News & Views Blog - Archive

Energy Biographies research presented in Cambridge and Exeter

by Chris Groves, 7 September 2015

Two major academic conferences kicked off September 2015 – the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE-UK) and the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Taking place in Cambridge and Exeter respectively, these events both featured streams focusing on narrative as a way of understanding everyday energy use. At the ASLE conference, this was organised by the Stories of Change project. Chris Groves spoke at both conferences on recent papers from Energy Biographies that discuss the role that attachment and emotional investment in unsustainable practices can play in preventing change, and on how dominant policy understandings of behaviour change can clash with the stories people use to understand the lifecourse transitions they have undergone.

Living the "Good Life"?: energy biographies, identities and competing normative frameworks from energybiographies

Energy biographies: narrative genres, lifecourse transitions and practice change from energybiographies

Energy Biographies at the EcoBro Green Shoots Fair 2015

by Erin Roberts

EcoBro is an organisation based in Penrhyndeudraeth, North Wales, whose aim is to promote sustainability among local communities. As part of their activities, they hold an annual fair featuring a seed swap as well as information on sustainable transport, renewable energy, recycling and local crafts, and what grants are available locally for sustainable projects. This year, PhD student Erin Roberts was invited to set up a stall on the Energy Biographies project, using materials from our recent exhibition.
In conversation, a number of attendees shared their ‘energy stories’ with Erin.

Slide2‘I have a solid fuel range stove at home, but I don’t have central heating. My range is like an old friend- I even talk to it! I guess I’m quite sentimental! I like that i’m in control of what I put into it- of how much I burn- but I don’t like burning coal. I’ve been putting off contacting the NEST scheme for three years! Some friends of mine have had a big stove installed with NEST – £8,000 worth of central heating and everything- but they would never be able to run it if they weren’t getting free wood from a local business. It seems that they just went for the extravagant option without considering what my friends could afford! So my dilemma is that I don’t trust the scheme and I’m quite sentimental- I like the interaction that comes with the stove, and while that’s not a justification for having one, it is a consideration for keeping it. I could live without it but I would miss it. But it isn’t good, in an environmental sense, to burn coal – it is a thing of the past and it’s expensive! Im not happy burning it, but what do i replace it with? What I need is a more environmentally sound manageable system!” – Terry

“I’ve been struggling to find out what is a reasonable temperature, because I have quite an old cat, and she hasn’t been well at all. It’s really hard to find out what a reasonable temperature is, I’ve been checking different websites online to see what the recommended temperature is but I get so confused by the different advice! ” – John

Slide1“I was 16 when I turned vegetarian. I had read the “teenage vegetarian survival guide”… So that was the first thing that I did to take control of my own impact on the environment. It was an uphill struggle coming from a family of meat eaters! I also used a lot of public transport all my life. I didn’t learn to drive straight away and so took the bus and train everywhere – even with the little ones in tow. I have a car now, because you have to have a car here – it’s a consequence of where I live in this case. As a result of that you get lazier – you take unnecessary journeys in the car just because it’s convenient. I find I’m getting lazy but I do still use public transport for long distance journeys – but it’s just so expensive, and that’s the crux of the matter – unless these things become cheaper – ordinary people will think being eco friendly is a thing for those who can afford it, which makes me angry. I find I have to make compromises – it’s a matter of ideals vs. capability – especially because now that I have a family It’s much harder than when I was single to live up to my ideals.” – Sara

“I heard a story about a family that manage to live off a single cow! One cow! They use the manure to power their house you see, and cows can live for up to thirty years, so it’s
quite sustainable isn’t it? I think that’s brilliant!” – Eifiona

Encounters with Energy at Cardiff Philosophy Cafe

by Chris Groves, 15 November 2014

How much energy we use, like how much and what kinds of food we eat, is an issue that has taken on, more and more, the characteristics of an intense moral debate. We are told again and again by policymakers to take responsibility for our energy consumption, just as we are for our intake of saturated fat and sugar. But we face all kinds of conflicting advice about how best to respond to the challenge of using less energy or eating more healthily. In this Cafe, Dr Chris Groves from the Cardiff University Energy Biographies project outlined results of research on some of the unexpected ways in which our social environment constrains our choices and makes it difficult to heed such imperatives. For more details, see the Cardiff Philosophy Cafe blog

A short film:

A Sense of Energy – Showcasing Arts and Social Science Collaboration

by Chris Groves, 11 November 2014

How can artists and researchers collaborate to bring academic research to wider audiences and engage them in new ways? This question lay behind the staging of the recent A Sense of Energy exhibition by the Energy Biographies project in collaboration with a range of artists and the Design and Interaction Studio, led by Professor Bill Gaver, at Goldsmiths College, London.

As part of the dissemination and impact activities for the project that were funded by the UK Research Councils Energy Programme, Energy Biographies and Goldsmiths coordinated an exhibition of research on community energy initiatives, drawing on projects from Goldsmiths, Keele, Oxford Brookes and Sussex universities, as well as the Energy Biographies work. Working with conceptual artist Rachel Murphy, sound artist Chris Young, film-maker Carolina Vasquez and animator Tom Edgar (whose animations drew on audio content from Energy Biographies interviews), the teams from Cardiff and Goldsmiths put together an interactive multimodal exhibition, ‘A Sense of Energy’, which was mounted in the White Building, Hackney in June 2014, and again in the Senedd in Cardiff Bay from 30 September to 2 October 2014, with a reception taking place on Wednesday 1 October, at which the Welsh Commissioner for Sustainable Futures, Peter Davies, Professor Karen Henwood, Professor Nick Pidgeon, and Professor Bill Gaver launched the event.

Nearly 200 people, including AMs, primary school children, university students and representatives of the third sector, community organisations and business attended over the three days the event was staged in Cardiff. The exhibition has been Storifyed at

“The animated appliances – very catchy and drew you into the characters. It really made qualitative interviews come alive – very interesting!”

Feedback from exhibition visitor

Energy Biographies’ emphasis on how people use energy in their everyday lives was reflected in Tom’s animations, which used stop-motion animation to both dramatise and comment on audio extracts relating to interviewees’ discussions of what they saw as the appliances they couldn’t live without. This approach added a new and engaging dimension to the interpretation of qualitative data, as reflected in the comments of visitors about the event. Discussing his involvement with the event, Tom summarised his approach as follows:

“For this brief I was immediately inspired to bring to life the inanimate objects that were being described by the interviewees, creating a fun juxtaposition between the human voice and the appliances themselves. This, I hope, provides a human link to the manner in which appliances are accepted and integrated into the home and explores the relationship that we build with household objects.”

Exhibition comment


Communicating climate science report


Communicating climate science report released. For a summary see

Reflections on our multimodal workshop

handwritten note from workshop

Before a busy summer presenting our work at a number of UK and international conferences, the Energy Biographies team, in conjunction with the Energy and Co-Designing Communities team from Goldsmiths, University of London, hosted an event on working with multimodal methods and data. In thinking about multimodal data, we consider approaches which generate images and sound, amongst other media, and consider how these can productively be invoked alongside or independently of traditional text-based methodological approaches. (Some draw a distinction between multimodal and multimedia – for more detail on this see

One of the aims of our Energy Biographies project is to consider how innovative methods can help people to reflect on their energy use. Subsequently, alongside biographical interviews we have designed two photograph tasks to prompt different kinds of engagement with energy. These images were used in our research interviews for discussion, but how we might also draw on these images in alternative ways to represent our research to wider audiences was an issue we discussed at the multimodality event. Working with our project images, we explored how they can enable people to create their own stories and understandings of energy. Introducing the accompanying text from the participants who produced the images could be seen as revealing an explanation, or as devaluing the creative potential of the image, now relegated to a textual illustration.

The first day of the multimodality event focussed on working creatively and analytically with multimodal data, with presentations from Bella Dicks, Jennifer Gabrys and Bill Gaver (which can be viewed on our presentations page) and afternoon group discussions, which provided an opportunity to explore some of the issues raised in more detail. For example, we considered whether multimodal research is anything new – could a lot of research be classified as multimodal, it is just that researchers are making different choices about what they represent? If bringing together a range of modalities is seen as offering something more (greater depth and detail?), what implications does moving beyond text have for those researchers who continue to work largely with interview transcripts? Some proposed that multimodality could be differently conceptualised as an openness to what data is, but how do we balance this with meeting the quality criteria important in conducting good research?

The second day considered how multimodal data and methods can be used for public engagement activities. Carl Lavery, Jamie Lewis and Maja Horst discussed their experiences of working multimodally and running public exhibitions. Some of the issues we explored included what kind of publics academics focus on when designing public engagement events – sustainability and art have arguably been positioned as middle class agendas, therefore in bringing the two together are we aiming to appeal to particular groups and do we exclude others? With opportunities and spaces for engagement opening up, it is also important to consider the ethics of public engagement – do we create new forms of data and how do we use this?

At several points throughout the event, the relevance of ‘being there’ for understanding was highlighted. This places importance on the presence of the researcher for added insight in working with the subsequent data, which has implications for secondary analysis. Subsequently continuing debates about multimodal research also have wider relevance for other methodological and analytical approaches.

Members of the Energy Biographies team are now drawing on the insights from this event to design a public exhibition, in conjunction with other energy and communities projects, for 2014.

Public Values for Energy System Change

by Christina Demski and Catherine Butler

In recent news George Osborne set out plans to provide significant tax breaks to the UK shale gas industry, an announcement which will only add to the perception amongst the public that government is inconsistent in terms its long-term policies on sustainable energy systems and meeting carbon emission targets.

Our UK Energy Research Centre funded research launched this week at the Royal Society clearly shows that the British public identifies a move away from fossil fuel reliance and a shift to renewable forms of energy production as paramount for energy policy. Simultaneously public perspectives clearly indicate a desire to develop technology and infrastructures to support changes in lifestyles, with an overall goal of improving energy efficiency and achieving reductions in energy demand.

The research also reveals what underlies this public vision for future energy pathways – the values and principles which publics draw on to form their views and preferences when engaging with energy system change. The identified ‘value system’ provides a basis for understanding why publics like or don’t like certain energy system aspects and processes, and why uncertainty might emerge. Furthermore, it provides a basis for creating policies that are responsive to the core concerns publics have with regards future energy pathways.

Public values for energy system change include efficiency and avoiding waste; protection of nature and the environment; ensuring security through reliability, affordability, availability and safety of energy services; being mindful of autonomy and freedoms; social justice, fairness and transparency; as well as thinking in terms of long-term trajectories, ensuring changes represent improvement and considering implications for quality of life.

In the research report, we stipulate that acceptability of any particular aspect of energy system transformations will, in part, be conditional upon how well it fits into the value system. Critical to this argument is the notion that public perspectives are not about technology alone, they are about what the technology symbolises and represents.

To illustrate, our findings show that there is a strong public preference for solar energy in the supply-side of our energy system (85% were found to be favourable towards solar energy). The research also finds that solar energy is particularly associated with being ‘renewable’ ‘fair’, ‘just’, ‘clean’, safe and secure, as well as delivering perceived benefits in terms of affordability. Accordingly, we assert that if solar power was deployed and developed in ways no longer congruent with these values it would not then fit with the public preference for solar energy. For example, we might imagine a solar energy development supplying the UK but residing in North Africa being revealed as causing local environmental contamination and land-use territorial disputes. This incarnation of solar would not fit the public preference for this form of energy provision, not because it is no longer renewable but because in this instance it would no longer be seen as ‘fair’, ‘just’ or ‘clean’. As such, importance is attached to the inclusion of renewable, clean, fair and just elements in future energy systems, not solar energy technology per se.

Our findings further show that the British public do not locate responsibility for the enactment and delivery of energy system change with any one group. Indeed they perceive responsibilities for individuals, industry (e.g. energy companies) and government, although it is the latter that was seen as ultimately responsible. The Government’s role is perceived to be around developing an overall vision to work towards including creating the policies and structures needed to encourage change and being clear with regard to the available options. This is particularly important because markets and energy companies are not viewed as effective mechanisms for delivery of transitions in ways commensurate with the values set out above.

Perhaps juxtaposing this ascription of responsibility is the public perception that government is sending mixed signals in terms of its commitment to a trajectory which would be in line with the values above, and whether it is even taking its own policies seriously (e.g. climate change targets).

The recent story about tax breaks for shale gas will further confound the perceived incongruence in government’s messaging and increase public suspicion with regards to its commitment to affect positive change for a more sustainable future in line with public values for energy system change– an energy future that most believe should not be predicated on fossil fuel use.

The discussed research is part of the UK Energy Research Centre project ‘Transforming the UK Energy System: Public Values, Attitudes and Acceptability’. The full report can be downloaded from this website:

Climate Change: The Story So Far…

by Stuart Capstick, June 2013

Writing and Climate Change poster image

As a subject which is of profound importance yet at the same time intangible and removed from everyday experience – not to mention divisive, thorny and confusing – climate change is as difficult for artists and creative writers to grapple with as it is for scientists, policy-makers and activists.

This was a theme touched on many times during the Writing and Climate Change event hosted by the University of East Anglia (UEA). UEA is renowned for its strengths both in climate science and creative writing, and so is the ideal location for these two worlds to be brought together. The results were impressive.

The day began with reflections from Prof. Phil Jones on the 2009/10 assault on climate science that came to be known as ‘Climategate’. As a man who was vilified by sceptics but vindicated by the academic community, Jones has suffered more than most in personal terms for the street fights that have been fought over climate change. His views on the day however comprised a softly-spoken rebuttal to sceptics in terms that focussed on how science could and should respond to people’s doubts.

For most other speakers, however, the boundaries between science and society, and between hard facts and the search for meaning, were more blurred. For Brendan Montague, a journalist interested in climate scepticism, there are huge problems in the narrative used by those who want to see action on climate change. It is, he suggested, a terrible story: we ourselves are the villains, and the plot is full of self-flagellation, complicity, guilt and greediness. By contrast, the sceptics’ story is one in which they are the heroes, puncturing the hubris of a conspiratorial class and leaving us free to live the lives we want. Many others also spoke of the search for new narratives and metaphors that connected with people in ways that have not been the case to date.

Several compelling performances and talks from writers brought home the dilemmas and the conflicts that climate change gives rise to. Two excerpts from Steve Waters’ plays Resilience and On The Beach saw scientists – both young and idealistic, and time-worn and cynical – propelled into the domain of government obfuscation and self-interest. Likewise Giles Fodens’ reflections on his novel Turbulence brought home the uneasy relationships between science and political action. A separate performance with actors playing the parts of key figures in the climate change debate, and constructed using only direct quotes taken from scientists and members of the public, persuasively conveyed the clash of realities that epitomise this topic.

The organisers and UEA’s Centre for Writing and Science promise more events of this kind in future. In the meantime, the growing interest in the links between art and science in understanding climate change will be explored further at the Future Climate Dialogues event in Aberystwyth on the 13th June.

Climate Change in and out of the Curriculum

by Catherine Butler, March 2013

Climate Change Wipe board Photo

Recent news that climate change along with sustainability and energy use reduction will be dropped from the geography curriculum for under 15 year olds has provoked considerable debate. In reading the flurry of commentaries and comments about this I found myself reflecting on the words of a young energy biographies interviewee regarding her views on energy.

“…we just talk about it too much almost. If they are so keen on these ideas, why don’t they use it more? But they don’t so it’s just ‘Well’” (Hannah, 14)

This resonated for me with a concern I had long held about the role of what Brian Wynne has called ‘institutional body language’ and the problems that arise when it contrasts the formal messages being communicated. Perhaps nowhere more than in the sustainability domain does this issue arise so clearly – formal messages tell of current and future disaster for people and other species around the world, while at the same time institutions behave as if their current practices are in no immediate need of significant change.

It is undoubtedly important that children are taught formally about the major issues of our times, including climate change and sustainability more widely. This question of institutional body language, however, raises a broader set of concerns around education that are salient for this debate. Centrally, a strong and well rounded educational programme that deals properly with sustainability needs to be complemented by corresponding action within schools and wider society. I wonder if a better way to teach about “their values and responsibilities to other people, to the environment and to the sustainability of the planet” (now removed from the current curriculum) would be to do so through undertaking sustainable practices within schools, as well as across other domains of wider society.

Sustainable travel policies (walk to school clubs, school buses etc.) could be one example of a piece of action that could underpin formal teaching within schools and allow children to connect up their formal learning with experience but there are many more. Within wider society the development of infrastructure that aligns with messages about sustainability (e.g. renewable energy supply technologies, cycling facilities of the kinds found all across Europe but strangely not in the UK) would also provide a firmer connection between formal teaching and experience in everyday life.

Indeed, this type of “communication” about sustainability will likely be all the more powerful not only for young children but also for adults. We are all faced with messages about environmental destruction on a daily basis with little explanation of what to do about it or what is being done about it by others in positions of greater power. For government a way forward may be to consider the action they could be taking to reinforce messages about sustainability and lead a citizenry (young or old) toward a better more sustainable future of practice within the UK.

The Wind Back-lash

by Karen Parkhill and Catherine Butler, Feb - March 2012


Over the last several weeks, during increasing media scrutiny about different energy options including shale gas and nuclear power, it feels like wind power (onshore and off) has been the particular focus of fairly vociferous criticism.  The economics of wind energy has been at the centre of competing claims made about the efficacy and worthiness of wind being part of our energy mix.  At times, scary assertions have been made over the impact of wind energy on our household bills which has engendered a quick but measured response by those seeking to de-mystify the potential cost implications of government policy (e.g. See Gross, 2012: and consumer bills – investigating PX.pdf external link icon ).

Whilst public contestation towards the siting of local wind energy developments is not new, the current level of disagreeableness in the national press seems to have amplified recently. In this context we want to caution that media reporting should not be taken as a proxy for wider public attitudes.  Instead, we should focus on the merits of a more reasoned and reasonable debate about the future of the energy system. Amid the flurry of media reporting, political commentary and personal blogs we can sometimes forget that the important question is: How do we decarbonise our energy sector in a timely manner?  The current reporting of controversy surrounding many of our options for energy supply, including civil nuclear power, shale gas and wind, is not offering a particularly good basis for answering this question.

Energy Bills, Company Profits and Regulation

by Catherine Butler, November 2011

Energy bill

With energy bills going up again and recent announcements about energy company profits we take a look at the work Ofgem is doing to create a fairer market for customers.

This week Ofgem have announced changes to simplify tariffs in a bid to improve the level of competition between energy providers. The reforms are intended to create a market where consumers can have confidence that prices are set by effective competition between energy companies.

The reforms have been welcomed by consumer groups but they have also been greeted with concern that Ofgem is not going far enough and that more needs to be done to ensure a fairer deal for customers. In particular, the consumer watchdog Which? have called for an end to extra tariffs, such as £100 discount tariffs, that make it almost impossible to compare the actual value of deals.

The current reforms involve a standard charge set by Ofgem to cover the cost of getting energy to consumers along with a charge per unit of energy that can be easily compared across companies but this is only for standard tariffs. Consumer groups would like to see this applied across all tariffs to ensure the clearest possible pricing and billing to help us all ensure we are getting the best deal.

An Un-FiT Future?

by Karen Parkhill, 8 December 2011

Domestic solar panels on house roof

On 12th December 2011, the Government will introduce revised feed in tariffs (i.e. subsidies) for Solar Photovoltaic panels.  Before this, those who install solar PV up to 4kW receive a payment of 43.3p per kilo Watt hour of electricity they produce.  With solar panels costing around £10 -14,000 to install, estimating to last around 25 years (which corresponds with the FiT payment length of terms), solar PV was proving to be a lucrative opportunity to become prosumers (consumers of energy who also produce energy). After 12th December the tariff will be reduced to 21.0p/kWh.  At the time of writing the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) are running a consultation on the full revisions for the FiT which will close on 23rd December. Follow the link below for more information on the consultation:
 external link icon

In my view there appears to be general agreement that the FiT should be revised, particularly in light of lowering upfront costs (i.e. solar panels are now cheaper to purchase then when the scheme was launched).  The initial rate of 43.3p/kWh was appropriate given the need to spark investment and interest in a burgeoning sector, and it is also appropriate to reduce the tariff given that the scheme has achieved its aims of initiating a high number of installations.  Yet I do have a number of concerns about what the revisions may do to this emergent sector, particularly as the revisions and the underlying reasons for them seem ensconced in narrow economics.

First, the revisions do not appear to take full account of how solar PV can and has been facilitating work to tackle environmental and social justice issues. In-built into the revisions appears to be the assumption that those who are chiefly benefitting (financially) from the scheme are the middle classes and those who have propagated the “rent-a-roof” schemes.  Yet such assumptions, without attending to the complexities and contexts of individuals’ circumstances, are in danger of flattening out and streamlining their stories, as well as homogenising and perhaps even vilifying diverse groups. I would like to put forward the notion that, independent of individuals’ financial circumstances, solar PV have the potential to help transform communities and prompt interest in the development of sound environmental and social practices more widely.

For example, the income generated by community schemes could provide a means for re-investment which allows the community to develop things like social enterprises or community support action (e.g. local training).  It may also provide a platform for buying in other energy saving devices or promoting schemes aimed at reducing energy use (e.g. training of community members to provide household energy surveys and advice to others).  Such benefits arise in addition to the those related to reducing fuel poverty in more deprived communities.  These are just a few of the many ways solar PV could inspire and aid communities/individuals, no matter their circumstances.

Second, and in addition to the above concerns, there is the danger that changes to the FiT may be interpreted as a partial withdrawal of Government support for renewable energy technologies and green industries.  This may cause confusion over policy trajectories.  There is also the possibility that the swiftness of the implementation of revised costs, which may have caught potential installers off guard, could cause resentment and frustration.

It remains to be seen what impact the FiT revisions will have but clearly interest in solar PV as a consequence of the scheme is unprecedented in the UK. Indeed, it is the very success of the scheme that has led to the calls for revisions. How these revisions are delivered and the form they take in the end will be crucial to the continued success of developments in solar PV. My hope is that the many wider benefits of solar PV and the impact that very swift changes to the FiT will have are fully considered in the process of revision.

You can view the Energy Biographies response to the FiT consultation here.