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Repower Democracy: How grassroots energy initiatives are changing the face of democracy in Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Repower Democracy (Repower Democracy: How grassroots energy initiatives are changing the face of democracy in Europe)

Reporting period: 2015-05-04 to 2017-05-03

Recently, a wave of local resistance to increasingly risky methods of fossil fuel extraction has swept across many countries in the world and most of Europe. Some of the most sustained civil disobedience against shale gas development took place in Poland, the UK, Ireland and Romania. In places where the energy corporations abandoned the drilling sites, the communities are organising in egalitarian ways and forming new renewable energy co-operatives. The aim is to take responsibility for meeting their own energy needs in a way that is local and mitigates climate change. In this project, I asked whether these new local energy co-operatives and grassroots mobilisations against hydraulic fracturing might reveal the potential for a repowering of democracy, i.e. a reformulation of democratic models and a reorganisation of energy production along more egalitarian lines.

The main aims were: (1) to investigate the forms of politicisation and imaginaries of egalitarianism in Polish and British communities and (2) to build interdisciplinary, inter-sectoral collaborations and draw up research-led strategies for local and systemic social innovation in the field of democratic self-organisation of energy initiatives.

I investigated the popular and expert imaginaries of energy (renewable as well as from unconventional resources) and analysed them in the context of diverging temporalities and alternative historicities. The differing perspectives on shale gas or renewable energy may be influenced by the varying dispositions toward the past and the future. These diverging temporalities also signify a democratic imbalance of power and call for a more time-informed scholarship which takes into account the realities of the “anticipatory regime” that is characteristic not only of many energy projects but also the current social and cultural configurations.

I have also explored, documented and analysed social and democratic impacts of shale gas developments in two locations: Lancashire, UK and the Grabowiec region in Poland and concluded that the failure to consider these aspects understates the potential and actual impact of these developments. Hence, I recommended that a social impact assessment be fundamental in all political decision-making that priorities public health and social well-being. I have also assessed the “energy potentials” for developing renewable energy initiatives in the researched localities. The findings were crucial in building inter-sectoral collaborations with local communities, experts and policy-makers.

My ethnographic and participatory research about the impacts of shale gas developments served as a lens for investigating the significance of unconventional resources and renewable energy for democracy across scales. I have also analysed the factors and mechanisms that set Poland on the path to shale gas. The research outcomes have led me to revisit some of the classic notions of democracy, power and the state.

This research contributed to critical enquiry into the possibilities of more democratic futures and their interrelationship with transitions of energy systems. It has documented barriers to active citizen engagement in democratic processes in the context of energy but it has also pointed to the egalitarian imaginaries and dynamics of grassroots organising in Europe. Grassroots energy initiatives have the potential for a repowering of democracy in Europe but they need to overcome some of the external and internal barriers which are generated by the very dynamics of the new transformations of the state and corporate power.
Although the project has met its objectives, it has to pointed out that a very intensive and long period of fieldwork (16/24 months in total) in two different countries increased substantially the amount of data that I needed to gather. Despite this, I have managed to publish a number of important publications and six others (including an edited volume of which I will be an editor) are currently under consideration or in preparation. The main results of this project in terms of publications so far are: a peer-reviewed report on the social impacts of shale gas developments, an academic article, two popular texts (one of which was based on the Freedom of Information request) and one online time line project. All of the publications are open-access. I have also set up a project website ( and given 14 presentations and talks at international conferences, workshops and other events. I have organised 4 well-attended exhibitions, one international conference in Norway, 3 workshops and 1 public meeting, during which I launched my report. The event featured renowned academics from the USA, Canada and the UK. I have helped with the official launch of the Energy Anthropology Network and forged many new networks with local communities, researchers, energy experts, policy-makers and others.
In my research proposal, I pointed out that most state-of-the-art envisages that a transition to a post-fossil future will involve a transformation from centralised to more distributed generation, shorter supply chains and consequently, a democratisation of not only energy but also entire societies. On the basis of the research conducted for this project, I have concluded that neither unconventional resources (such as shale gas) nor renewable energy may automatically bring about social justice. In fact, energy from these sources is not intrinsically democratic but the dynamics and barriers to citizen engagement (although different for shale gas and renewable energy) may inform us of the changing nature of the corporate power and the new transmutation of the state in which the main mode of exercising power is through the control over the future.

The exploration of the histories of shale gas developments and local resistance showed that choices about particular energy sources are rarely determined by the principles of economic rationality and technological innovation. Instead, they are shaped by social processes and a complex interaction of many actors.

The analysis of the social impacts of shale gas developments revealed that even before unconventional resource extraction begins it may already have profound impacts on local residents. These impacts do not necessarily stem from the development but rather the social and political change processes and interactions of local residents with their governments and energy corporations.

The main measurable impact of this research is through its contribution to the debate and decision-making involving shale gas in the UK at both local and national level. I have been awarded an MSCA 2017 prize in the “communicating science” category for my work in this area. The publications and collaborations that stem from this project but are currently in progress will have an impact on the critical debate and policy-making in the area of resource extraction and the viability of community-led renewable projects in Poland.
Roseacre Wood, Lancashire