research

Energy grids are not uniform. They have uneven social and cultural consequences that have affected energy use over time. In this theme we explore how grid developers have envisaged consumers in relation to the spatial formation of grids. And we ask how such visions have been connected to emerging domestic arrangements and shifting temporalities of demand. Our case studies include hydro-electric developments in Canada and Britain. The arrival of networks was uneven in different regions connecting consumers to a variety of material resources and infrastructures. This research theme investigates the range of connections forged by the arrival of grids and how these supported divergent methods of heating, cooking and lighting. Electrified and other energized spaces are shown to be the products of distinctive socio-political regimes that have evolved together with variable and dynamic consumer roles, expectations and routines.

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'Communicating Material Cultures of Energy' project is a one-year public engagement funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project explores various ways to improve the public communication of energy-related information and knowledge by bringing together 'energy communicators' across sectors and industries.

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Throughout the twentieth century projected visions of future energy supply and demand have fluctuated between utopian and dystopian scenarios. Long before the 1973 oil crisis concerns over long-term energy shortages led national governments, international organizations, experts and consumers, to predict what an energy future ‘might’ look like. These forecasts reflected current anxieties and hopes for the future, building short-term concerns into long-term horizons. This strand returns these forecasts to their historical context. It considers who had the authority to make the forecasts, and what wider political and social ideologies were incorporated into forecasting practices? It looks at the shifting role of the ‘expert’ and the changing role of more popular non-technical voices, including social movements and consumers, in authorised and unauthorised predictions of the future.

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Black-outs, brown-outs and other disruptions of energy are today often associated with poor and developing countries, or as exceptional moments such as the Oil Crises of the 1970s. But energy shortages were a frequent feature also in advanced industrial societies and across the twentieth century. In this theme we are especially interested in the social, cultural and political histories of such disruptions and what they can tell us about a society’s attitudes to energy, ideas of ‘normality’ and fairness. Shortages tested a society’s ability to make do with less, and revealed norms and assumptions about fair shares and appropriate usage. In the case of electric networks, peak demand at particular times of day created a particular pressure. With selective case studies from Japan, Britain, and West and East Germany we examine the politics of disruption, paying particular attention to questions of distribution between different groups of consumers (from households to heavy industrial users) and to the politics of time. Disruptions reveal otherwise hidden dynamics and unspoken assumptions. They reveal people’s potential for flexibility and resilience at a time of stress. Such knowledge is vital to help us think about how we might deal with similar situations in the future.

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What are the dynamics of change that lurk behind the trillions of KWhs that we in the developed world have come to treat as normal? The transition from wood and coal to coke, electricity, natural gas and oil varied immensely by country, region, class and building type. We examine people's values and practices as well as how new fuels were marketed. We look at how energy was gendered, made visible, priced and communicated, and at earlier efforts to modify behaviour and promote new technologies, with case studies in London, Burton-on-Trent, Saijo City (Japan) and Frankfurt am Main. These diverse energy worlds provide historical insights for energy transitions today and prospects for a more sustainable future.

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