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Geoforum 56 (2014) 6676

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Micro-hydro politics: Producing and contesting community energy

in the North of England
Andrea Armstrong , Harriet Bulkeley
Department of Geography, Durham University, Lower Mountjoy, South Road, Durham DH1 3LE, UK

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Analyses of the politics of energy production have traditionally focused on issues of resource extraction
Received 13 October 2013 and large scale generation. Yet questions of politics are just as critical when it comes to considering the
Received in revised form 20 June 2014 development of small energy variously referred to as micro-or distributed generation and frequently
Available online 17 July 2014
associated with the growing role of communities in the production of renewable energy. In this paper, we
focus on a resource a local river to examine the ways in which a community-based project sought to
Keywords: produce it as a viable and legitimate source of energy production. Such an initiative, we nd, is fraught
Community energy
with challenges. In particular, we identify three facets of the production of micro-hydro power that have
Energy resources
been critical to its deployment and contestation. First, the means through which the hydro resource is
Politics of community energy production calculated and valued. Second, the ways in which recasting the river in energy resource terms serves
Hexham River Hydro to challenge established notions of the river. Third, the identication of hydro power as a low carbon
North of England energy resource has at once served to create new discourses about the role and responsibilities for using
the river as an energy resource, whilst also calling into question its viability in the long term under con-
ditions of climate change.
2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Introduction large scale hydropower (Bartle, 2002; Bridge, 2004a,b, 2010; Egre
and Milewski, 2002; Fletcher, 2011; Gabriel et al., 2013; Koch,
One of the key contributions emerging from the renewal of 2002). In this paper, we argue that attending to the politics of
social scientic interest in questions of energy has been a challenge energy production is just as critical when it comes to considering
to the assumption that energy resources are simply there to be the development of small energy variously referred to as
discovered, transformed and used. Instead, drawing on the long micro-or distributed generation and frequently associated with
history of studies of political ecology, researchers have interro- the growing role of communities in the production of renewable
gated the ways in which energy resources are socially and energy.
materially produced in geographically uneven ways and with Indeed, the deployment of micro-generation technologies
signicant political, economic and environmental consequences requires that various, sometimes unlikely, materials, entities and
(Bridge and Wood, 2010; Bridge and Le Billon, 2012; van der sites are recast as containing the potential for energy production,
Horst and Evans, 2010). Such perspectives critically illustrate from roofs for solar power to hillsides for wind turbines, wood-
how the politics and economics of energy are not conned to the lands and waste streams for biofuels, and gardens for ground-
ways in which such resources are shared or their externalities source heat pumps. In this paper, we focus on one such resource
are distributed and contested but are integral to the means a local river to examine the ways in which a community-based
through which different resources are produced as viable forms project sought to produce it as a viable and legitimate source of
of energy. For the most part, this research has tended to focus on energy production. Such an initiative, we nd, is fraught with chal-
the production of big energy of the mining of uranium, oil explo- lenges. While a great deal of research has now been gathered that
ration, transhipment of gas, coal mining, and the development of focuses on the organizational, institutional and political issues that
confront the development of community-based energy projects,
we suggest that including an analysis of the socio-material ways
in which energy resources are produced and contested through
Corresponding author.
such interventions provides additional insights into how and
why such projects (fail to) realize their potential. In particular,
E-mail addresses: (A. Armstrong), h.a.bulkeley (H. Bulkeley). we identify three key sources of contestation . First, the means
0016-7185/ 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
A. Armstrong, H. Bulkeley / Geoforum 56 (2014) 6676 67

through which the hydro resource is calculated and valued, which production of energy resources can, we suggest, enable us to
in turn shapes the nature of investment and return that are sought engage with the specicities of particular projects and places,
to make such an intervention viable. Second, the ways in which and enhance our understanding of the nature and implications of
recasting the river in energy resource terms serves to challenge community-based energy projects more broadly.
established notions of the river as a resource for shing, leisure
and ecology, and in so doing existing social orders and political Identifying the barriers to community energy generation
economies. Third, the identication of hydro power as a low car-
bon energy resource has at once served to create new discourses A diverse range of interventions to develop renewable energy
about the role and responsibilities for using the river as an energy resources, or to use energy more efciently, are termed commu-
resource, whilst also calling into question its viability in the long nity energy projects (Walker and Devine-Wright, 2008). The term
term under conditions of a changing climate. Using the river is applied to a wide range of development models, from technical
responsibly is no longer a clear cut matter of stewardship, or even projects located in a local place that comes to stand for community
of restoration to a previous healthy ecological condition (Eden to projects wholly owned and managed by a group who consider
et al., 2000), but instead requires an engagement with both social themselves as a community and everything between and within
and environmental futures. these categories. As Walker (2008, 4402) argues, establishing a
In the remainder of the paper, we rst examine the key insights community energy project involves many complexities, whichever
from existing research into the development of community energy model of development is adopted. In the face of this complexity,
projects, and suggest that this body of work could usefully be much of the literature has sought to understand how and why
extended by engaging with the literature on the political and geo- community energy projects come to be established. Issues of
graphical nature of energy production. Second, using the case study capacity, including a lack of expertise, knowledge or equipment
of Hexham River Hydro, a community-based micro-hydro project in (Walker, 2008), and the existence of knowledgeable local individ-
the North of England, we analyze the projects development by uals with expertise (such as retired engineers, accountants, law-
exploring the ways in which the processes of calculation, contesta- yers and community workers) is seen as critical in shaping the
tion and the continual repositioning of climate change shape both initial organization of renewable energy projects (Smith and
the development and ultimate demise of the scheme. Finally, we Seyfang, 2011). Projects often need expert advice and support
conclude by considering the key implications for community-based and learning from experience (Adams, 2008; Walker et al., 2007).
energy projects using micro-generation technologies. The ability to sustain the level of organization achieved at the start
of projects is another challenge because knowledge and skill may
dissipate over time (Walker, 2008).
Producing community energy? Research also identies some signicant technical barriers, for
example: the lack of incentives for network operators to connect
In many developed economies during the 1950s and 60s a cen- to small networks; the costs of trading and the difculty of access-
tralized system for energy generation was created with limited ing green certicates; the lack of market incentives for heat pro-
space for localized energy generation (Graham and Marvin, 2001; duction; and the challenge of setting up a local heat networks
van Vliet et al., 2005). Unlike some countries, where governments which require collective management, billing and metering that
supported decentralized, cooperative energy development models, are unfamiliar in the UK context (Walker, 2008; Watson et al.,
such ideas and approaches were an anathema to UK energy policy 2006). These technical challenges can be complex and impact
for most of the twentieth century (Walker, 1997). However, the directly on the projects nancial capacity. For example, barriers
introduction of new concerns about climate change and targets to market entry and network connection can mean that commu-
for the development of renewable energy, during the early 2000s nity projects struggle to realize the income generating potential
a range of government supported programmes were established of their project (Hain et al., 2005). In the UK, nancial resources
which led to a surge in local project development (Walker, for community energy have shifted from grants and pilot projects
2007, 1). Policy support, innovative nancial models, and the to incentives such as Feed-in Tariffs (FITs) and the Renewable Heat
development of feed-in-tariffs have meant that community-energy Incentive (RHI) (Smith and Seyfang, 2011). Grants involved a com-
projects are now a prominent and growing feature of the UK petitive bidding process, a pre-determined level of funding (a
energy landscape (Adams, 2008; Walker, 2008). lump sum) for a specic time period that was enough to start
Despite increasing interest and improved technologies, nanc- the process (e.g. conduct a feasibility study) but not enough to
ing opportunities and community governance arrangements aimed cover long term or unexpected costs. In contrast, incentives such
at encouraging community energy projects, the literature on the as FITs (launched in 2010) and the non-domestic RHI scheme
emergence of community energy projects in the UK details a num- (launched in 2011) provide a way of generating income from
ber of formidable barriers that hinder prospective schemes energy production once the scheme is built. The shift in funding
(Bomberg and McEwen, 2012). In particular, three related sets of is to encourage communities to develop their own energy projects
issues are often identied: organizational issues, relating to the however, this presents challenges for the UK community energy
capacities and ownership of community energy projects; institu- sector because co-operatives and community schemes and inde-
tional factors, the technical, nancial and legal aspects of govern- pendent commercial developers nd it harder to access nance
ment policy and of partnerships with non-state actors that than schemes backed by large utilities. That makes development
enable and constrain community energy projects; and the politics costs higher, returns lower and puts communities and other small
of local energy generation schemes, contestation that is regarded developers at a signicant disadvantage (Hansard, 2013). The
as particularly acute in relation to local wind energy projects. How- challenge of raising funds to cover capital costs at the high risk
ever, to date relatively little focus has been given to the ways in pre-planning stage has been identied as a major constraint by a
which particular energy resources come to be fashioned as the sub- number of commentators (see Middlemass and Parrish, 2010;
ject of community intervention, and the ways in which the social, Walker, 2008; Jaffe and Stavins, 1995).
material and ecological dimensions of such resources in turn There are further barriers identied in terms of fostering the
shapes the ways in which community-based energy projects come organizational capacity to support the development of energy
to be understood and contested. Drawing on the literature that has projects, especially in their early stages. Further institutional
examined the political economy and political ecology of the challenges are shaped by the structural resources available to
68 A. Armstrong, H. Bulkeley / Geoforum 56 (2014) 6676

community energy projects, in other words the level of state sup- Generating energy resources?
port and the wider political opportunity structures that can both
facilitate or hinder the mobilization of community energy pro- The conceptualization of resources and their politics have ben-
jects (Bomberg and McEwen, 2012, 435). The legal conditions eted greatly from recent work calling for a more nuanced and
under which a community energy scheme must operate to estab- sophisticated framework that moves away from the tired debates
lish its economic and technical viability has also been identied about the production of or social construction of nature (Bakker
as a critical issue (Dunning and Turner, 2005) because it involves and Bridge, 2006, 20) and instead draws on the notion of material-
engaging with a vast array of regulations such as complying with ity to consider a way to unpack apparent permanencies and sta-
UK and EU legal frameworks (e.g. the Water Framework Directive), bilities, and to show how the competencies and capacities of
seeking permits and planning applications. Micro hydro projects, things are not intrinsic but derive from association (Bakker and
for example, may require up to four permits from the Environment Bridge, 2006, 16). This opens up possibilities for understanding
Agency and planning permits may be required from the local how the socio-materiality of other resource spaces particularly
authority and consultation with the local community and other those so readily naturalized in physical terms as the resources
river users is a necessary process (Environment Agency, 2013). of oil elds, watersheds or hot spots of bio-diversity are produced
Accomplishing micro hydro requires the development of specialist topologically rather than being inherent or contained within those
expertise (e.g. consultant engineers, river morphologists, ecologists spaces (Bakker and Bridge, 2006, 17). Within the energy and
etc.) to navigate the technical landscape. Given the political, nan- water domain, research in this eld has included analysis of the
cial and legal complexity and expertise required to develop com- politics of large-scale hydropower, drought, urban water provision
munity energy projects, many have found it necessary to open and the issue of privatization (Bakker, 1999a,b, 2000, 2001, 2003),
up structural resources beyond the state. Partnerships are a key on the socio-ecological production of waterscapes including sani-
feature in initiating and then developing projects and this requires tation and irrigation (Swyngedouw, 1999, 2004, 2006), the ways
partners who are willing to work together, on the one hand, and in which global production networks are established through
gaining a broad constituency of support on the other. Partnership exploration, extraction, and exchange each of which is imbued
working is not without its challenges and gaining support beyond with complex calculations that weave together science, technol-
those in favor of pursuing community energy projects is a chal- ogy, economy and politics to produce energy resources such as
lenge faced by community activists, local authorities and private oil and gas (Bailey et al., 2010; Bridge and Le Billon, 2012) and bio-
developers (Aitken, 2010; Peters et al., 2010). mass (van der Horst and Evans, 2010).
Even where community renewable energy projects are being Rather curiously, less attention has been paid to the ways in
undertaken in partnership with a range of different organizations, which such processes and practices are at work in the micro-scale
many have been marked by controversy. In analyzing such contro- production of energy resources. As state and non-state actors, have
versies, the primary focus has been on large scale community sought to encourage the production of community-based energy,
energy projects such as wind power, which has been widely con- solar, biomass, wind and water resources at multiple scales have
tested in the UK and elsewhere (Pasqualetti, 2011). Here, the pol- come to assume a greater importance within and between local,
itics around the issue of community benets features as a major regional and national networks. As with energy production at other
challenge in the literature (see Aitken, 2010; Bristow et al., 2012; scales, any community renewable energy project is an insertion
Cass et al., 2010; Munday et al., 2011). The perception of commu- within existing socio-material ows, and in the process it enters
nity benets can evolve and be contested over the course of a com- into an entanglement of calculation, negotiation, commodication,
munity energy project and the reluctance of some developers to circulation and contestation. In the case of micro-hydro, existing
share details about benets leads to suspicion amongst the public water resources come to be regarded not only in terms of their
and at worst some see a benets package as a bribe (Aitken, 2010). existing resource use, but as a potential source of energy genera-
Controversies have also arisen around the politics of landscape and tion. The community-based organization and mobilization of par-
aesthetics (Firestone and Kempton, 2007; Warren and Birnie, 2009; ticular resources is critical in shaping what constitutes a legible
Zografos and Martinez-Alier, 2009). While this has been labeled and legitimate form of local energy source. Equally, the materiality
the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) stance, at stake in such contro- of energy resources in turns shapes how such interventions unfold,
versies are different forms of value about who takes decisions shaping what constitutes community (in terms of inclusion,
and which sorts of interventions should be accepted by whom extent, ownership, engagement and so on) and how this comes
and to what ends (Devine-Wright, 2009). At the same time, to be contested and recongured.
research has found a more muted politics has also arisen concern- In seeking to understand these dynamics in the production and
ing the impact of the development of wind power on bird popula- politics of micro-energy resources, two different sets of insights
tions with arguments including turbine blades killing birds, from the existing literature are particularly useful. First, much of
effecting migration routes and nesting sites (Fox, 2011). the research in this eld points to the importance of techniques
Narratives of the politics of such controversies tends to be of calculation in creating productive resources. As Bridge (2010)
dominated by analysis of the social dimensions of conicts over argues, the problem of calculation both underpins and under-
community energy resources, in terms of the competing dis- mines debates around the nature of oil reserves, and in particular
courses, coalitions, and interests that are at stake. However, from the issue of peak oil. This is because oil reserves are far from stable
a different conceptual viewpoint the contestation over commu- yet robust numbers are sought for calculation and such gures are
nity wind energy projects reveals the critical importance of the both political instruments (calculating national reserves) and arte-
socio-material resources through which wind energy is gener- facts of the scientic and technical networks that constitute them
ated, landscapes and coastal areas, and the ways in which com- and within which they continue to be embedded (Bridge, 2010).
peting uses for such resources whether this be for leisure, Bringing resources into productive use requires calculation, manip-
birdlife, or wind energy, are critical to the ways in which the pol- ulation and commensuration of a wide range of data, and the
itics of community energy unfold. Drawing on the wider litera- emergence of new renewable energy technologies has been accom-
ture on the political economy and ecology of the production of panied by a plethora of new techniques (see Gerbens-Leenes et al.,
energy resources can, we suggest, offer additional insights into 2009; Lasourd, 2001). Understanding how, why and by whom
the politics of community energy. calculation takes place, and what is and is not included in such
A. Armstrong, H. Bulkeley / Geoforum 56 (2014) 6676 69

processes, is therefore critical in understanding how resources

come to be constituted.
Second, the literature reveals the ways in which the socio-
materialities of resource production and use are central to the
ways in which contestation and conict unfold in these domains.
Political ecologies of water provision (see Gandy, 2004; Kaika,
2005; Swyngedouw, 2007) reveal how water engineering is
turned to as a means of developing the moral, cultural, and politi-
cal legitimacy of certain forms of rule (Ekers and Loftus, 2008,
709). Similarly Bakker (1999a,b), in a study of large scale hydro-
power development on the Mekong River, identies how state con-
trol turns an uncommodied resource into a commodied resource
and in the process redirects revenue away from local people. Con- Fig. 3.1. The scheme intended to harness the water ow under Hexham Bridge.
testations can span a broad range of apparently separate instances (Photo Source: BBC (2013) Hexham River Hydro scheme shelved due to cost, http://
such as engineering, politics, economics, culture, science, nature,
ideology, and discourse through which the tumultuous reordering
of sociophysical space is shaped and transformed, and out of which
a new socioenvironmental landscape emerges (Swyngedouw, development and, in this case, disbanding, of community-based
1999, 260-1). The means through which such re-ordering of energy projects.
socio-physical space is undertaken and contested through the Located on the River Tyne, to the west of Newcastle upon Tyne
development of micro-energy resources is therefore critical in and Gateshead, Hexham is a town of approximately 11,000 inhab-
terms of understanding the means through which community itants. In the autumn of 2010 Hexham Community Partnership, the
energy is (and is not) being produced. Transition Tynedale Energy Group and Hexham Town Council
However, and for all of the active processes of calculating and established a working group to explore the potential for a commu-
contesting socio-materialities of resources documented in the nity owned hydroelectricity scheme on the River Tyne in Hexham
eld, the politics and dynamics of (global) environmental change (Fig. 3.1). The actors involved in the initiation of the scheme came
rarely feature. On the one hand, the resources under consideration together around the loosely dened problematic of creating com-
are conceived in relatively static bio-physical terms such that their munity-based responses to climate change and energy challenges.
availability or attributes are largely seen as a matter of social or At this time, the formation of the problem space and the ideas gen-
technical intervention. On the other hand, the wider environmen- erated within the group were heavily inuenced by the local tran-
tal political contexts within which such issues are located are fre- sition initiative (Transition Tynedale), part of the international
quently put to the background, as frames or canvasses across Transition Network. The research identied three key drivers that
which the politics of particular resources play out. For example, shaped the development of the community energy project in
Bridge (2010, 523) discussing the geographies of peak oil, opens Hexham (Table 3.1).
with the statement that The twin concerns of energy security Micro-hydro is regarded in this context as a means of address-
and climate change now increasingly frame the space in which ing climate change and the challenges associated with responding
environmental futures will be worked out but climate change to issues of energy security and peak oil on the one hand, and as a
remains in the background to the analysis of how peak oil has been particular form of intervention that can yield community benet
constituted. Resource management literature similarly uses cli- on the other. The idea of Hexham River Hydro (HRH) emerged from
mate change as a given, for example, to explore whether adaptive the dialogue generated in this context. The aim was to build a
and community-based resource management can enhance resil- 100KW community hydro power generation scheme using the
ience to climate change (Tompkins and Adger, 2004). Here, we sug- modern version of the Archimedes Screw. The proximity of the
gest that it might be productive to think through the ways in which groups involved, their professional expertise, and shared interests
such social, political and biophysical dynamics play out in the con- in addressing climate change and energy vulnerability in the town
stitution of resources themselves, so there is no ready separation provided the basis for the initial collaboration and conception of
between the local energy resource being constituted and the glo- micro-hydro as a possible means through which to address these
bal problem of climate change which it is intended to address, but common concerns. In 2011, HRH entered the large project category
rather that such global dynamics come to play an important role in of the Energyshare1 competition, and in May 2011 began working
constituting the socio-materiality of the resources themselves. This with Carbon Leapfrog to develop a business plan. Winning the Ener-
in turn means that it is imperative to understand how the physical gyshare competition provided 100,000 to fund the next stage of the
and social dimensions of climate change shape and are re-shaped process and enabled the partners to access a wider network of exper-
through the development of, in this case, community-energy pro- tise. However, as the project progressed it became clear that there
jects, and come to be used, discarded or morphed in conjunction was signicant opposition to its development from other river users,
with the different interests of the other agencies involved. especially those involved in the angling/shing industry. Despite the
momentum and publicity behind the scheme, its nal demise came
about (according to HRH) because of nancial risk. Capital costs were
Turning water into energy: the Hexham River Hydro project initially estimated at 1 m by a feasibility study but a detailed design
study conducted later in the process revealed the costs would be
Understanding the development and implications of commu-
nity-based micro-generation schemes, we suggest, requires an
engagement not only with the organisational, institutional and 1
The Energyshare scheme was launched on the 26 May 2011 by its founding
political dimensions of such initiatives, but also with the socio- partners British Gas (an energy company) and River Cottage a more than prot
materialities through which such processes take place. In this sec- organisation started by the chef, food writer and campaigner Hugh Fearnley
Whittingstall in 1998. The scheme aims to bring people together in person and
tion, we analyze the development of a micro-hydro scheme in the online who would like to source, use and generate their own energy. The partnership
North of England, Hexham River Hydro (HRH), in order to explore with British Gas ended in 2012 but the scheme continues, see http://www.
the ways in which such dynamics come to be worked through the accessed August 2013.
70 A. Armstrong, H. Bulkeley / Geoforum 56 (2014) 6676

Table 3.1
Key drivers shaping the development of Hexham River Hydro.

Driver Examples of how this is articulated in the discourse of HRH

Community energy project To develop a hydro-electric generation scheme thus securing long-term generation of renewable electricity from the River Tyne at
Hexham. To use the hydro-electric generation facility as an educational and an environmental awareness raising tool, both for residents
of the area and visitors to Hexham. To demonstrate that generating renewable electricity is compatible with protection and even
enhancement of the amenity value of a major river. To attract more visitors to Hexham (hydro power schemes even small ones have
proved to be popular visitor attractions elsewhere (Hexham Community Partnership, 2011:1)
Example of a low carbon To promote community engagement in securing a low carbon future (Hexham Community Partnership, 2011:1)
Secure nancial resources To utilise the resulting income to secure long-term funding for the low carbon and regenerative activities of HCP (Hexham
Community Partnership, 2011:1)
We plan to use the income generated to promote and develop local community projects in and around Hexham and the Tyne Valley
(HRH Leaet, version 16 April 2012)
The income will be an important and sustainable funding stream for a wide range of community projects focused on social and
economic regeneration such as Hexham East End Regeneration Project; Green Energy Fairs; public events such as Spook Night and
Farmers Marketsa
For the rst 20 years of the scheme we expect to receive the appropriate Feed In Tariff for a hydro scheme of this size. For the
remainder of the life of the scheme we expect to receive income from the sale of the electricity we generate. We expect the scheme to
generate an annual surplus of at least 30,000 per annum, to be spent on community projects in and around Hexham (Hexham
Community Partnership, 2011:4)
Source: Hexham Community Partnership website: Frequently Asked Questions see
river-hydro-faqs.php Accessed March 2013.

Table 3.2
Hexham River Hydro Timeline.a

Time Activity
Autumn 2010 Working group explore the possibility of a community energy scheme
April 2011 Pre-feasibility study conducted by Inter Hydro Technology Ltd.
Detailed nancial models produced by HRH core team (ongoing throughout the period)
May 2011 Application to Energyshare competition
JulyAugust Stakeholder consultation started
September Support from Carbon Leapfrogb to develop a business plan
November Shortlisted to the nal round of Energyshare
December Winners of Energyshare large project category, securing 100,000
January 2012 Design tenders requested
March 2012 Meeting between the project leaders, the Environment Agency and interested parties such as anglers and Tyne Rivers Trust, chaired by the local MP
April 2012 Catriona Mulligan (HRH) keynote speaker at Highlighting Hydro event alongside Karen Keast from Mott MacDonald (global environmental
consultants) held at Hexham Golf Club
May 2012 Meeting with key representatives from major canoeing and rowing water sports clubs (e.g. Tyne Green Water Sports Association) to explain HRH
plans and listen to their concerns and receive their advice
June 2012 Lead consultants appointed Cundall Johnston & Partners LLP (consultant engineers) to produce a detailed feasibility report
Key advisors appointed, working with the lead consultants Mann Power Consulting Ltd. (hydrology); Fishtek (specialist sheries) and local ecologist
Ruth Hadden from Ryal Soil and Ecology
September Public consultation public display and two public meetings arranged (one focusing on shing and the other on wider community interest)
January 2013 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA, scoping assessment) by Cundall presented to Northumbria County Council (NCC)
February 2013 Detailed feasibility report completed by Cundall
June 2013 Public announcement that HRH will not proceed as a standalone community project
Timeline collated from publicly available materials (Hexham Community Partnership Website, local newspapers and the Transition Tynedale blog).
Carbon Leapfrog merged with Pure the Clean Planet Trust in 2013 to form Pure Leapfrog which is a business led charity a social investment provider within the
community energy sector.

closer to 2.5 m. This meant the level of nancial risk compared of evidence in which to explore the rationalities and practices of
with the forecast nancial return is too great for a community group governing micro-hydro including a desk-based study of websites,
of volunteers with no underlying nancial backing and the discrep- social media (such as blogs) and media reports (e.g. online local
ancy in costs were attributed to the civil engineering challenges and and regional newspapers) related to Hexham Hydro and hydro
the state of the existing weir (Energyshare Website, 2013) and in governance (e.g. the Environment Agency). This generated infor-
June 2013, HRH announced that the project would not go ahead mation about the Hexham Hydro project from the perspective of
(see Table 3.2). core/key members and from other organizations and individuals
Hexham River Hydro formed one case study of a wider research who were either in favor or objecting to the scheme, such as the
programme (funded by the Leverhulme Trust) that sought to local MP (supportive) and organizations with objections such as
examine how climate change was being governed at different sites the Tyne Rivers Trust and the angling community. The Environ-
and scales across the UK, and that as such the focus was on those ment Agency was also a source of initial background information
who were designing and implementing interventions to govern cli- regarding their perspective on hydro and their role as regulator.
mate change. The methods were mixed and used a range of sources Interviews were conducted with six stakeholders, two from
A. Armstrong, H. Bulkeley / Geoforum 56 (2014) 6676 71

organizations involved with the HRH project directly and four with as broader environmental and social assessments. With HRH, the
organizations with a wider stake in the issues at hand between 100,000 gained through EnergyShare helped them to undertake
MayJuly 2012. Prior to each interview, information about the appropriate forms of calculation, and in this manner create a
project was provided and issues of consent, condentiality and (potentially) feasible project. Interestingly, this nance was not
anonymity were discussed and a consent form signed. Each inter- used to support the capital costs of the purchase of the hydro
view was recorded on a digital recorder and transcribed before plant itself, but instead to support a further round of calculations
being analyzed using coded themes selected to address the core through engaging design consultants to undertake the detailed
issues of the case-study and more general issues relating to the design (including all relevant environmental work), planning and
overall research project. Additional insights were gained through licensing for a 100 kW low head hydro-electric scheme at Hexham
participant observation at the Micro-hydro workshop in May Bridge.
2012 that gathered a range of local stakeholders involved with Calculation is of course not only a technical exercise, but the
micro-hydro in the region and an interdisciplinary group of means through which the project itself and its place in the commu-
researchers working on the topic. nity come to be understood. We found that expert calculations
In the rest of this section, we discuss three areas that we have served to move HRH from a project that has been envisaged to
identied as critical when turning water into energy the politics one that is made practical. However, calculation is not easily con-
of calculation; contesting the river as an energy resource and align- ned, and in resolving issues, new problems are also opened up
ing climate change and micro-hydro power. These are the three that have to be calculated and managed. Calculation serves to try
areas of contestation that shape the development of the project and contain the project within particular boundaries, but it often
and its ultimate failure. also leads to these boundaries being exceeded. Furthermore, calcu-
lation is not conned to the project initiators and the specialists
Making hydro a valuable energy resource: the politics of calculation they may consult, other river users, who view the resource differ-
ently according to their interests (e.g. for shing, swimming, wild-
Harnessing the resource of water from a river to generate life) conduct their own calculations employing their own experts
energy is the core feature of any hydropower project. As Trussart to legitimize their claim to the river. Recasting the river as an
et al. (2002, 1251) argue, speaking about large-scale hydro pro- energy resource challenges established notions of the river, as we
jects, Hydropower raises specic environmental issues related explore in further detail below.
to the transformation of land use and of river ows, as well as spe-
cic socio-economic issues related to the transformation of local Contesting the river as an energy resource
and regional living conditions (Trussart et al., 2002, 1251). Navi-
gating environmental and socio-economic issues is also a signi- Like large scale hydropower (Bakker, 1999a,b), the contestation
cant and challenging process for proponents of micro hydro around micro-hydro revolves around the water resource (the river)
projects. Different types of expertise are required because of the and the value attributed to it by the various interested parties:
nature of the resource. HRH, for example, to bring the idea of
Schemes can have an impact on other users including water
micro-hydro to fruition needed an engagement with a vast array
abstractors, anglers, canoeists or those who enjoy the natural
of micro hydro related expertise such as regulation (e.g. to comply
beauty of an area (Environment Agency, 2010, 9).
with UK legal frameworks, seeking permits, planning applications),
specialist technologies and techniques (e.g. engineering, river mor- Once a potentially viable scheme has been calculated into being
phologists, ecologists) and economic expertise to seek funding for from its initial ideal, community energy projects require a means
capital costs and for feed-in tariffs. The environmental dimensions of making them public. In the case of HRH, making hydro public
of micro-hydro, for example, are detailed on the Environment involved two processes. The rst involves making hydro engaging
Agency website2 and it becomes clear when examining this process to the public to secure votes for the Energyshare competition and
of calculation, why specialist consultants are required (Table 3.3). the second involves the process of engaging/consulting with the
Securing micro-hydro as a viable project, in short, requires that public, including other river users. The process of making hydro
an array of forms of calculation are undertaken and assembled in public means that HRH shifted from a position of invisibility (as
order to produce micro-hydro as a resource. Requiring expert a project not yet built and with limited traction in the public con-
authority, calculation also entails entraining a whole host of actors sciousness) to becoming visible. Becoming visible involves actively
beyond the initial protagonists in the work of securing micro- raising the public prole of the project and attempting to engage
hydro as a viable project: the public imagination with what such a project might become,
which at once serves to garner public support and create potential
We also nd the community often have a lack of expertise in
for conict. The process of engaging with the public involves vari-
hydro and also may also lack the understanding of the complex-
ous actions and activities such as maintaining a web presence with
ity of hydro so everybody thinks hydros is a good idea in terms
information about the project plans and progress; compiling a
of renewable energy but people dont recognize the impact it
database of community organisations that use the river in order
can have on the river (Environment Agency Interview, 2012).
to consult them as well as arranging a series of meetings. For
This is an interwoven process, where forms of calculation under- example, HRH arranged a number of meetings involving the local
taken by expert consultants in one dimension effect the others. Sys- MP, the Environment Agency, various consultants and local organi-
tems of regulation and professional expertise are critical to the ways zations who use the river Tyne as well as landowners who have
in which calculation takes place, establishing the issues with which riparian rights. In contrast to the Energyshare competition process
calculation must be concerned and the ways in which it needs to be (of making hydro engaging to the public) where the focus was gen-
practiced. The economic calculations can be the ones that make or erating support; the engaging with the public process also creates
break a projects viability, especially in the early stages when space for objections from other river users and HRH had to negoti-
funding is required to assess the feasibility of a site in terms ate, counter-argue and attempt to work with a public who contest
of economic costs and returns, the science and engineering as well the hydro scheme. Most prominent amongst the objectors were
those with interests in shing/angling.
Environment Agency Hydropower The sh issue, common to many micro-hydro schemes, means
business/topics/water/32022.aspx Accessed March 2013. not only engaging with various forms of public but also brings into
72 A. Armstrong, H. Bulkeley / Geoforum 56 (2014) 6676

Table 3.3
Summary of the Environment Agency Pre-Application Form.

Category Non-specialist Specialist

Contact details 
Site details
Site name 
Name of watercourse 
Location details (10 gure national grid reference for six locations relevant to scheme) 
Length of any depleted reach of river created 
What type of turbine do you propose to use? 
Proposed turbine ows 
Calculation of quantities 
Raising the level of an existing impoundment? 
Planning permission 
Scheme details
Gross head 
Net head 
Estimated generating potential 
Annual generating potential 
Control of the scheme 
Water resource considerations
Assessment of existing hydrology 
Flow duration statistics 
Prescribed ow 
Fisheries considerations
Fish screening at intake and outfall 
Bywash channel 
Alternative screening methods 
Fish passes 
Flood risk considerations
Flood risk assessment and ood consequences assessment 
Planning considerations
Contact with your local planning authority 
Environmental Impact Assessment 
Screening opinion 
Land contamination 

the project new materialities and ecologies. While the river issued a position statement making clear that they operate using
appears to provide a free source of energy to those seeking to scientic and best evidence and their concern was for the rivers
exploit it, for anglers the river and the sh species living in it are ecological and economic assets (the diverse range of migratory
already a commoditized resource because angling generates tour- and coarse sh). The micro-hydro project should only go ahead,
ism and provides jobs for the local economy. The insertion of a they argued, if there is certainty that it will not damage the river,
micro-hydro scheme within the river potentially risks disturbing its sh stocks and associated wildlife. While they were not against
the current socio-material order: hydro technology per se they did expect calculations of potential
Hydropower schemes can be complex and need to be designed impacts to be scientic.
and managed carefully to avoid unacceptable impacts on com- We found similar arguments in discussions with a representa-
munities and the river environment. For example, changes to a tive from the Rivers Trust the umbrella body of the rivers trust
river can increase the risk of ooding and have signicant movement who spoke in general about their position on micro
impacts on wildlife, especially sh (Environment Agency, hydro. Stressing that the Rivers Trust movement is science-led,
2010, 6). they argued that the rather piecemeal, opportunistic approach of
micro-hydro development was awed and might in lead to rivers
Although any sh species can be affected by the proximity of
that were less resilient to the impacts of climate change (Rivers
hydro, it is the risk to migratory sh such as salmon, sea trout, eels
Trust Interview, 2012). There are similarities between the TRT
and shad and non-migratory species such as trout and coarse sh
and the Rivers Trust in that science is regarded by both as the
species that was of most concern to opponents. Angling communi-
authoritative means through which to contest the HRH project,
ties were concerned with the impact micro-hydro had on local sh
and micro-hydro in general. There are also differences in that the
populations and/or river ow because their opportunity to sh
Rivers Trust frame their scientic arguments around the river
may be disrupted thus harming a valuable economic resource.
and climate change (and do not mention sh) whereas the TRT
Fish are such a valuable resource for the River Tyne that once the
regard sh ecologies and the associated economic benets this
sh issue gathered momentum amongst opponents of micro-
brings to the community more central to their argument.
hydro, it posed real problems for the project team (HRH) on how
Swyngedouw (1999) similarly noted the multiple and often contra-
to negotiate the emerging hydro politics.
dictory narratives that surround water resources, which:
HRH faced strong opposition early on from the Tyne Rivers
Trust (TRT) who were responsible for the River Tyne (and in partic- span a broad range of apparently separate instances such as
ular its sh stocks). TRT pre-dates the HRH project and their work engineering, politics, economics, culture, science, nature, ideol-
had already exposed problems for migratory sh at the Hexham ogy, and discourse through which the tumultuous reordering
Bridge site. Following a feasibility study TRT made plans to replace of sociophysical space is shaped and transformed, and out
the existing sh pass with a new one (Henderson, 2011). TRT of which a new socioenvironmental landscape emerges;
A. Armstrong, H. Bulkeley / Geoforum 56 (2014) 6676 73

landscapes that are simultaneously physical and social, they carbon energy schemes was central to the formulation of HRH.
reect historicalgeographical struggles and social power Early on, HRH sought to mobilize their response to climate change
geometries, and they interiorize the ux and dynamics of socio- by claiming that their micro hydro initiative was an exceptional
spatial change (Swyngedouw, 1999, 261) community energy project that could act as a test bed:

For several months, the contestation over the impact of the the rst community hydro project in our region and means new
micro-hydro scheme on migratory sh was played out as a matter generation on the Tyne in many ways: electricity generation;
of opposition between TRT and HRH. However, there was a shift in social regeneration; idea generation; economic development;
the relationship when HRH brought in the Tyne Rivers Trust as education; and tangible inspiration for all generations in our
consultees over their plans for a sh pass (Daniel, 2012). Professor region, young and old (Hexham Community Partnership, 2011).
Malcolm Newsome, Director of Tyne Rivers Trust is quoted as
one of the really interesting aspects of the project is that it is
testing the aspiration to use a participatory approach to sustain-
We have been pursuing the construction of a sh pass at Hexham, able development (HRH Interview, 2012).
and our designs are about to be approved by the Environment
The claims here, that the case was the rst test in the Tyne Valley,
Agency. The Hexham hydro has included its own sh pass as part
placed emphasis on HRH as an innovative and exceptional project. Of
of its design, one which we believe requires upgrading to be
course, it was not the rst hydro scheme in the country but because
appropriate for this stretch of river, and we are happy to advise
each potential hydro location has locally specic features (for exam-
the hydro project as a consultee. As the hydro raises signicant
ple, hydrological, ecological, geological and geographic) to consider
river issues, we are proposing for the time being to reserve the
there are perhaps advantages in claiming an exceptional status. In
funds earmarked for a sh pass to help with our catchment-wide
the background document on HRH produced in 2011 the exceptional
river improvements. This is the best way for Tyne Rivers Trust to
nature of the project is framed quite prominently in terms of climate
ensure it acts in the interests of the whole Tyne system (Professor
change, stating, for example, that this local project will contribute to
Malcolm Newsome, quoted in Daniel, 2012).
the overall reduction of CO2 emissions:
Central to the reworking of this relationship was the need to Our scheme will reduce Hexhams CO2 emissions by up to
compromise over the sh pass, a compromise negotiated by the 400 tonnes/year (Hexham Community Partnership, 2011:1).
regulatory requirements of the Environment Agency. Working
together in this way is a pragmatic compromise by both TRT and They then go on to situate the project within the context of glo-
HRH. HRH benet from TRT expertise on rivers and sh ecologies bal and national emission targets, emphasizing the legal basis of
and TRT may get the new sh pass without any nancial input; such measures and making the connection with UK renewable
therefore, they can use the money for other river improvements. energy targets,
However, just as the public interest around the HRH project
It is now widely accepted that the empirical evidence of
appeared to have stabilized in this manner, a more organized
increasing global temperatures is the cumulative effect of
and higher prole objection from the local angling community
anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). There is cur-
arose. Later in the same month (October 2012) there was a report
rently a global challenge to reduce GHG to mitigate against
in the local media River groups urge delay in Hexham Hydro plans
the effects of climate change and limit the temperature rise to
(Tully, 2012). With the movement of the HRH project to the plan-
2 C, in line with the Copenhagen accord goal. In 2008 the UK
ning approval stage, the anglers sought to reopen the question of
Climate Change Act set legally binding targets for the UK to
the impact of the hydro project on the sh pass again through
reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, set
recourse to whether the scientic calculation of the project had
against a 1990 baseline. To assist these reduction targets the
been adequately undertaken (see Tully, 2012).
Government has pledged to generate 15% of all energy con-
The angling network was well organized and included the
sumed, by 2020, from renewable sources. Renewables currently
Angling Trust the voice of angling and their legal arm Fish
supply only 6.7% of total UK electricity demand (Hexham
Legal. The Angling Trust explicitly developed a campaign aimed
Community Partnership, 2011:2).
to Fight the Hydropower. Their website included a position paper
and a guide to objecting to such schemes for example, guidance Mobilizing their community energy project as an exception and
about how to inuence the granting of planning permission an exemplar came to be particularly important when trying to win
(Angling Trust, 2011). Like the Rivers Trust, the Angling Trust used the Energyshare competition because they had to stand out from
climate change as a discourse to object to low-head hydropower, the crowd,
We care passionately about climate change, but low-head we went into the large category you know a little town of ele-
hydropower will make a negligible contribution to reducing ven thousand competing with Shefeld and Manchester so we
carbon dioxide emissions and will damage river systems for were totally and utterly paranoid which is why we were frozen
everyone, not just anglers! (Angling Trust Website, 2013). in that market square at every opportunity because we thought
we were going to lose, we just thought wed lose at the last min-
Here, objections to micro-hydro are mobilized around climate ute (HRH Interview, 2012).
change especially by those concerned with the river and sh ecol-
ogies. While at the outset, HRH used climate change as a rationale Despite the prominence of climate change in the background
for the need to develop the project, climate change also came over document produced by the HRH team, after winning the Energy-
the course of the project to shape arguments against hydro and for share competition climate change began to disappear from the
the river and sh ecologies, a shift generated by the material projects rhetoric. Climate change came to be regarded as unhelpful
politics of the hydro-scheme. to the project because it was a difcult issue to communicate and
in reality a 100KW scheme contributes very little to greenhouse
Aligning climate change and micro-hydro power gas emissions savings locally. Taking advice from communications
experts it was decided to adopt the more fuzzy concepts of par-
From the outset the notion of creating a local response to cli- ticipation and sustainable development to articulate and defend
mate change through the development of community-based, low their claims to legitimacy as an example of a hydro project:
74 A. Armstrong, H. Bulkeley / Geoforum 56 (2014) 6676

both those words participatory approach and sustainable devel- of big energy production. Concerns about climate change mean
opment are huge, great funny concepts, woolly concepts but its that small, community-based energy production is a growing phe-
actually something in practice here in the town with something nomenon in the UK (and elsewhere) and community energy pro-
very demonstrable thats being discussed (HRH Interview, jects are increasingly embraced in the move towards a low
2012). carbon transition. In the UK, the change in government in 2010
(from New Labour to Conservative-Liberal Coalition) did not
Its denitely not about climate change, its just that climate
change the emphasis on community energy as it was taken up by
change is a difcult concept, so is sustainable development
the incoming government too. Speaking at the Liberal Democrat
but thats so woolly you can actually explain the story a bit bet-
Autumn Conference in 2012, Ed Davey, the UK Secretary of State
ter (HRH Interview, 2012).
for Energy and Climate Change, said that he wants nothing more
Yet at the same time, climate change came to be made visible than a community energy revolution (Bridge, 2012). Furthermore,
and material to the project through those who sought to contest in a parliamentary discussion about support for community energy
the viability of the scheme: projects, Greg Barker MP, Minister of State, said community
engagement in the energy sector will be vital to our vision of the
Hydro] is completely opportunistic and just where there hap-
development of energy in the UK in the coming decades
pens to be a structure. The biggest structures which provide
(Hansard, 2013) and the Department of Energy and Climate Change
opportunities for hydro are also the biggest structures that are
(DECC) has committed to publishing a Community Energy Strategy
compromising our rivers ability to be resilient to climate change
in 2013. Other factors such as FITs, new models of community gov-
so youve immediately got a trade-off between people doing,
ernance (e.g. community benet societies) and nancing (e.g. com-
addressing climate change for carbon reduction and people
munity shares) have facilitated the growth of community energy
who are addressing the impacts of climate change for river
projects in the UK.
resilience. If that was an equal trade-off you could have a good
In contrast to other papers on community energy that focus on
discussion but the fact is micro hydro does not generate enough
the organizational, institutional and politics, in this paper, we have
electricity or provide enough carbon offset to make up for the
sought to extend the debate to focus on the socio-material pro-
impact that those structures are making on the river in terms
cesses and practices at work in the production of small-scale com-
of climate change resilience (Rivers Trust Interview, 2012).
munity energy. We have demonstrated that when the process of
This interview extract highlights a tension between perspec- engendering and mobilizing a community around micro-hydro
tives on how energy in rivers is conceptualized. On the one hand, takes place, the challenges of what it includes and what it excludes,
proponents of micro hydro value river energy as something to be who/what might benet and lose, becomes critical. We see that the
harnessed (and extracted), while on the other hand those who boundaries of micro-hydros community shifts in response to con-
argue for the preservation of river ecologies regard the rivers testation over river ecologies, particular sh species, and the pub-
energy as something that supports and creates river habitats. They lics who seek to confront it. We found that in the context of
argue that micro-hydro would divert energy away, consequently community energy, it is the water resource that competing groups
damaging the river ecosystem, struggle over. In many ways this is also a struggle over a future
vision of what the water resource (a river) is for; who controls it
the process of actually taking energy out of a river where energy and who decides?
creates habitats. . .. . ..water may be renewable but rivers are Climate change (often taken as a given in other literature about
not. . .. . . if you are taking energy out of a river system you know big energy) is a constant but uid partner to both proponents and
the river system is losing energy that it uses for creating habi- opposers of micro-hydro energy production. The global dynamics
tats and supporting life and people forget that (Rivers Trust of climate change are played out in the local community with pro-
Interview, 2012). ponents of micro-hydro concerned with energy and the low carbon
The case study of HRH demonstrates that the problem that transition and opponents concerned with sh and river ecologies.
micro-hydro is intended to address is continually being reworked Both use and discard climate change according their interests
and contested. Climate change shifts from been visible in the early and how the project develops. Looking through the lens of climate
stages to becoming abandoned or even normalized in the process change to understand community energy also reveals how the
of making hydro public where micro-hydro becomes a matter of socio-materiality of projects shifts with these debates and chal-
delivering community benet. However, climate change also lenges. Starting simply as a project to benet the local community
returns through this process as a discourse of objection, question- and help meet low carbon targets progressed over time to become
ing whether local benets will be forthcoming, pointing to poten- an entanglement with multiple contested socio-materialities e.g.
tial harms, and using the global issue of climate change to raise the river, sh, the turbine, the bridge and weir, the landowners,
questions about the extent to which any one scheme might con- and other river users.
tribute or may even create challenges in adapting to climate Ironically perhaps, the project failed; despite numerous calcula-
change. In this manner, climate change is enrolled, hidden and tions by a variety of experts employed in different specialisms it
contested throughout this process, both fundamental to the project was the nancial risk - the capital costs to build the micro-hydro
but also somehow outside it. project far exceeded the possible returns that led to failure. Risk
is a signicant feature of all community energy projects. The whole
process, from initiating a project to making it a reality means not
only thinking about risks but understanding and making them leg-
ible by attempting to calculate the complex landscape of social,
we dont think theres any winwins with hydro power, theres
technical, environmental, material and nancial risks. Risk in this
only a compromise, its not the same thing (Rivers Trust Inter-
instance, is uid - the risks can change from being high, medium,
view, 2012).
low or no-risk at any stage in the process. Proponents of the project
This paper has focused on small energy production and used have to be able to understand and negotiate this risky landscape.
the case study of a community-based micro-hydro project in As the negotiator the power balance can be uncertain and change
Northern England (Hexham River Hydro) to argue that the socio- over time and as this case demonstrates micro-project does not
materiality politics are just as important to understand as those necessarily mean micro-politics or micro-contestation. Indeed,
A. Armstrong, H. Bulkeley / Geoforum 56 (2014) 6676 75

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