Using academia to influence policy: reflections on one year at the Energy Saving Trust

Our FAIR Research Fellow Max Lacey-Barnacle shares his experiences working in policy, and how the experience interlinks with academia.

After moving from academia into policy work after completing my PhD, my time at the Energy Saving Trust (EST) as a Policy Officer has been nothing short of fascinating. Working on EST’s three core policy areas of energy efficiency, community energy and low-carbon transport has greatly expanded my knowledge of the research-policy interface as a result of this experience.

I have had numerous exciting opportunities to travel across the UK and Europe to meet with civil servants, policymakers and researchers working to address core energy and climate policy challenges. In addition, I’ve been able to work closely on fuel poverty and low-carbon transport policy with Welsh government, whilst also devoting time towards a Horizon 2020 project focused on energy efficiency (‘ENSMOV’) and the role of European energy agencies in the EU’s low-carbon transition through the European Energy Network.

The passion, commitment and intelligence of the individuals and organisations I’ve been involved with has been immensely inspiring in the face of the worsening global climate crisis. Moreover, I have learned (and still have much to learn) much from the brilliant staff at the EST and their dedication to tackling climate change. After my year at EST, I’ve transitioned back to academia in a Research Fellow role at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), working primarily on the innovative FAIR project, led by Dr Mari Martiskainen at SPRU. FAIR is investigating the links between fuel and transport poverty in the UK’s energy transition and will seek to understand how low-carbon energy transition processes may exacerbate and/or alleviate these forms of inequality. I’m excited to be working on such a pertinent project with strong research and policy relevance to low-carbon transitions, particularly after working in policy.

The FAIR Team

Acclimatising to policy

Coming from the academic world of researching, writing and publishing original work, the change of pace was one of the first challenges I had to acclimatise to when confronted with navigating the policy world. Policy certainly moves at a much faster pace than academia. Indeed, keeping up with the dynamic changes of government policy at multiple levels of governance (e.g. local, regional, devolved and national) requires a keen eye for how multi-level policy shifts influence the shape and trajectory of the low-carbon economy.

Seeing the temporal disparity between the two worlds of academia and policy led me to ask; how can the policy world be influenced by the academic world, when critical changes occur and core outputs emerge at such different paces and timescales?

Getting original research published in academic journals can take anywhere from three months to two years, whilst policy outputs such as blogs or briefings – or even consultation responses to influence policy –sometimes take just a matter of weeks. However, in spite of this disparity, it’s clear that both worlds ‘speak’ to each other and this is evidenced through increasing engagement concerning the links between social inequality and climate change policy responses.

Areas of convergence between academia and policy

Issues such as ‘energy poverty’ and concepts such as ‘energy justice’ and a ‘Just Transition’ have begun to take centre stage in the policy world, whilst academics have arguably been writing about these concepts for many years. This year alone we have seen the European Green Deal integrate energy poverty concerns and a ‘Just Transition’ mechanism into its future plans, whilst the steady emergence of Just Transition commissions across the world demonstrates the importance of continued academic and policy engagement in how low-carbon transitions are governed and managed.

Being familiar with these concepts, I sought to integrate these ideas into many aspects of my policy work at the EST. What stood out the most during my time there, was the willingness of the devolved governments to embrace the critical work and ideas of academics, potentially more so than the UK government. For example, both the Welsh and Scottish governments seem to show more progressive attitudes towards tackling climate change and social inequality together e.g. via innovative Welsh legislation (Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015) and Scottish legislation (Fuel Poverty (Scotland) Act 2019). Additionally, Scotland has already established a Just Transition commission and Wales has announced intentions to set up a ‘Climate Justice Advisory Group’ that would perform broadly similar functions – monitoring the economic and social impacts of decommissioning fossil fuel power plants and what this means for fossil fuel industry workers. In addition, Just Transition commissions can be tasked with analysis of the social impacts of new low-carbon energy infrastructures and services. Currently, there are no equivalents in England, Northern Ireland and at the UK level.

Wales are monitoring economic and social impacts of decomissioning fossil fuel powerplants

The contribution of social science to energy and climate policy

Connecting these research-policy interactions forced me to think broadly about what social science research intends to achieve when analysing policy: do social scientists want to influence new policies or critically deconstruct the performance of existing ones? Is it possible to successfully do both? In many ways, the ultimate aim is to do both, particularly for policy oriented researchers.

However, one of the core goals of academic research is to shed new light on areas that have been neglected or ill considered. While academics may not see the immediate impact of their research on unexplored policy areas, patience may be a virtue if long-terms trends give rise to a renewed focus on their chosen area of research.

In addition, social scientists rightly feel compelled to highlight the potential exacerbation of social inequality by various policy responses to climate change, and to ask challenging questions in new contexts. For example, academic work on fuel poverty and ‘transport poverty’ shows a strong involvement of academics and researchers on the fuel poverty side and less so on the transport side. This is because the idea of transport poverty is a particularly novel idea in UK policy.

There is therefore room to expand the concept of transport poverty and issues of social equity in low-carbon transport innovations. However, it will be some time before such as concept becomes the ‘norm’ within mainstream policy discourse.

Whilst my year working in policy has shown me that the diffusion of such concepts into policy takes time, it is comforting to know these ideas are not falling on deaf ears – particularly in Wales and Scotland. As policy responses simultaneously addressing issues of social inequality and climate change intensify, policymakers will increasingly be forced to listen.

This article is based on an earlier 2020 blog post published by the RIPPLES research group, the original article can be found here.

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Have Yourself a Low Carbon Christmas – 128 Reasons to Embrace the Low Carbon Transition

It’s the season for decorating your tree, wrapping presents in dubiously recyclable paper and heading off to see friends and family.

Here at SEG all we really want for Christmas is a low carbon transition, but even as the evidence for climate change piles up some people remain unconvinced. So if Great Uncle Nigel starts a sherry driven tirade about all things ‘green’ over Christmas dinner, what are you going to say to win him round?

Luckily SEG academics Benjamin Sovacool, Mari Martiskainen, Andrew Hook and Lucy Baker have delivered the present you need in the not so festively titled Beyond cost and carbon: The multidimensional co-benefits of low carbon transitions in Europe. Published in this month’s issue of Ecological Economics, the paper outlines 128 reasons to adopt low carbon practices, examining the side benefits of German solar energy, French nuclear power, smart meters in the UK, and electric vehicles in Norway.

You can read the full paper here. We’ve also boiled them down to the somewhat festively themed 12 Benefits of the Low Carbon Transition.

Solar Panels on Snow With Windmill Under Clear Day Sky /

Improving access to affordable energy:

As low carbon energy technologies are rolled out worldwide, vital social goals can be targeted as a core part of the process. France’s pioneering expansion of nuclear energy included the ‘péréquation tarifair’, a cross subsidy which equalises tariffs across the country, particularly benefitting groups such as rural energy users who historically paid higher energy costs.

In the UK, gas and electricity customers using pre-payment meters have paid more than households on standard meters, with the added burden of enforced shop visits to top up credit. Smart-prepayment meters have not only reduced the price differential, but also allow customers to top up their credit online or over the phone.

Helping the Neighbours:

Large German investment and subsidies for solar PV systems are recognised to have played a huge role in kick-starting the global market. The economies of scale created by the German market led to a huge fall in the price of PV systems, which has produced global benefits for individual households and public/commercial bodies incorporating solar in their energy mixes

France’s substantial investment in nuclear provides a surplus which is exported to their neighbouring counties. Along with providing other European countries with low carbon electricity, France has benefited from €3 billion a year coming from energy exports, and increased energy security through reducing its reliance on imports.

New Toys

In Norway, EV drivers report that, beyond the environmental benefits, their cars are quieter, smoother and just ‘nicer’ to drive than conventionally fuelled vehicles. One participant in the focus groups used in this study noted:

“Anyone who has an EV feels it is a better car, just more comfortable for the driver. That comes in addition to the environmental benefits. It is smoother, responds better to your signals, can drive as slow as you like or it accelerates easily, you have better control. Most people I know who have bought an EV say “Oh! It is so nice to drive.” It works very quietly, compared to a traditional car with gears.”

The Giving Spirit

Government subsidies are often pivotal in encouraging the public to adopt new low carbon technologies. Norway has approached this issue with a comprehensive set of benefits to entice its population to electric vehicles. Not only are they exempt from purchase tax and VAT, but they also enjoy free charging, free parking, access to bus lanes and reduced rates on toll roads and ferries. In 2020/21, the UK will reduce the current 16% ‘benefit in kind’ tax rate for company car drivers to 0%, helping making electric vehicles a low cost option for company car drivers, and hopefully a broader set of benefits will follow for regular consumers.

Adopting smart meters can encourage better (cheaper) decisions regarding energy use. The increased level of energy visibility and awareness they provide can lead consumers to change their energy use habits, switching off appliances and using energy more strategically.

Home Comforts

Unexpected visits by strangers are a common source of anxiety for older people. Smart meters remove the need for meter readings, and eliminate this potential source of anxiety.

Smart meters may even have the capacity to help monitoring vulnerable households. For example: if a resident has not turned their cooker or TV for a period of time, it could be cause to alert family members in order to check on their wellbeing.

Bringing People Together:

Renewable energy facilities are generally installed in the countryside. In Germany, a large social benefit of solar, along with other technologies such as wind and biomass, has been reversing the tide of people moving from the countryside to the cities through the employment these large projects can bring.

Solar PV in Germany has also led to a greater level of autonomy in communities through self-supply, which has allowed them to move away from the dominant energy suppliers. This trend has brought benefits such as generating awareness of renewables and widening civic participation in policymaking, along with increasing individual choice in an increasingly competitive energy market.

Look to the Future Now – It’s Only Just Begun

Adopting one environmentally friendly technology can spark changes in other areas of people’s lives. In Norway, focus group members commented on how “people become green after buying an EV”, and how their widespread adoption had spurred interest from beyond the initial groups of environmentally-motivated ‘pioneers’ to the wider public.

Have yourself a carbon-neutral Christmas

(And a merry one too)

Sovacool, BK, M Martiskainen, A Hook, and LH Baker. “Beyond cost and carbon: The multidimensional co-benefits of low carbon transitions in Europe,” Ecological Economics 169 (March, 2020), 106529, pp. 1-19.

Edit 12/12/19:

And a big thank you to Dr Charlotte Louise Jensen, of Aahlborg University, for composing a christmas carol on this topic. Please feel free to use these lyrics for climate activist carolling this month.

Have yourself a low carbon Christmas
Make your footprint light
If you do your troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a sufficiency-based Christmas
Make Yuletide commerce-free
From then on your troubles will be miles away
Here we are as in tomorrow’s days
Happy green new deal of now
Gaian friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Through the years we all will be together
If the rising seas allow
Hang a shining hope upon the highest place
So have yourself a sustainable little Christmas
Have yourself a sufficient little Christmas
So have yourself a loving little Christmas time.

Edit 18/12/2019

And another contribution from Darrick Evensen

The Twelve Days of Low Carbon Christmas
By: Darrick Evensen (and Benjamin Sovacool)
[to be sung to the 1909 arrangement of the traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin]
On the first day of Christmas, we’ll live sustainably through…
Civic participation
On the second day of Christmas we’ll live sustainably through…
EV driving, and Civic participation
On the third day of Christmas we’ll live sustainably through…
New smart meters, EV driving, and Civic participation
On the fourth day of Christmas we’ll live sustainably through…
Demand reduction actions, New smart meters, EV driving, and Civic participation
On the fifth day of Christmas we’ll live sustainably through…
Economies of scale!  Demand reduction actions, New smart meters, EV driving, and Civic participation
On the sixth day of Christmas we’ll live sustainably through…
Early adoption.  Economies of scale!  Demand reduction actions, New smart meters, EV driving, and Civic participation
On the seventh day of Christmas we’ll live sustainably through…
Behaviour spillovers, Early adoption.  Economies of scale!  Demand reduction actions, New smart meters, EV driving, and Civic participation
On the eighth day of Christmas we’ll live sustainably through…
German rural solar, Behaviour spillovers, Early adoption.  Economies of scale!  Demand reduction actions, New smart meters, EV driving, and Civic participation
On the ninth day of Christmas we’ll live sustainably through…
Falling UK tax rate, German rural solar, Behaviour spillovers, Early adoption.  Economies of scale!  Demand reduction actions, New smart meters, EV driving, and Civic participation
On the tenth day of Christmas we’ll live sustainably through…
Norway’s subsidies, Falling UK tax rate, German rural solar, Behaviour spillovers, Early adoption.  Economies of scale!  Demand reduction actions, New smart meters, EV driving, and Civic participation
On the eleventh day of Christmas we’ll live sustainably through…
Péréquation tarifair, Norway’s subsidies, Falling UK tax rate, German rural solar, Behaviour spillovers, Early adoption.  Economies of scale!  Demand reduction actions, New smart meters, EV driving, and Civic participation
On the twelfth day of Christmas we’ll live sustainably through…
Market competition, Péréquation tarifair, Norway’s subsidies, Falling UK tax rate, German rural solar, Behaviour spillovers, Early adoption.  Economies of scale!  Demand reduction actions, New smart meters, EV driving, and Civic participation

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Productivity, collaborations, pints and jazz

Visiting Senior Research Fellow Siddharth Sareen shares his experience of the intellectual, social, and even musical life of SPRU.

It’s been a happy, productive and busy old time with the Sussex Energy Group (SEG) during my semester as a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU). My five month stint began in August 2019, with enjoyable chats with colleagues who were around and relatively free before the semester got into full swing. Social outings for a film (The Current Wars – an apt choice!) at The Depot and jazz at The Walrus made evenings convivial. And the odd guided hike through the beautifully undulating South Downs to Lewes for pints at The Snowdrop and The Swan gave ample scope for conversation and merriment. The month closed with chairing sessions and giving talks at the Royal Geographical Society – Institute of British Geographers conference in London, which featured a strong focus on energy geographies.

With September, leisurely walks through mulberry patches with scampering rabbits and sit-downs at the IDS or Falmer Bar became an occasional indulgence as work gathered pace. To make the most of my time at SPRU and in the UK, I had committed to several engagements spaced out during the semester. These included Adrian Smith’s post-automation workshop, which created ample scope for learning and inspiration as I drafted a manuscript on participatory environmental monitoring technologies, and a workshop on achieving net zero at University of Oxford, where I presented work that is taking shape as a SPRU working paper. I enjoyed plugging into various offerings on campus, such as a day on the pedagogic revolution spent reflecting on my teaching practice. Weekends afforded scope to pop over to the Florence Road Market and catch up with friends and relatives in various parts of the UK.

October was a blur, with a major grant application deadline, organising a biannual Beyond Oil conference and a Bergen Energy Lab seminar back at my home Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation at the University of Bergen, and giving seminars about my open access book (Enabling sustainable energy transitions: Practices of legitimation and accountable governance) at The University of Edinburgh and University College London right when it was published. This also features work by Benjamin Sovacool, my SEG host, who visited me in Bergen in May 2019 to contribute to a workshop on the theme. Another SEG colleague, Marie Claire Brisbois, also attended the workshop, and I’ve spent part of my time at SPRU editing a Global Transitions special issue that emerged from it.

Later that same month, I gave a plenary talk about my research on the governance of Portuguese solar energy uptake at an economics festival in Stavanger – the same city where I conducted fieldwork on the global climate strike as part of an organic collaboration with colleagues at SEG and elsewhere. This is the best sort of collaborative outcome from a research visit and one I had hoped for – I’m enjoying the co-writing exercise as the manuscript takes shape and learning from Mari Martiskainen’s able leadership. I also hopped trains across the Channel and back for a workshop in Amsterdam on the use of qualitative data in energy poverty research, making the most of being able to avoid aviation carbon emissions to participate in meaningful events in places that are difficult to reach by surface transport from my usual base in the fjords of western Norway. This workshop was part of the ENGAGER network on European energy poverty, where I co-chair a working group on indicators with another UK-based colleague, Harriet Thomson, and happily, Mari has also contributed to our upcoming working group report along the lines of her new FAIR project.

Entering the latter stages of my time at the University of Sussex, Benjamin, Andrew Hook and I got into the thick of things with a planned collaboration with Frank Geels for the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS). We travelled up to Manchester to spend an afternoon with Frank, puzzling over smart meter rollouts in Europe. I’m enjoying putting heads together for this work, which will continue into early 2020 when I am back in Bergen, and serve to naturally extend the productive engagement sparked during this semester. Whether it’s reflective chats with Andy Stirling and Matthew Lockwood, office “banter” with visiting fellows Beate Friedrich and Helene Ahlborg, or meeting up at London events with Abigail Martin, SEG serves as a confluence of interests that is both pleasant and generative. It is a delight to unpack these fertile overlaps at some length during my semester with the group, and I look forward to sharing insights with my colleagues in Bergen. Events like the SEG Away Day have, in many ways, been reminiscent of annual retreats in my home research group, and I am grateful for the privilege of being able to learn from both sets of experiences.

Before I leave SEG I will share some of my work at a Climate and Energy seminar, which is fantastic. It has been a packed and fun semester so far, and I carry fond memories of the university campus, the famous Laines and my regular haunts off Lewes Road, and of the friendly people who make academic life as socially rewarding as it is intellectually enriching!

Siddharth Sareen (

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Co-creation, communication and lots of energy: my day with SONNET

I arrived to Karlsruhe, Germany by train on October 2nd to attend the first in-person project meeting of SONNET – Social Innovation in Energy Transitions. The meeting was hosted by Fraunhofer ISI, the organisation co-ordinating SONNET.

After checking into my B&B, I made my way to the second project dinner, which took place – yes, you guessed correctly – in a vegan restaurant. The project team arrive from a walk during which they discussed city labs and what we can learn from them, and crowd into the restaurant to occupy two large tables.

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Astonishing Energy Futures

“Markets make a good servant but a bad master, and a worse religion.” – Amory Lovins

Guest blog by Susan Sun

I didn’t think my philosophy of life had a motto until I heard those words by Amory Lovins, the 2019 keynote lecturer at the Sussex Energy Group, University of Sussex. Amory Lovins is a physicist, energy analyst, chair emeritus of Rocky Mountain Institute, and author of 31 books including Natural CapitalismSmall Is Profitable, and Reinventing Fire.

To sum up his talk on Thursday 12th September on Astonishing Energy Futures: technology can save us from the climate crisis – but not in the way you might think. His bold hypothesis is that energy efficiency, far from being a dwindling and rising-cost resource, can continue to decouple wealth from energy consumption long into the future.

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The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent Sussex Energy Group.

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