Community energy initiatives to alleviate fuel poverty: the material politics of Energy Cafés
Community action has an increasingly prominent role in the debates surrounding transitions to sustainability. Initiatives such as community energy projects, community gardens, local food networks and car sharing clubs provide new spaces for sustainable consumption, and combinations of technological and social innovations. These initiatives, which are often driven by social good rather than by pure monetary motives, have been conceptualised as grassroots innovations. Previous research in grassroots innovations has largely focused on conceptualising such initiatives and analysing their potential for replication and diffusion; there has been less research in the politics involved in these initiatives. We examine grassroots innovations as forms of political engagement that is different from the 1970s’ alternative technology movements. Through an analysis of community-run Energy Cafés in the United Kingdom, we argue that while present-day grassroots innovations appear less explicitly political than their predecessors, they can still represent a form of political participation. Through the analytical lens of material politics, we investigate how Energy Cafés engage in diverse – explicit and implicit, more or less conscious – forms of political engagement. In particular, their work to “demystify” clients’ energy bills can unravel into various forms of advocacy and engagement with energy technologies and practices in the home. Some Energy Café practices also make space for a needs-driven approach that acknowledges the embeddedness of energy in the household and wider society.