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Grassroots innovations in community energy: The role of intermediaries in niche development
Tom Hargreaves, Sabine Hilescher, Gill Seyfang, Adrian Smith

Last modified: 2012-03-19


Multiple sustainability challenges are increasingly seen as demanding a fundamental transition in the energy system. In this context, ‘community energy’ projects e.g. renewable energy cooperatives or local behaviour change schemes, hold much promise as sources of radical innovation. Studies of such bottom-up, civil society-led ‘grassroots innovations’, however, frequently highlight the profound challenges they face in growing, diffusing or even simply surviving.

Strategic niche management theories are potentially useful here. They highlight the importance of ‘learning’ across different local projects, and the necessity of ‘institutionalisation’ to create a robust niche able to survive in the contemporary energy market. Crucially, this learning and institutionalisation doesn’t just happen, but demands dedicated work by intermediary actors. These intermediaries are vital in aggregating and sharing lessons from multiple projects, in creating networks capable of assisting future projects, and in campaigning for niche development, yet their work is often ignored.

Drawing on interviews with intermediaries, and a content analysis of intermediary case studies, this paper examines the nature and extent of intermediary work in UK community energy. In so doing, it illuminates the difficulties faced in expanding and replicating locally-sensitive community energy projects, and tests the applicability of market-oriented innovation theories for community-based, grassroots innovations.