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

Authors: Chad Walker, Patrick Devine-Wright, Melanie Rohse, Luke Gooding, Hannah Devine-Wright, Rajat Gupta

Published in:  Energy Research & Social Science Volume 80, October 2021, 102182


Date Published: 29 July 2021


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.

Keywords: Decentralised energy; Smart Local Energy Systems; Geography; Emplacement; Place framing; Place/boundary-making

Insights for EnergyREV:

Local boundaries of smart energy projects are elastic, varying significantly across case study projects. What they have in common is a pragmatic flexibility to broaden ‘where’ local energy takes place and by extension ‘who’ is involved, as required to meet project goals. These varied locales reveal how smart energy projects are also acts of place-making, building on previous local initiatives and attempting to portray specific places in positive, distinctive ways.