rural home-owners at the expenses of the urban and transient poor, is a good example of this).
Earlier in March, the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu hosted a conference titled ‘Energy Transitions: Regulation of Energy Markets and Domestic, Regional and International Levels’. In addition to the host university, the event was also organized by the Political Economy of Energy in Europe and Russia group, and the Energy Law Research Forum. The conference featured a wide range of papers, mainly focusing on the regulation of energy supply and transit in the European hydrocarbon sector. There were also a number of contributions dealing with the governance of sustainability transitions in various (mostly) European contexts.
Alexander Wochnik (from Aston University) and I presented a paper titled ‘Political reconciliation and international energy relations: Governing energy transit in the Balkans’. We mainly explored the manner in which the successful functioning of integrated electricity grids and overland gas transit networks has countered difficult political relations among countries in the region.
The conference is the fourth such event organized by PEEER, and seems to be part of a growing effort to consolidate the emergent community of researchers interested in European ‘energy governance’ matters. The predominance of legal and regulatory discussions at the conference reflects the prevalence of law and political science scholars in this debate, in which geographers and environmental scientists are only now beginning to make inroads. The very establishment of such a community, however, is a welcome development from the situation that existed only several years ago; it is indicative of the importance of considering Europe and its ‘geo-energy space’ (Mañé-Estrada 2006) as a single – albeit multi-layered – territorial entity.