What is 'local' about Smart Local Energy Systems? Emerging stakeholder geographies of decentralised energy in the United Kingdom

Walker, Chad and Devine-Wright, Patrick and Rohse, Melanie and Gooding, Luke and Devine-Wright, Hannah and Gupta, Rajat (2021) What is 'local' about Smart Local Energy Systems? Emerging stakeholder geographies of decentralised energy in the United Kingdom. Energy Research and Social Science, 80. 102182. ISSN 2214-6296 (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2021.102182)

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Abstract

As governments worldwide address the climate crisis, energy systems are becoming both decarbonised and decentralised. In this study, we aim to increase understanding of the spatial dimensions of new forms of decentralised energy systems that integrate electricity, storage, transportation, and heating. Drawing on workshops and secondary data from three, early-stage case studies funded under a UK government programme, we examine how stakeholders responsible for development construct the 'local' in Smart Local Energy System (SLES) demonstrators. We employ three analytical concepts to address this aim: emplacement, place-framing, and place/boundary-making. In terms of emplacement, stakeholders use place-based narratives that draw on distinctive infrastructural, social, ecological, and political characteristics to argue that diverse locations (Oxford city, Oxfordshire, and the Orkney Islands) are 'suitable' places for decentralised energy. Stakeholders frame projects around non-local goals of creating technological and business models for replication across the UK and worldwide, even if some community-centred benefits are recognized. Lastly, our findings on place-making show pragmatism in flexing 'local' boundaries in order to align with project objectives. The three analytical concepts provide a useful framework to uncover ‘local’ complexities of early-stage decentralised energy projects, and emphasise intersections of space, place, and justice that deserve further scrutiny, notably in later stages of project implementation.