EASA Conference panel 25: Energy in Motion

EASA 2018 conference in Stockholm was the occasion for the EAN Network’s first fully fledged energy panel. A strong line up of papers reflected the quality of current anthropological research in the field, and the growing interest in an expanding range of topics. The theme of the panel was ‘Energy in Motion’, reflecting the conference theme: ‘Staying, Moving , Settling’.


Papers touched on themes relating to the state and citizenship, superstate or transnational agendas, resource colonies and participatory planning, economic citizenship and ethics, to name but the most prominent. Importantly for the network, the first paper reported on efforts to ensure that anthropology is well represented in European energy research, through the SHAPE-ENERGY project (‘Social Sciences and Humanities for Advancing Policy in European Energy’), but the findings reported raise some concerns. The project set out without a well considered methodology, and although it tried to incorporate ‘stakeholder participation’, it committed elementary mistakes, such a demanding that minimally trained researchers try to combine running multi-stakeholder meetings while also trying to observe and report on them.  Nathalie Ortar presented a troubling case, raising concerns that even in a project that aims to include social sciences and humanities in energy research, the humanities were completely excluded, and the social science was deeply flawed. Where was the critique in the development of the project? Why did it start from the EU Comission’s premise (ie energy behaviour change) rather than  those posited the SSH disciplines? Where in the broader project are studies of energy practices, analyses of bureaucratic organisations, powers of capital, political dilemmas, oppositions and resistances, systems of exchange and distribution, or other questions that are of concern to social sciences? And how were anthropological ideas so clearly sidelined? Given the role of this project in purportedly shaping the Comission’s research agenda in energy in the coming years, it is crucial that we put forward our collective views from Anthropology about what we think should be on the agenda.

The other papers amply demonstrated what value can be gained from anthropological research. Several of them addressed questions about energy as an abstract and analytic concept that has is also a concept of state and science, and is already embedded in hierarchies of power. The term itself may be alienating in some circumstances, and rarely unites people politically in ways that can dominate the political agenda. At the same time, the ‘energy nexus’ is on the move – while concepts like ‘transition’ suggest before and after states, multiple and intersecting energy systems are constantly in motion and difficult to pin down. Where they are represented as fixed (eg as material infrastructure), then attention must be paid to the means by which stability is conjured, by whom, and to what effect. 

In one of Europe’s largest gas fields, apparently stable things are quite literally moving. Elisabeth Moolenaar showed how the early days of gas extraction in the northern Netherlands in the 1960s were associated with national solidarity, as profits from international gas exports were ploughed into a national rail system and other social programmes. The national gas company gained respect as a good employer, and gas became a ‘national treasure’. Fast forward to the 2010s and increasingly damaging earthquakes were causing significant structural damage to houses and other properties in what is one of the Netherlands’ poorer and peripheral areas. Suddenly, gas is no longer a treasure but a curse, and the state is no longer the great provider but a ‘gas mafia’ who extract resource from the region and leave it in ruins. Environmentalism and conservation bring new energy subjectivities into play, as early resistance to wind turbines takes on new shades of green. Citizens become energy experts, while craving recognition from the state that appears as a kind of renegade parent. A new formation, ‘gas opposition’ sees activists generate solidarity with First Nation Americans and Nigerians in their suffering caused by the actions of the Dutch oil multinational, Shell.

The role of such multinationals, and the differences between them, was the subject broached by Ståle Knudsen, who began by pointing out that over 70% of world oil is owned by national companies. Reporting on a project entitled ‘Energethics’, Ståle showed how Nordic energy companies prefer not to employ philanthropy in their interpretation of Corporate Social Responsibility, but prefer to talk about environmental and social management of sustainable livelihoods. But this causes difficulties when they begin to operate in countries such as Turkey, where philanthropy is the primary mode of corporate plenitude. Nordic discourses about social responsibility and competitive edge fall flat, and employees struggle to reconcile the demands from HQ for good-news stories with the local context in the countries of operation. For electricity corporations, engaging in electrical development means engaging with grids, which in turn are are kind of state-technology nexus. Agnese Cimdina elaborated on the role of Nordic corporations struggling to gain a foothold in the United Arab Emirates. Despite persistent attempts to buy into the UAE’s energy market, corporations such as Statoil have failed to make headway, despite the enormous, even hubristic ambitions of the UAE organisers of Expo2020 and the World Future Energy Summit, to transform hundreds of hectares of desert into an exhibition city. In the UAE, social relations always go before business relations, whereas the Nordic model starts from business and fails to make progress.

Where, then, are the spaces for insertion into infrastructural matrices for different actors, whether corporations, entrepreneurs, or the citizens, community groups and activists that Moolenaar and others described? And what of the many people displaced by energy developments, such as the coal-communities of North Rhein Westphalia described by Valeska Flor? Flor adopted a scheme devised by Scudder and Colson in 1982 to evaluate the role of self-determination in mitigating the effects of forced resettlement. According to her findings, where citizens participate in the resettlement planning and implementation, they find it easier to find ways to cope with the immense upheaval of moving not only house but village and community. For such citizens, becoming an ‘energy expert’ can be an  important role that allows people to be independent of the energy companies who are responsible for destroying their homes. Energy citizenship here is articulated in terms of agency and respect, as the state’s commitment to enforcing unlimited energy supply has consequences that are not born equally among citizens.

Of course, such uneven effects are not to be found only in Europe, far from it. High ambitions for rapid transitions away from fossil fuels in Nepal, for example, could have dire consequence for those Nepalis who rely on cheaper, more accessible and flexible fuels such as kerosine. According to Mikkel Vindegg, a radical crackdown on corruption in the electricity sector in Nepal in 2016 improved the situation, but did not bring an end to ‘load shedding’, the regular switching off of supply district by district that is used to deal with the lack of generating capacity. In such a context, the adoption of solar panels might be expected to be attractive, but the additional cost of equipment, including inverters or batteries mean that solar has not been adopted as a household solution to blackouts, as fossil fuels have, not least because solar power is seen to serve the grid, not the household. Once again the ambivalent role of the state as both provider and beneficiary causes unease about so-called ‘transitions’. Where people, in addition, are subject to migration and/or urbanisation, particularly in peri-urban settlements, the benefits of any kind of grid may be beyond their reach. Ben Campbell criticised a techno-agenda focused on ‘end users’ which ignores narratives of energy resilience that might be better served by categories of need. His current project,  ‘Energy on the Move’ addresses many such issues in Nigeria, Nepal, Bangladesh and South Sudan, focusing on gendered practices, informality, safety and health. He raised questions about the social and collective energy infrastructures such as the provision of diesel-generated electricity through patronage networks that do not fall within market rationalities.

Martin Fronck characterised ideas about future energies not as technical problems, but as political and ethical challenges between incommensurable forms of knowledge. In Southern Chile, a national ambition to achieve 70% renewable energy brings great pressure to develop geothermal resources found primarily in Mapuche regions of the Andes. Classic political discourses of ‘remote’ areas as locations of ‘undeveloped resources’ have brought significant scientific funding to explore geothermal possibilities. Martin showed images of a landscape littered with defunct experimental equipment in an environment experienced by Mapuche as alive with spirits whom humans should request permission from for any incursion into forests or mountains. Ruins of geological curiosity and failed future-visions risk enraging the spirits who may rend the land asunder through eruptions and earthquakes. Martin reminded us that geoscientists cn also experience an ethics of care, and the powers of embodied experience, but that the language of science promotes stabilisation and depersonalisation. Scientific methods promote distance as a resource, but require proximity for experimentation, at least temporarily. And here, again, we see science being used as a tool of statecraft, with state patronage for science that is not matched for citizens.

Together, these papers raised an array of questions for energy anthropology, about the role of  states and international bodies in energy infrastructures, the politics of energy transitions and the materiality of energetic visions, future and past. There is much work to be done, and impressive degrees of enthusiasm from anthropologists engaging in a myriad of energy questions, making it all the more urgent that European research agendas and opportunities make space for this exciting and productive research.


Simone Abram

September 2018

Smart Energy in Intercultural Contexts: Nordic Innovations in the Gulf

By Dr. Agnese Cimdina[1]


The following reflection is a prologue to my post-doctoral research, which focuses on the internationalization of clean tech and smart energy solutions. I study how the global shift towards green energy—away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy economies—is taking place locally in the context of specific business development plans of Nordic companies in the Gulf. Oil economies Norway and the UAE are my main case study areas.

Since the discovery of oil in the UAE in the 1960s, it has financed rapid socioeconomic development through hydrocarbon exports. Alongside the export market, the country has built an extremely energy-intensive economy. The country’s impressive oil and natural gas revenues have enabled them to build ultramodern infrastructure, to construct a high level of welfare for UAE nationals, to support an increase in population, as well as to exert international influence.[2] With sustainability challenges increasing rapidly, however, the UAE—along with the rest of the GCC[3] countries—has started to focus on diversification of the economy, investing in cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. In the UAE alone, “more than 300 billion dirhams[4] [have been] . . . invested in establishing a focus for the country’s path ahead, with the aim of preparing for a diverse economy that frees future generations from dependence on the ever-fluctuating oil market.”[5]

Meanwhile, the Nordic region aims to be at the forefront of a sustainable global energy supply and global climate change solutions: climate change is a priority for the region’s politicians and top-level management.[6] Researchers warn that emissions are increasing dramatically and should be cut by 45 per cent by 2030.[7] In its attempts to incentivize the transformation of their oil economy to a sustainable knowledge economy, the notion of a “green shift” has become Norway’s key slogan. Support systems are in place for Norwegian companies to develop and promote smarter and cleaner energy technologies internationally, including in the Gulf. However, although diversification of the UAE energy mix towards renewables seems to present a good opportunity for Nordic clean technologies, more than a hundred Norwegian companies are active in the conventional oil and gas sector here, but only few in the renewable energy and green business sector. 

Sustainable Desert?

During my research visits at Nordic companies in the Gulf in 2018 it did not take long to realize that before turning to business cooperation within smart and sustainable technologies, be it among Emiratis or Norwegians, it is necessary to understand local perceptions of sustainability, energy, oil, and well-being.

In the course of my research, I became aware that the desert embodies the sustainability narrative in the UAE: it was in a tent set in the desert in 1960 that the nation’s founding fathers decided to build a world class, developed country.[8] The optimism to transform the seven emirates—heretofore “governed by a tribal system and plagued by a lack of education into a unified, modern, educated nation”[9]—was based on recently discovered oil and gas.

My fieldwork started with the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, which was part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2018. There was a broad range of topics covering future energy solutions, which attracted more than 30,000 visitors from 170 countries. I was told that the UAE produces one of the highest per capita waste quantities in the world and has among the highest per capita consumption of energy. Thus, in addition to energy transition sessions, I chose to attend one session on issues dealing with waste and energy where most of the audience was youth. The keynote speaker opened the floor with a question: “How many of you know what the green economy is?” No one replied. The keynote carried on: “What can we do when a landfill is full?” A couple of students answered: “Make a new one.” While panel discussions targeting energy transition in the Gulf reflected high awareness of sustainable energy, the specific concept of green economy seemed to be strange for the general public, including the youth.

Soon afterwards I participated to a workshop in Dubai, which was organized for Norwegian companies to explore business opportunities at the upcoming Expo 2020 in Dubai. Sustainability was presented as one of the three main themes. To house those sustainability businesses from all over the world a huge Sustainability Pavilion will be erected in the desert, which would generate its own power, process its own water and waste, and run almost independently from the grid. Sustainability consultants were hired to look for alternative sources of energy to run the pavilion and to show the variety of green plants available in the UAE. Through the windows of the Expo Dubai headquarters, I could see no plants, no roads, no colours other than sand-yellow: just an endless desert landscape and excavators. Exhibits of coral reefs, mangroves, and oases that were supposed to be in place to showcase how the UAE’s natural environment might inspire ideas for sustainability and the green economy seemed like an impossibility. What would be the costs to the environment to make this possible, I wondered.

Leading by Example and Water Scarcity

“Is it possible to grow vegetables in the desert?” I asked an Emirati farmer while discussing the competitive advantages of Nordic technologies for sustainable desert farming. “We have the example of a leader,” he replied:


          Sheikh Zayed got experts from Japan, America, Europe. He asked them for advice on how to grow this area green. They told him it’s not possible due to extreme heat, salty soil, and lack of water. After 20 years, when the UAE had an agricultural exhibition, he told the organizers to invite those experts again. They took them to the farms and to the green belts around the desert. He showed them what he had made. It was an expensive choice, but he had made it.


Inspired by this example, the farmer plans to develop thousands of square meters large vegetable farm and fish pond in the desert to contribute to food security. Technology that one Nordic start-up can offer to turn desert sand into fertile farming soil could be helpful in his endeavour. It has developed technology that can green the desert and cut the associated irrigation need by 50 per cent. The start-up has established its presence in the UAE and has received regional innovation prizes for its technology and believes this recognition could open the doors for business with farmers and golf club owners in the Gulf.

While limiting emissions through innovations in renewable energy and clean technology is a main driver for mitigating climate change, adaptation work focuses on water scarcity.[10] Interestingly, technology developed by this Nordic start-up addresses both these key issues. Their technology also has direct impact on 8 of the 17 UN sustainability goals. However, after being active and present in the Gulf for more than a year their product is not in the market yet. As for several other ambitious Nordic start-ups, matching supply with the local demand has turned out to be a time- and investment consuming process.

Research shows that water scarcity is a fundamental problem in the UAE – groundwater reserves are depleting at alarming rates not only by the impacts of climate change but also as result of overconsumption. These challenges are born of a mix of environmental, socio-cultural economic, and political conditions, such as high levels of per capita water and energy consumption and an increasing population.[11] By relying on desalination, locals tend to envision an idea of “water’s infinity,” regardless of its actual scarcity.[12] It has been estimated that the energy-intensive desalination processes cost the UAE about $18 million a day, but despite the challenges of fresh water production, the UAE has the highest per capita use of water.[13] Moreover, some estimates say that local water use might contribute 9 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year.[14]

Technology That Does Not Count

The events surrounding the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi were significant not only for my own understanding of local sustainability perceptions and prospects for Nordic clean tech start-ups in the Gulf, but also for a major player in the international energy business—Norwegian Statoil[15]. During the summit in 2017, Statoil signed a cooperation agreement with Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, over renewable energy development in Scotland. Hywind Scotland was to be the world’s first commercial-scale floating wind farm off the coast of Aberdeen. At the summit in 2018, they announced extension of their cooperation at Hywind.

Masdar and Statoil’s strategic partnership to pursue joint offshore wind projects was a success story for both companies and a significant step for these two oil economies in terms of diversifying energy resources. However, business in the renewable energy sector was not what Statoil primarily had hoped for when entering the UAE in 2010. At that time, Norwegian offshore technology was estimated to be 60 per cent less carbon intensive than the world average, and Statoil strongly believed their technological competence was a significant factor that gave them a competitive advantage. However, in 2018 when ADNOC[16] offered six oil and gas concessions for bidding, the first time ever offering major onshore and offshore blocks in a competitive round, Statoil was not among the companies to enter into agreements that would grant business development in the Abu Dhabi oil and gas sector for the next 40 years. Of note here is that Abu Dhabi has about 6 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves, containing multiple billions of barrels of oil and multiple trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

If Statoil’s technology can extract more oil in a more “environmentally friendly” way, if they can deploy carbon capture and storage to prevent carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, and use electric instead of gas turbines, why did their proven environmental technologies not open the door to a country that has one of the highest levels per capita of CO2 emissions in the world? Speculation in the Nordic business milieu was intense. Some agreed with Statoil’s explanation about UAE’s focus on commercial aspects rather than technological areas; some believed that Statoil’s technology was too advanced for the region; and others felt that ADNOC wanted to keep the business for themselves. The majority, however, speculated that important relationships were not properly considered: the UAE is known not only as an oil economy but also as a relational economy, where relationships come before business.

First Conclusions

After 25 visits to Nordic companies in the UAE and Bahrain during 2016 and 2018 as part of my research to understand how they succeed in entering the emerging smart tech and energy market in the Gulf, I have come to realize that managing relations and negotiating understandings of sustainability and models of development towards a greener economy is a core issue.

As Gunnel[17] observes, the imagined infinity of wealth in the region risks engendering the illusion that it is possible to revive the desert and construct water infrastructure as necessary through a seemingly ever-expanding oil economy. However, oil extraction is itself a water-intensive process, and as oil resources are decreasing more water is used in oil production processes, which in turn produces waste water that needs to be cleaned. Local narratives about a transformed, sustainable desert seem to be detached from the fossil fuel optimism that made these transformations possible.

Insights into the cases of Start-up and Statoil show that technological solutions alone cannot deal with resource scarcity, be it of water or oil, as long as there are divergent perceptions of sustainability and a refusal to believe in the limitations of ecosystems.

If we are to move further on smart energy business development, it is vital that we develop a better understanding of how sociocultural and political factors influence the use of energy resources, of how perceptions of sustainability are negotiated and reinterpreted, and of how such factors shape the ways in which oil economies articulate and act upon sustainability problems. Research aimed at adapting current energy technologies into more sustainable ones requires to bridge the gap between social sciences and technology, and to show the links between contemporary cultures, technologies, and economic actions.



[1] Social anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Business, Management and Economics at the University of Latvia. Applied research project “Smart Energy in Intercultural Contexts: Nordic and Middle East Business Interactions in the Name of Sustainability” carried out in cooperation with the University of Bergen (Norway) and Nordic Innovation Hub (UAE), Project.nr. funded by the ERDF. Special thanks for critical comments to Dr.Mari Luomi.

[2] Abdel Raouf M., Luomi M.2016. Introduction. The Green Economy in the Gulf. Routledge. London, New York.

[3] Gulf Cooperation Council

[4] Ca 72 billion EUR

[5] Al Maktum, M.B.R 2017:149. Reflections on Happiness & Positivity. Explorer Publishing. Dubai.


[7] https://www.aftenposten.no/verden/i/rLRBE8/Klimapanelet-Verdens-utslipp-ma-halveres-de-neste-12-arene.

[8] Al Maktum, M.B.R 2017. Reflections on Happiness & Positivity. Explorer Publishing. Dubai.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gunel G. 2016. The Infinity of Water: Climate Change Adaptation in the Arabian Peninsula. Public Culture 28:2. Duke University Press.

[11] Gunel 2016 (ibid.); Ahmed M., Al-Jabri A., Choudri B.S. 2016. Green challenges and some technological solutions in the water sector of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. In Abdel Raouf M., Luomi M.2016. Introduction. The Green Economy in the Gulf. Routledge. London, New York.

[12] Gunel 2016 (ibid.).

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Abu Dhabi Water Resources Master Plan (2009), Gunel 2016.

[15] As from May 2018 Equinor.

[16] Abu Dhabi National Oil Company

[17] Gunel G. 2016. The Infinity of Water: Climate Change Adaptation in the Arabian Peninsula. Public Culture 28:2. Duke University Press.

CFP: NAWEA/WindTech 2019 Conference (deadline extended May 1, 2019)

This is a reminder about abstracts for NAWEA/WindTech 2019 Conference, which will be held October 14-16, 2019 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Abstracts for papers and posters are due 1 May.  

This conference joins the symposium of the North American Wind Energy Academy (NAWEA) and the International Conference on Future Technologies in Wind Energy (WindTech). This combined event is inspired by and envisioned as North America’s counterpart to European Academy of Wind Energy’s exciting Science of Making Torque from the Wind and Wind Energy Sciences Conferences. The theme of NAWEA/WindTech 2019 is the Grand Vision of Wind Energy. The focus will be on research topics relevant to the next generation of wind energy technologies which will help facilitate the wind supplying a large fraction of the world’s energy supply.

This conference is being undertaken in association with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and in collaboration with the European Academy of Wind Energy

A number of side events and a field trip (on October 17) are also planned.

Details, including for the submission of abstracts, may be found at www.naweawindech2019.org

Postdoctoral Research Associate position at UW-Madison (deadline June 3, 2019)

Position: Research Associate (Postdoctoral)
Department: Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
Deadline: June 3, 2019

Requirements: Completed Ph.D. in Human Geography, Environmental Studies, or a related social science field, on community (preferably Indigenous-led) engagements with oil pipelines.

Job Duties: The Research Associate will draw upon their own prior and/or ongoing research to collaborate with members of the Horowitz Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on comparative analyses of community engagements with oil pipelines, in the aim of publishing peer-reviewed journal articles. The position is for nine to twelve months (negotiable).

Begin Date: 7/1/19 (negotiable)

Percent Time: 100%

Salary: $48,000 annually, minimum (depending on experience), plus benefits.

To Apply: Please send a CV, two sample publications, and two reference letters (sent directly) from your Ph.D. supervisor and/or people with whom you have collaborated on publications, to LHorowitz@wisc.edu.

PhD position Energy-SHIFTS programme (deadline 24 April)

Energy-SHIFTS is a new 2-year Horizon 2020 project, working to feed Social Science & Humanities (SSH) insights into EU energy policy, in particular the SET-Plan and Energy Union programmes. The project began on 1 April and will run for 2 years.
As part of Energy-SHIFTS, we are running a programme for SSH PhD students to be involved in key activities. This is our first call out as part of that programmme, with a set of opportunities to attend and support three workshops in the second half of June 2019 (in Brussels and Prague). Travel, accommodation and subsistence will be covered. Further details and the application process are set out below.
The workshops:
1) ‘The role of evidence in energy research & innovation policy’, led by ARU and co-hosted by the European University Association, 18 June in Brussels. This workshop will explore questions such as: How is SSH currently used in (energy) policymaking? What type(s) of evidence are regarded as ‘credible’, ‘robust’, etc.? What recommendations should we give to energy researchers, energy policyworkers, and indeed the EC to help drive this agenda forward?
2) ‘Social justice and just transition in fossil-fuel intensive regions’, led by E3G with the collaboration of Jagiellonian University and co-hosted by Bankwatch, second half of June in Prague. The workshop will bring together policyworkers, civil society and academics to discuss and tease out key issues to achieve and ensure social justice in processes of transition to carbon neutral economies. We are keen to encourage candidates from Central and Eastern European countries for this workshop.
3) ‘Creating inclusive engagement in low carbon transport solutions’, led by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in collaboration with Jagiellonian University on 25 June in Brussels. During the workshop, policyworkers, civil society representatives and academics will discuss issues related to inclusive and gender balanced research and innovation of low carbon transport solutions.
What’s involved?: One or two PhD students working in the energy-related Social Sciences & Humanities will be selected to support each workshop. They will attend, undertake video interviews with attendees, support social media, and write up a blogpost afterwards (therefore do highlight any experience in these areas in applications). There may be scope to feed into the workshop report which will make recommendations for both policy and the wider Energy-SHIFTS project. You would be part of the official Energy-SHIFTS PhD programme involving e.g. virtual meetings across the network, invitations to other events, and links into the project.
Application process: These opportunities are open to those undertaking a Social Science/Humanities PhD at a European institution, and who started their PhD within the last 4 years. Please send your CV, together with a cover letter (where you outline which workshop you would like to support, and your motivations/relevant experience to do so), and an estimated travel budget to/from the workshop, to rosie.robison@anglia.ac.uk and chris.foulds@anglia.ac.uk. Deadline for applications is 1700 UK time, Wed 24 April 2019. 
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