Friction Zones and Local Energy Initiatives – an Excerpt from Graz 2015

by Giacomo Poderi

This May, I was traveling to Graz for the 14th Austrian Annual STS Conference – Critical Issues in Science, Technology and Society Studies (11th-12th May) where, beside the pleasure of having to co-chair a session, I was also eager to listen to the presentations related to Energy, a topic I‘m currently involved with. Before arriving there, as I often do on the plain, I had examined the conference programme for marking the tracks and talks “not to miss” and I realized that, more than in any other conference I had attended, I should have made choices and compromises, because I would have been able to attend only a few of the talks I wished to.

The fact that STS scholars fully embraced the emergence of Energy as key area of inquiry, at least in Europe, was apparent in Torun. The EASST conference Situating Solidarities: social challenges for science and technology studies already included two tracks dedicated to energy-related topics for a total of 21 presentations. In Graz, I had a pleasant validation of this trend, both in terms of attendance to the sessions and the overall presence of energy throughout the conference programme. The two conferences are different and difficult to compare, yet having attended both this has been my feeling. About attendance in Graz, for all energy-related sessions I attended, rooms were packed with 30 to 35 participants, often forcing a small group of attendees to stand and squeeze at the corners. More interestingly, Q&A moments always gave space to engaging confrontations among the participants. About the overall programme, out of the 22 sessions, grouped in six areas, which spanned the two-days of the conference, four sessions (of which two were double sessions) were directly connected to a specific energy-related topic. Basically, a keynote speech, by Harald Rohracher ‘The household junction’: Households as friction zones in infrastructure transitions and a thematic area “Transitions to Sustainability – Energy” framed the role of Energy and its relations to environment and society, in Graz. The range of areas and specific topics touched in this context was thorough. The session “ICT Use, Energy Consumption and the Changing Practices” touched on the complex relationship between ICT use and energy impact with a focus on young generations and their different usage patterns. The double session “Local Innovation Impulses and the Transformation of the Energy System (1 & 2)” touched several issues that are transversal to energy transitions and innovation by focusing on the local level. Finally, the last two sessions tried to capture in more theoretical terms the complexities and entanglements of energy transformations, by focusing on social order and governance theories and epistemics: “Energy, Society and Culture – (Sustainable) Energy Transformations as Transformations of Social Order (1 & 2)” and “Energy Transformations, Energy Epistemics and Governance – the Role of the Social Sciences and Humanities”.

In retrospect, given that the relevance, complexity and impact that transitions of energy paradigms have in shaping contemporary society had already been pointed out more than two decades ago by Hughes (1993), probably, I wonder that I was surprised: nowadays that environmental sustainability, smart grids and sustainable energy systems, only to name a few, have become key societal challenges1 it seemed consistent that STS community kept engaging with them. However, the attention that local contexts and emergent grassroots actors received by the STS community, in contrast to the usual energy companies, institutions and grand socio-technical imaginaries (Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun, 2013), it is what I found resonating the most with my actual work with local energy cooperatives.

During his keynote speech, Rohracher raised many noteworthy points, but central to his argument was the suggestion to frame households as friction zones, in the current energy transition paradigm. By relying on the concepts of social worlds and arenas of development, he showed to what extent households are friction zones and therefore a fruitful nexus to study by spanning through different aspects: from the attempts to configure households in different ways (e.g. economically rational actors, ecologically conscious citizens etc.), to the existence of conflicting socio-material practices (e.g. heating, laundry etc.); from the new interfaces between heterogeneous infrastructures (e.g. ICT, Energy, Transport) with conflicting demands on households, to the ongoing negotiation about the meanings of ‚sustainability‘ at this level. Furthermore, as the developments in the frame of ‚smart everything‘ goes on, households become ‚smart homes‘ and are also at the center of very complex intersections, such as the infrastructuring of new ICT components, the supply of new services for the dwellers, and the configurations of end-users as active energy managers and economically rational actors. After two years spent working with energy cooperatives and households for defining and implementing the objectives of our project‘s intervention, I found Rohracher‘s picture perfectly fitting the complexities of the local contexts we faced, both in terms of interfacing heterogeneous infrastructure and in terms of defining and negotiating the meaning of sustainability and efficiency themselves.

At the same time, a different focus was brought upon local energy cooperatives and grassroots initiatives. I mention here three thought provoking talks. With the presentation “Understanding Conflict Within Renewable Energy Cooperatives” Judith Rognli raised a simple, but spot-on question: How can this democratically-led cooperatives function, given the diverse interests represented by people participating in them? Still at the beginning of the empirical part of the research, Rognli framed the inquiry by combining a sense-making perspective (Weick, 1995) with a conflict analysis. Similarly to Rohracher‘s position on the household level, Rognli too showed that energy cooperatives can be friction zones and are at the center of complex socio-technical struggles. With “Community Based Energy Use – Two Examples of Individual Innovations in the Daily Energy Practice” Petra Wächter theoretically framed two cases of community-based energy use, the first case focused on the demand side and the other one on the supply side.

It clearly showed how individuals‘ organization of their daily life has large impact and relates to the shaping of energy transformations at the level of localized communities. Finally, in “The quest for citizen governance of energy resources”, Tineke van der Schoor used the frame of social movements and ANT to talk about ‚community energy networks‘ as entities that align a diverse range of actors: consumers, prosumers and energy cooperatives. These entities have as main goals the promotion of local sustainable energy production and consumption, the maintenance and growth of local economy, and the promotion of democratic forms of governance for the energy resources. However, these goals imply that such energy networks work to consolidate an identity which is defined in close connection to the local culture (language, mentality, attitude) and tightly anchored to the local, contingent boundaries and both have implications for the scalability and growth of these entities. Here, the idea of friction zones emerge when the local community energy networks are viewed as social movements, which, in Touraine‘s words are “a special type of social conflict” (Touraine, 1985). The issues about the definition and safeguard of their own identities and about the alignment of heterogeneous stakeholders (i.e. individual consumers, prosumers and collective bodies) are those ones that I found particularly prominent in my empirical work and ongoing interactions with local energy cooperatives.

Finally, while the quality and relevance of all talks varied due to the scholars‘ heterogeneous career stages and to the different stages of the research presented in the sessions, I found the overall quality of presentations to be very good and inspiring as well as the discussion sessions, which left me with a clear sense that the STS community can make valuable contributions about ‚energy & society‘ in the forthcoming years.