Public participation in a West of England energy transition: Key patterns and trends

Transforming energy systems will require the increased engagement and involvement of ‘the public’. But, quite how ‘publics’ participate in energy system change has over the last few decades become increasingly diverse. Participation through protests, consolations, opinion polls, maker spaces, living labs, community projects, smart technology trials and so on all contribute to making contemporary energy participation 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 Bristol Sustainable Energy Research Fund project, led by Jake Barnes, sought to help fill this gap by mapping energy participation in the West of England, between 2015-2017, and  analysing the results using a whole systems approach. The approach adopted was exploratory and experimental. It resulted in the identification of 435 individual participatory events, which were compiled into a database and analysed in a search for key patterns and trends.

The research shows how the West of England region contains a significant amount of energy participation, led by diverse organisations from across all sectors, covering a large variety of issue spaces (community participation, fuel poverty, housing, nuclear etc.) and spanning all three areas of the energy system (supply, distribution and use). Notably traditionally recognised forms of participation – such as consultations, surveys and deliberative workshops – account for only a small percentage of participatory events identified. The majority of participation is therefore more informal, more exploratory and to a certain extent, emergent.

Furthermore, and from the data captured, contemporary energy participation appears to be fragmented. Examples do exist of coherent and joined up participatory exercises but these appeared as the exception rather than the rule. There is a need, therefore, to link up diverse instances of participation into more coherent and larger participatory exercises, with the potential for increased impact. This presents a huge challenge for small, resource-poor civil society organisations and will likely require increased coordination by larger organisations or networks (e.g. BEN, BGCP, Zero West). Nonetheless, the extent of participation in the region offers fertile ground on which this can be achieved.

The project report can be accessed here.