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Electricity blackouts and hybrid systems of provision: Users and the 'reflective practice'

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Interest in the role of the user has provided promising insights when considering the transition towards more decentralised forms of energy provision. There is, however, a shortage of analysis on the reflexivity and learning of ‘regular’ users and their understandings, competences and meanings attached to energy use practices. This paper analyses discontinuities and disruptions in domestic heating during long blackouts and whether power failures could serve as an entry point to the transition dynamics of the practice. The study is based on six in-depth interviews on understandings, meanings, materials and competences attached to power cuts with households living in detached houses having different wood-based hybrid systems of energy provision. The interviews were conducted in a rural Finnish municipality, which faced power cuts lasting from 7 h to 6 days in January 2011. The reactions of the interviewed households to power cuts indicate that blackouts activate unused skills and resources, propose uncommon meanings for electricity and heat and revive dormant elements of practice. Resilience of practice was achieved by flexibility in terms of convenience. However, power cuts were not found to cause explicit, persistent changes in heating practices. It is argued that disruptions sensitise consumers to the perception of sovereignty and that resilience building and the capability to adjust bring new perspectives to the discussions of the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of hybrid systems of heat provision.
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O R I G I N A L A R T I C L E Open Access
Electricity blackouts and hybrid systems of
provision: users and the reflective practice
Jenny Rinkinen
Abstract
Background: Interest in the role of the user has provided promising insights when considering the transition
towards more decentralised forms of energy provision. There is, however, a shortage of analysis on the reflexivity
and learning of regularusers and their understandings, competences and meanings attached to energy use
practices. This paper analyses discontinuities and disruptions in domestic heating during long blackouts and
whether power failures could serve as an entry point to the transition dynamics of the practice.
Methods: The study is based on six in-depth interviews on understandings, meanings, materials and competences
attached to power cuts with households living in detached houses having different wood-based hybrid systems of
energy provision. The interviews were conducted in a rural Finnish municipality, which faced power cuts lasting
from 7 h to 6 days in January 2011.
Results: The reactions of the interviewed households to power cuts indicate that blackouts activate unused skills
and resources, propose uncommon meanings for electricity and heat and revive dormant elements of practice.
Resilience of practice was achieved by flexibility in terms of convenience. However, power cuts were not found to
cause explicit, persistent changes in heating practices.
Conclusions: It is argued that disruptions sensitise consumers to the perception of sovereignty and that resilience
building and the capability to adjust bring new perspectives to the discussions of the prosand consof hybrid systems
of heat provision.
Keywords: Power cuts; Resilience; Domestic heating; Decentralised production; Practice theory;
Energy consumption; Reflexivity
Background
The pursuit of sustainable forms of energy provision has be-
come more policy relevant as the threats of climate change
have become more widely accepted. While the strive for
political consensus continues and more investments are be-
ing made in renewable energy technologies, efficient means
to reach tolerable levels of carbon emissions are still lacking.
Decentralised forms of energy provision - small-scale energy
production - offer new possibilities to rearrange the system
of provision to overcome the challenges of the energy tri-
lemma, i.e. the pursuit of sustainability, security and resili-
ence of energy systems [1]. In Finland, the context market
of this study, aging energy grids, the increasing load on sup-
ply and distribution networks, political claims for energy
autonomy and in particular the threats caused by the chan-
ging climate and extreme weather have aroused doubts
and concrete problems concerning the reliance on electri-
city production. The size, complexity, pattern and control
structure of centralised, large-scale energy supply make it
inherently vulnerable to large-scale failures [2-4].
Distributed systems, which are suggested to tackle the is-
sues of centralised production,oftenrequireashiftinthe
role of users from passive receivers to more active users,
and the conventional producer-user relationships dominat-
ing centralised forms of production are to be reassessed [3].
Furthermore, decentralised provision is seen as promising
in tackling the issues of climate change and decoupling
from non-renewable sources of energy. In transitions from
centralised to decentralised forms of provision, a more
thorough understanding of the dynamics of these transi-
tionsisimportant.
Correspondence: jenny.rinkinen@aalto.fi
Department of Management and International Business, Aalto University
School of Business, Lapuankatu 2, Helsinki 00100, Finland
© 2013 Rinkinen; licensee Springer. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction
in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Rinkinen Energy, Sustainability and Society 2013, 3:25
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To better understand this potential and challenges in the
changing dynamics of consumers and producers, recent
studies have argued for new ways of thinking about energy
consumption as happening for the sake of practices [5,6].
Practices, for example those of cooling and heating, are ar-
gued to mediate and co-produce the relationships between
consumers, producers and the system of provision [6,7].
The type of knowledge needed to understand how every-
day life processes might work towards sustainability could
be gained by detailed analysis of practices, processes of cre-
ativity and understanding of everyday life as a productive
place [8]. Such analysis could better take into account
questions of why, when and how resources such as energy
are consumed and thus lead to a more thorough under-
standing of the premises for sustainability.
An entry point for this paper is the notion that periods of
disruption, failure and crisishavebeensuggestedtobring
practice dynamics to the frontand therefore offer a re-
search arena where the dynamics of practice are open for
scrutiny for the practitioners and for the researcher [9]. Pre-
viously, a study on the perceptions of blackouts has shown
that blackouts evoke both positive and negative associations
and that they have past and future temporal referents [10].
Often, power cuts disrupt the whole systemic chain of
mundane actions [4]. Here, I aim to take this notion further
and discuss the reflexivity provoked by a power cut in the
context of hybrid systems of heat production.
This paper contributes to the discussions on the role of
the user in hybrid systems of energy provision by discuss-
ing disruptions in domestic heating practices, specifically
focusing on the practice of heating in domestic settings in
a Finnish rural municipality. The focus is on the practice
of wood heating because it is a site of active work where
hybrid constellations of electricity and energy are directly
used as practice-as-entity and as practice-as-performance
[6]. In this way, one may research the life course of prac-
tices - how they emerge or fade when elements are linked
or broken as well as their intersections and transformation
over space and time. The long tradition of using wood fuel
as a supporting or complementary energy source of heat
provision makes Finland an interesting context to discuss
the dynamics between centralised and decentralised forms
of energy provision. More specifically, a focus on the hy-
brid constellations of wood heating is relevant for the fol-
lowing reasons: first, in Finland, such constellations are
important examples of hybrid systems, which attract the
interest of technology developers and policy actors to
meet the future needs for heating and cooling. For ex-
ample, heat pumps, new wood-fuelled solutions, solar
thermal collections and other rarer options, such as wind
collectors and PVs, are also often introduced to support
the running of heating technology. Thus, understanding
the dynamics of wood heating is important for the active
dissemination of new, low-carbon heating technologies.
Such analyses need to pay attention to the question of
how new systems fit into the existing temporal organisa-
tion of everyday life and what kind of demands or work
patterns they impose and are dependent upon [11].
In this study, I focus on the mundane actions surround-
ing the practice of heating. By domestic heating practices,
I refer to the doings and sayings concerning heat provision
for detached houses. Obviously, the practice of heating is
carried out and managed at the intersect of multiple over-
lapping practices, but for conceptual clarity, this analysis is
limited to the elementsof practice, namely materials,
meanings and competence. In analysing these elements,
however, it becomes clear that certain practices related to
electricity, such as cooking and showering, share elements
with other practices. As outlined, households with differ-
ent wood heating solutions were chosen as the focus of
the study because wood heating as a typical solution in the
Finnish context can be taken as a significant backbone for
new technologies.
Analytically, I explore continuities and ruptures in
everyday life practices during multiple-day power outages.
I present a qualitative study of domestic space heating
practices and their interruption in the context of detached
houses. This study asks how households living in detached
houses with hybrid systems of heat provision are affected
when they are faced with extensive power cuts of up to
5 days, both in situ and subsequently. Specifically, this
paper addresses the question of what kind of reflective
spacepower supply disruptions offer for energy con-
sumers to renegotiate energy use and supply.
After the motivation for studying disruptions in energy
useandanintroductiontothepracticetheoreticalap-
proach to energy use, I present the empirical data from in-
terviews concerning blackouts as well as the method of
analysis and the context of the study. Following this, the re-
sults of the analysis are discussed, leading to conclusions
and implications for energy use studies, business and
policymaking.
Disruptions in energy use
Disruptions and instabilities in energy supply in the every-
daylifecontextarechosenasthe focus of interest for two
main reasons. Firstly, it is suggested that failures could be
seen as justifications for policy intervention [12,13]. Greater
acceptance of transition policies could be gained if better
integrated with the extensive work on system failures as
justification for policy intervention: A tighter connection
with established innovation policies and their underlying
rationales may lend more legitimacy to transition policies
and help integrate them into mainstream policy processes
[12]. There are examples where disruptions as such have
been used as a platform for intervention. In Juneau,
Alaska, an electricity supply disruption led to a persistent
reduction - 8% of historic consumption - in energy demand
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through a combination of new habits and technical im-
provements [14]. Indeed, the vulnerability of energy systems
is multi-dimensional, not only including technical failure,
accidents and errors, but also resource availabilities, con-
straints, diversity of the energy supply and political disrup-
tions. It is an unintended side effect of centralised
energy technologies [2]. Liberation from the constraints
of current practices is seen as a key driver for attaining
higher order learning [15], and thus, disruptions are of
relevance in discussing the transition from one form of
provision to another.
Secondly, disruptions and failures are seen to have a cen-
tral role in reflection and change. For practice theory, the
breakingand shiftingofstructuremusttakeplacein
everyday crises affecting routines, in constellations of inter-
pretative interdeterminacy and of the inadequacy of know-
ledge with which the agent, carrying out a practice, is
confronted in the face of a situation[16]. Within the fields
of innovation studies and transition literature, the pro-
cesses of emergence and stabilisation are widely discussed,
rather than those of disappearance, partial continuity and
resurrection [17]. Whereas incoming and outgoing config-
urations co-exist, innovation journeys start over and re-
main dormant over regimes; such dynamics are often
neglected in the domains of innovation studies.
In disruptive situations, the role of consumers changes
from passive recipients of complex networks and systems
(electricity or fuel) to co-managers of their own practices,
involving the dynamics of both supply and demand [7,13].
Different social situations such as home buying, moving
and aging prompt disruptions and offer hotspotsfor in-
terventions. Of course, it is worth noting that such disrup-
tions differ in nature and that the variety of disruptions is
extensive. Whereas aging comes as it comes, inevitably,
the decision on buying a house often takes place more sys-
tematically - and a power cut may come all of a sudden.
Rather few of the contributors to the field have actually
attempted to bring these ideas on disruptions into empirical
considerations. Despite the growing interest in the routi-
nised aspects of everyday life, there has still been relatively
little research into how socially accepted normality and
convenience are achieved and constructed. In particular,
there does not seem to be enough understanding of how
these dimensions of practice are disrupted and how the re-
silience of practice should be analytically approached. Thus,
disruptions raise questions about normalityand provide a
useful perspective to examine connections between prac-
tices, politics and socio-technical systems. Before presenting
my empirical data and methods,Ibrieflydiscusstheprac-
tice theoretical framework directing the research design.
Practice theoretical framework: dynamics of heating
Conventionally, energy use behaviour has been discussed
with concepts such as attitudes, values and behaviour
models. These approaches have been criticised for not pro-
viding adequate means for tackling issues of sustainability
and how sustainability transitions could be promoted and
accelerated. Consequently, theories of social practice have
recently attracted considerable interest in studies on energy
consumption. In the pursuit of sustainability, the import-
ance of identifying the practices demanding considerable
resources and studying the formation of these practices as a
basis for policies has been recognised [18,19]. As has been
argued, consumers may be motivated to undertake various
symbolic actions to demonstrate their greendisposition,
but most valued practices are performed with little or mar-
ginal consideration for the environment [19].
Practicetheorybringsaddedvaluetotheunderstanding
of energy consumption habits, as it emphasises the embed-
dedness of energy in everyday habits. Whereas the home as
a site of diverse heating practices is increasingly policy rele-
vant and studies of adoption and domestication of novelties
are increasing in number, few empirical accounts have ad-
dressed the everydayness of renewable energy technologies.
The most basic theoretical assumption is that the activ-
ities of social life have to be continuously carried out and
carried through, and moreover, that this mundane perfor-
mativity is organised through a multiplicity of collectively
shared practices. Activities are unique, but practices are
reproduced. Practices are established, delimited, reproduced
and organised through social processes of practical coord-
ination [20]. In the practice approach, the individual is seen
as a carrier of practices and as a place for the intersection
of a plurality of practices [5,6,20,21]. Unlike the more trad-
itional approaches, consumption is seen as occurring for
the sake of practices; thus, consumption is not itself a prac-
tice but is rather a moment in almost every practice [5].
What, then, constitutes a practice? The dynamics of
practices co-evolve between meanings, competences and
material, i.e. the elements that constitute a practice [6].
The practice is constituted as these elements are linked,
unlinked and delinked over time and as new people are
recruited to perform the practice. Meanings refer to
symbolic meanings, ideas and aspirations, such as the
value of focal points of heat; competence to skill, know-
how and technique, such as the ability to manage radia-
tors and other technologies for heat provision; and
things refer to objects, technologies, tangible physical
entities, and the stuff of which objects are made.
From a practice theoretical perspective, disruptions -
temporary breakdowns in the flow of events - are import-
ant in understanding the norms, practices and technologies
that construct the socially accepted definition of normality
[5,6,9]: disruptions open up what is actually perceived as
normal. It has been argued that when we encounter some
form of significant breakdown, we start to focus on the
practice as something separate and discrete: we single
people and tools out from their relation with the whole and
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thus change over to the epistemological subject-object
relation [22].
Searching for temporary breakdowns can thus be seen
as accessing - or reflecting on - the internal workings of
the practice. At any given point in time, a practice has a
set of established understandings, procedures and objec-
tives that govern conduct within that practice, often with-
out much reflection or conscious awareness. It has been
argued that reflection and change go somewhat hand in
hand [23]. Particularly in a period of disruption, it is ne-
cessary to reconsider the conditions of one's actions and
possibly the historical, material and social making of one's
taken-for-granted routines. Consequently, routines, prac-
tices and networks of practices are seen to provide a con-
crete way of tracing the social associations through which
situated learning occurs [24]. Reflexivity is beyond the
cognitive reflexivity on an event to solve a problem: it is a
dialogical and relational activity that unsettles practices
and can lead to learning through experience [23], and
hence, reflexivity is closely linked to the provision of plat-
forms for interaction. Some even argue that where know-
ledge is tacit and distributed in different locations, only
physical co-location and/or activities and artefacts that en-
courage social associations are likely to provide access to
deeply embedded taken-for-granted practices [25].
Methods
This study is based on interviews with households, business
actors (utility service, retailer, maintenance firm) and policy
actors. The interviewees were recruited from a Finnish mu-
nicipality that faced extensive power cuts of up to 7 days in
January 2011, followed by power cuts in the summer of
2011 and at the start of 2012. The power cuts of January
2011 were caused by heavy snow falling on trees, and the
snow banks and cold weather made repair work difficult to
carry out. The power cut was reported as somewhat histor-
ical because of its extent, duration and the unusual weather
conditions with temperatures down to 25°C.
Altogether, 14 interviews were conducted: six in-depth
interviews with households living in detached houses and
eight thematic interviews with local business and govern-
mental actors. These interviews were mostly face-to-face
(in nine cases, with five phone interviews), semi-structured,
andlastedfrom10minto1.5h.Theinterviewswerecon-
ducted in autumn 2011 and 2012 in a rural Finnish munici-
pality. The emphasis of the analysis is on the interviews
with households, while the other interviews are used to re-
flect upon the broader perception of practice.
All the interviewed households were users of centralised
electricity production. They were customers of the local
electricity provider by law but could choose the electricity
utility with whom to make the electricity contract. Regard-
ing heating, the households had not installed air heat
pumps, wind power or solar systems. However, their
heating systems could be described as hybrid due to the
variety of wood-burning stoves and woodchip boilers
(Table 1).
In addition to households, a local home service worker,
a representative of the congregation, a maintenance firm,
a local retailer, the chairwoman of the local council and
two representatives of the utility service company active in
the area were interviewed.
The interviewed people were asked to provide a detailed
description of their heating practices [26]. Acknowledging
that the significance of the experimental performance
prompted by disruptions can only be understood in the
context of stabilised practices and social relations [27],
questions concerning both the normalsituation and the
disrupted situation were included in the interviews. In car-
rying out the interviews, careful attention was paid to
what kinds of understandings, meanings, materials and
competences were attached to power cuts, how these were
reflected in the normal state of the practice and how its el-
ements and dynamics were associated. If possible, during
in situ interviews, the interviewees were asked to show us
aroundto gain a better understanding of their material
environment and how they talked about it. Discussions
with practitioners provide a sense of how competences
have been defined and developed and how individual ca-
reers unfold. The interviews were transcribed and themat-
ically coded using Atlas.ti.
Context: heating arrangements in a rural community
The municipality where the interviews were conducted
is located in the south-eastern part of Finland in an area
with a large number of water bodies. There are 6,400 in-
habitants living permanently in the area, and up to 40%
of the utility service customers are effectively summer
residents. The population is widely scattered.
In the context of this study, solid wood is the traditional
means of heating buildings during the cold periods of the
year as well as for cooking and preparing meals. The use
of wood actually increased by 20% between 1994 and 2008
and accounts for 40% of the energy content of fuels and
electricity used in detached houses in Finland [28]. Signifi-
cantly, however, at the national level, heating systems are
changing away from wood use: whereas 30 years ago, 40%
of all Finnish houses (including blocks of flats) were only
heated by wood, the respective figure is now only about
10%. In more than 25% of the 1.1 million Finnish detached
houses, solid wood is used as the main source of heat.
Since the 1980s, every newly built house has been required
to be equipped with a wood stove (typically a fireplace).
There are houses built without a fireplace, but these date
from the 1970s and form only a minor part of the housing
stock. Nowadays, district heating is the most common
heating system in Finland, efficiently providing heat in
densely populated areas.
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Households living in detached houses as the focus of
the study are particularly interesting for many reasons:
in contrast to a traditional apartment building, dwellers
have or have had the ability to choose the heating sys-
tem and are also more autonomous regarding, for ex-
ample, the temperature in the house. The energy costs
are often higher compared to smaller apartments, and
thus, from the perspective of rational choice theory,
thereshouldbeanincentivetoreducetheenergycosts.
Results and discussion
Normality in heating practices and orientations
to disruptions
In the following, I present two brief narratives of house-
holds with a focus on the heating arrangements before,
during and after the power cut. These aim to illustrate the
arrangements and configurations of the heating practice.
In the narratives also, I point out rearrangements in the en-
ergy use practice prompted by the power cut. The follow-
ing examples can be seen as representative of the sample
as they illustrate the two main orientations to disruptions:
first, an orientation to embrace disruptions by showing
flexibility in heating and everyday life practices, and sec-
ond, an orientation to seek continuation of the normal
situation. After these narratives, more detailed results on
the materials, competences and meanings attached to the
power cut are presented.
Embracing disruptions
Family 1 is a retired couple living in a detached house out-
side the town centre, sharing the house with their eldest
son. The house was originally built as a summer cottage,
but in 1985, it was rebuilt and extended to suit the family
with two children. The house is heated with radiators
using direct electricity, and in the winter, heating of the in-
ternal space is supported with a heat-storing baking oven.
The baking oven and wood-burning sauna require 12 to
15 m
3
of wood yearly, and the house and garage (with
underfloor heating) require 16,000 to 18,000 kW of elec-
tricity (previously 25,000 kW when fishing equipment was
dried on the garage floor). The family obtains firewood
from its own forest near the house, aiming at wood stor-
age from 2 to 5 years. The installation of an air heat pump
has been discussed but delayed because of the fear of elec-
tricity costs (of using the pump to cool the house in the
summer time), uncertainty over whether it would fit the
houseand disagreement over the aesthetics of the device.
The father further explained his anxiety over the air heat
pump as follows:
Uhh, well these heating systems come and go, so at
least I have a steady view that if you come up with a
system in one house, then at least I myself would stick
to it, so no changing because it requires. Some
manager [in a local energy company] reckoned that
electricity is good, but once pellets were so cheap that
he went and bought a boiler for pellets and all the
equipment, and now pellets are so expensive, much
more expensive than electricityand the more
technical these things get, the more they need
maintenanceand the possibility of a breakdown is
higher, thatso many thingswell you live according
to your situation. (Interview, household 1)
The power cut in January 2011 lasted 3 days for this
family. The family coped through the power cut by intense
heating of the baking oven and using water from the
nearby lake (which can exceptionally also be used as a
drinking water supply). In 1985, when the family moved to
the house, they faced a power cut of 2 days. Then, an
engine-generator was bought but later sold because it was
unused for more than 10 years. The perception of the
power cut had changed compared to the one in 1985 as
there was considered to be no need to buy an engine-
generator:
So now when it's [power] off for a day, two or three, that
makes no difference; on the contrary, it stirs a certain
kind of activity andR2: Though evenings are bit boring,
long when you can't do a thing. Actually, I knitted socks
under a headlamp! (Interview, household 1)
Seeking continuation
Family 2 lives in an old farmhouse outside the town centre.
The house is occupied by Mari, who is active in local polit-
ics, her mother and sister. The house was renovated in the
Table 1 Characteristics of the interviewed households
Household Interviewees Age group (years) Other resident(s) House type Type of heating system
1 Couple 55-65 Older son (occasionally) Detached house Direct electricity and retaining oven
2 Woman 50 Sister and mother Aged wooden house Direct electricity and three tiled stoves
3 Man 40 - One-storied detached house Wood chip boiler
4 Couple 50-60 Two sons Aged wooden house Log wood boiler and retaining oven
5 Woman 40 Man (both only occasionally) Detached house Oil boiler and retaining oven
6 Man 50 Woman and two children Detached house Direct electricity with retaining floor
(heated during the night)
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1970s, when it was extended and equipped with electri-
city, but no major changes have been made since then.
Now Mari thinks that the house needs a long-term
renovation plan to suit her needs and those of her part-
ner's once they live there by themselves at some point
in the near future. As with family 1, this house is also
heated with electricity and wood (a baking oven and
two tiled stoves). In the winter, the wood stoves are used
on a daily basis. Mari is responsible for bringing the
firewood inside, while her mother assists her with light-
ing the fires. The firewood is obtained from their own
forest with the help of Mari's partner.
Mari and her family faced a power cut of 4 days. Un-
like the other interviewed families, Mari reported feeling
insecure and intimidated when the power was off. She
was surprised that the phone stopped working, which
further increased her anxiety:
So it was a scary feeling, and it was the feeling that
youhavetomanageonyourown.Itstruckmethat
we are here now on our own, that what will happen.
Certainly we have neighbours within half a
kilometre, but you can't see them from the garden. So
it was a comforting thought that the neighbours were
inthesamesituationaswewere.And then we
really started to think that, sure, we had anticipated
that it's the weather, that this looks bad. That we
had run cold drinking water in advance.
(Interview, household 2)
Mari had reserved some drinking water and few pails
of water to flush down the toilet. She used wood for
space heating and left the indoor doors open to allow
the heat to reach all the rooms. When the power cut
had lasted for 1 day, her partner managed to purchase
an engine-generator, which he installed and gave Mari
advice on how to use it. Mari describes this as a
saviour:
The engine-generator had the capacity for water
pumps, ground floor heating, lightning, and with small
arrangements we could also use the stove. That's what
saved us. (Interview, household 2)
Dormant materials and rearrangements
In the face of disruption, households reassessed the ma-
teriality related to heat provision and electricity use. The
central boilers stopped working, radiators turned cold,
the house became colder, lights did not turn on, cell
phones became silent and electrical cooking appliances
did not work. Consequently, in most cases, a variety of
dormant materials held in reserve were brought into
use, something that was oftentimes reported as business
as usual in comparison with the alleged situation:
I just want to say that in Ilta-Sanomat [tabloid news-
paper] there was a headline that Mäntyharju is in
panic. I would say that the reporter was in panic, but
no one here panicked. In the countryside, we know how
todifferently you know, because with old houses and
everything, everything has a certain backup system.
(Interview, household 4)
These backup systems included engine-generators,
wood stoves, gas boilers, garden wells, blankets and al-
ternative forms of lighting that were used to maintain
the normality of activities. One interviewee tells about a
fire-burning stove that had been left unused for years:
The fireplace has been there, I don't even remember
when we have had a fire in it. Not in 20, 15 years.
(Interview, household 3)
In most cases, these backup technologies were found in-
side the home, and some were bought from the local
stores or provided by friends or relatives. For those people
who had an urgent need to access electricity, the acquisi-
tion of a new backup device (engine-generator) became a
sensible option. Some households with livestock already
had an engine-generator ready to be used. Generators
were also circulated within the community, amongst
neighbours. Thus, many of the interviewees possessed
homes having dormant elements of decentralised, hybrid
energy provision. In terms of the materials of the heating
practice, the purposes of certain technologies were redis-
covered, as in the following case where a respondent de-
scribes how they started to heat the sauna to keep the
water pipes running:
When you heat up the sauna - all the water systems are
there - they remain unfrozen. (Interview, household 1)
In household 6, where the power cut lasted only 7 h, the
attention was directed towards other vulnerable spaces
and locations - the summer cottage and relatives living in
the countryside:
Well, we of course followed the situation, because we
have a cabin in the countryside. Nothing helps there if
it gets below zero; the water pipes just freeze. Luckily,
this didn't happen because we went there so often, but
at one point it was minus four. My parents live there
in the countryside, and it calls for a certain creativity.
I don't really remember how long the cut was, but
days, as it was in the worst area. They have an
engine-generator, but it's so small that they only use it
for wood heating, as they have the water pipes, so they
get the hot water running there and then turn it off.
(Interview, household 6)
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Control and competence
In general, heating was relatively visible and present in the
everyday life of the interviewees due to intense wood heat-
ing during the colder periods. However, the disruption in-
voked a set of physical, social and mental skills required
during the power cut. Disruption acted as means to get to
know how the house works and thus affected the compe-
tence of the dwellers. The disrupted practice required in-
creased manual control of heat provision that was more
time-consuming, but resourceful solutions were some-
times found:
So there where the weak part was, we started to heat
it up with the generator. It's likeit's there in the yard
and the lines come in, you have to have extension
cables. Our Olli [son] said when I asked how can we
make this blow- he just replied let it stay there for
the night; when the fuel runs out, then it will stop, you
don't have to keep track of whether it's turned off or
not.(Interview, household 3)
During the power cut, the media reported on older
people who lived in unsafe conditions with very low in-
door temperatures and with weak physical skills - but who
refused to leave their homes, often because of pride and
the willingness to tolerate lower comfort levels. However,
the ones who left the house during the power cut were
often older people with no physical strength to adjust to
the lower temperatures, to prepare food without electri-
city, to manage in the darkness or to heat the house with
wood. This shows the competence needed:
Older people living in the midst of power cuts have
taken the situation positively. A taxi driver who drove
around old people's homes yesterday evening tells that
most of them are fine. Yesterday none of the elderly
were willing to evacuate, but the colleagues [of the taxi
driver] had faced a different situation: they had
evacuated a few people to the health center for heat
and care. (MTV3 news, 26 January 2011)
In household 1, the activity and resourcefulness of the
husband's mother was reported as an illustration of the
rightattitude:
Well, I don't know, it's a question of attitude. So if I tell
you a true story, my mom lives there [in Kousanniemi]
and we've had electricity since '82 in that home place.
And I went to clear some snow from the roof and check
because I knew that the power was off. My mom said that
there's no water, but there is heat. And I thought I would
go and get some water from my brother because he lives
nearby, so I would get water from the well with a hand
pump. It was only few minutes, I was just on the roof and
mom appears and calls me for a coffee. I was, like, where
did you get heat and warmth? Well, I lit the stove and
melted some snow for water for you…’ So to her it was
just a natural thing that there's fire in the stove, fire in the
oven, fire in the tiled stove, logs from the shed, water from
the well. So that's how you live.(Interview,household1)
Accordingly, the households reported that elderly people
proved more competent than publicly assumed. Compe-
tence was also shown through the ability to adjust indoor
habits. Adjustment or loss of control meant, for example,
allowing the lowering of the room temperature from nor-
mal comfort levels:
I feel that people didn't really consider that if they
don't have electricity they can use candlelight. At some
point I felt that our measures are a bit excessive. Old
people there in the village have learned how to cope
before. (Interview, congregation employee)
When comfort at home was not enough, seeking comfort
outside one's own property was an option for some. Re-
spondents reported neighbours, relatives and acquaintances
who had left their homes because of the blackout.
Circulated meanings
Some households reported a culture of energy conserva-
tion before the disruption by emphasising the low use of
electricity around the house. These people also valued
self-sufficiency in their heating and reported achieving it
using wood as a source of heat. Interestingly, the power
failure was consistent with their normal orientation as
they reported business-as-usual feelings.
Coping in the face of the power cut evoked many mean-
ings attached to the power cut. Whereas the electricity
utilities typically strive for universal, homogenised service
provision, the households embraced heterogeneity in their
provision solutions and their sense of sovereignty. Feelings
of insecurity, unpredictability and non-autonomy were
taken as given:
People just say that you have to be on your own. Once
we've learned that the welfare society works so this is one
reminder that it doesn't. So that provision, self-sufficiency -
wait a minute how do you say ityou have to prepare
yourself for exceptions. (Interview, household 2)
Our principle is such that the more self-sufficient you
are, the better all round. (Interview, household 3)
Maybe in this state of emergency you get a foretaste of
what could happen, and then you realize how dependent
you are, there's nothing you can do; basically, everything
stagnates for a while in personal life or in working life.
(Interview, local entrepreneur)
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Coping was especially highlighted in the stories con-
cerning older people. Coping with the power cut also
meant renegotiating the concepts of privacy. Interviewees
reported sleeping in the same room, sleeping with the
door open and showering in more inconvenient places
(such as in the barn):
But I feel that old people here cope pretty well because
they have the stove and oven and they get water as
wellIt's that when you have lived your whole life in
the countryside, and they say that we didn't have this
before, but you do remember how we have coped
before and we can live like this for a while. That it
doesn't do much to our lives. (Interview, household 3)
Reflective practice
In the reactions of the households to power cuts, we can
identify a resumption/revival of old, dormant habits.
Dormancy here refers to materials, meanings and skills
that had once been active but that had been unused due
to new arrangements. Thus, rather than seeking change
in the future, past arrangements were given value and
put into effect. Past arrangements were not, however,
romanticised, but they were valued for their flexibility,
frugality and familiarity
a
. Furthermore, low-tech arrange-
ments (e.g. opening doors to allow heat to move around
the house) that do not require new technologies pro-
vided simple, at-hand solutions to endure the power cut.
The (dormant) practices can only be reactivated if there
are flexible or hybrid material structures. Reflectivity was
prompted through the carrying out of practice, i.e. work
and non-work. Thus, the respondents did not report con-
scious reflection on whether they should change the mater-
ial arrangements of their practice, but rather the elements
of the practice started to be renegotiated, i.e. notions of au-
tonomy, security and reliance were brought into the open.
Furthermore, reflexivity was prompted both towards the
home and outside it. In other words, acts of repair were ex-
pected from both decentralised and centralised systems of
provision. Consequently, the web of practitioners (neigh-
bours, community, energy companies) became more vis-
ible. One aspect of the cultural rooting of heating systems
is that they enable and/or imply social relations.
In general, heating was relatively visibleand present
due to intense wood heating during colder periods. This
orientation towards wood heating requires planning and
labour as well as a harvest-when-available and store-until-
required mentality. In terms of convenience, the house-
holds found the development of hybrid systems important.
In times of normal conditions, cheap electric heaters are
often used as backup systems to enable flexibility. Some
use fireplaces to provide extra heat and comfort during
cold spells. In most cases, wood stoves, pellet heating sys-
tems and other small-scale production co-exist with
electric heating. However, this is not to say that both of
these technologies are integrated to work in tandem. Ra-
ther, when one fails and indoor temperatures begin to
drop, the other is manually operated to provide the
backup. Electricity as a backup also offers possibilities for
extended absence. Some residents have organised their
lives so that this type of backup is hardly needed and, for
example, minimise travel during the heating season. For
those who are engaged in livestock rearing, this choiceis
part of their occupation, but for others, detached houses
and solid wood-based heating systems belong to the non-
occupational bundle of practices connected with reduced
mobility. However, most users of solid wood heating sys-
tems make use of the flexibility offered by hybrid systems,
and in our diary data, we encountered many respondents
who are less committed to wood as a heat source but ra-
ther appreciate it as an aesthetical joy that is available
when desired. When solid wood is part of such a weak or
less coercive arrangement, it fits more easily with the mo-
bile patterns of contemporary life.
Conclusions
Energy is most closely intertwined to the everyday prac-
tices it sustains. In this paper, I have discussed the flexibil-
ity of energy consumption practices, focusing on the
dynamic and hard-to-catchenergy use practices and on
understanding the processes through which forms of en-
ergy consumption change and are reproduced. Through a
case of indoor heating practice and its disruption during
a multiple-day power cut, I have demonstrated how the
practice of heating carries dormant elements of practice
that are reactivated and enacted during an instable event.
As evident based on the analysis, no single solution was
found for the interviewed dwellers to cope with the power
cut; rather, coping was maintained through a mixture of
different arrangements, adjustments and compliances. A
broad set of socio-technical practices were evoked in con-
versations as circulating across boundaries to categorise
performance.
This exploration of user practices during long power
cuts has revealed that power cuts serve as spaces for re-
flexivity on the heating practice. This reflectivity was bod-
ily and material, but little explicit reflection on persistent
changes was observed. Little evidence was found that the
disturbance in the power supply brought about reflection
on energy use on a more general level. However, blackouts
activate unused skills, resources and technologies that
have been replaced/superseded by other elements but have
remained dormant for one reason or another.
A distinctive feature in the research design was that
heating was provided through embedded and localised
systems of provision. These systems supply more resili-
ent energy services than non-autonomous systems [19].
This opens up further discussions on resilience as an
Rinkinen Energy, Sustainability and Society 2013, 3:25 Page 8 of 10
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argument for supporting the development of small-scale re-
newable energy production and, for instance, community-
led energy initiatives. It is worth noting that in the case of
wood-based heating, the technology is highly visible and
laborious [11,29]. This implies that households have gone
through negotiations concerning the practical efforts re-
quired to reach and maintain acceptable indoor tempera-
tures. Given this, an existing know-how on the limits and
possibilities of the practice and its linkages to other prac-
tices might make the adjustment to external disruptions
easier and more tolerable.
Focusing on households with wood heating solutions as
a backup technology can be considered somewhat exclud-
ing and a limitation of the study. Importantly, however,
this study implies that the rather demanding practice of
using solid wood in heating signals that convenience and
ease of use are certainly not the only routes or slogans
along which distributed renewable energy technologies
can progress. Consequently, research and policymaking
should acknowledge more openly that sustainable solu-
tions are not only derived from above and from outside
the context of users, but can also arise from the local con-
text and from users' everyday experience.
In terms of disruptions, practice theory allows us to re-
search the situated processes of gathering the knowledge
required to accomplish practices. Through practice fram-
ing, this implies a shift from only questioning which skills
and knowledge we need to examining how they are taught,
how they are learned, how they travel between moments of
performance and how they change and are made anew [6].
The interview study that I have presented in this paper
provides an account of the domestic heating practices in
the normal state and in a state of disruption. However, fur-
ther mixed methods could be used for a more in-depth
understanding of the life trajectory of the practice and the
practice bundles that are linked to the use of hybrid forms
of energy provision. The interviews were conducted only
once, and people could find it difficult to reflect on their
practice with a stranger. Thus, a study with a longer time
scale or successive in-depth interviews could be consid-
ered. Consequently, interviews during power cuts would
be interesting in terms of capturing the disruption as it oc-
curs. In addition, the interviews could be extended to
cover other local actors and, for instance, the energy com-
pany. This would allow us to analyse the dynamics be-
tween the practitioners, understanding them in a broader
sense. As practice approaches attract more interest in
sustainability and energy studies, the question of how
practices are learned and developed warrants further
theoretical and empirical elaboration.
Endnotes
a
It should be noted that the interviews were not con-
ducted with young family members.
Competing interests
The author declares that she has no competing interests.
Acknowledgements
The author would like to thank her colleagues for the help she received
throughout the research process, especially Mikko Jalas for his contribution in
carrying out the interviews and commenting on the manuscript. This research
was funded by the Academy of Finland's Research Programme on Climate
Change (FICCA, grant number SA-13140938) and the Marcus Wallenberg
Foundation grant Climate change and the social construction of a market for
new energy solutions in Finland.
Received: 15 June 2013 Accepted: 1 December 2013
Published: 12 December 2013
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doi:10.1186/2192-0567-3-25
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Within human geography, there is increasing interest in the application of theories of practice for understanding resource consumption and for pursuing sustainability goals. In stressing the routine, performative and contextual dimensions of action, research on geographies of practice is faced with particular methodological challenges. A lively debate concerns the utility of talk‐based methods for investigating routine practices, such as those relating to everyday consumption. While it has been compellingly argued that people can talk individually or in groups about their practice, as of yet, these methodological debates have not been extended to the question of whether people can talk about past practice over the lifecourse. This is despite the fact that attending to practice dynamics at the lifecourse scale can reveal important insights into the intersections of structure, agency, time, and space in consumption practices. Seeking to address this gap, this methodology‐focused article explores biographic inquiry as an empirical strategy for research on geographies of practice and consumption. After identifying significant challenges in representation associated with researching routine action in general, and past practice in particular, it outlines key learnings garnered during a biographic study on domestic consumption in Ireland. Central methodological features supporting talk‐elicitation include zooming‐in‐and‐out of temporal registers, multi‐modality, and phased implementation. The article concludes that people can talk about past practice in often very detailed, intricate ways and that retrospective talk is a valuable tool for understanding practice dynamics at the lifecourse scale.
Chapter
The SoP approach views consumption as attached to vertical chains of provisioning linked to the materiality of specific goods or services, shaped by the context and the agents associated with the system. This chapter locates the SoP approach within the wider body of systems-based consumption literature such as ‘consumption as practice’, highlighting the distinctive contribution offered. The chapter documents some of the empirical research that has applied the SoP approach often in combination with other theoretical perspectives on consumption. The chapter shows how the SoP approach can contribute to our understandings of some of the gravest threats facing society including climate change and inequality. The chapter concludes with reference to emerging global crises from finance through obesity to the pandemic of Covid-19, and shows how the SoP approach offers significant promise for future academic research and policymaking in these areas and beyond.
Book
This book focuses on the economics of smart meters and is one of the first to present comprehensive evidence on the impacts, cost-benefits and risks associated with smart metering. Throughout this volume, Jacopo Torriti integrates his findings from institutional cost-benefit analyses and smart metering trials in a range of European countries with key economic and social concepts and policy insights derived from almost ten years of research in this area. He explores the extent to which the benefits of smart meters outweigh the cost, and poses key questions including: which energy savings can be expected from the roll out of smart meters in households? Is Cost-Benefit Analysis an appropriate economic tool for assessing the impacts of smart metering rollouts? Can smart meters play a significant role in research on people's activities and the timing of energy demand? Torriti concludes by providing a much-needed survey of recent changes and expected future developments in this growing field. This book will be of great interest to students and scholars of energy policy and demand and smart metering infrastructure.
Thesis
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During the past ten years, a number of social scientists have emphasized the importance of material infrastructures like electricity supply as a research topic for the social sciences. The developing of such new perspectives concerning infrastructures also includes uncertainties and risks. This research analyzes the management of uncertainties in the Finnish electricity infrastructure by posing the following research question: how are electricity interruptions, or blackouts, anticipated in Finland and how are these interruptions managed as risks? The main research methodology of the work is multi-sited field work. The empirical materials include interviews with experts and lay people (33 interviews); participant observation in two electricity control rooms; an electricity consumer survey (115 respondents); and also a number of infrastructure and security policy documents and observations from electricity security seminars. The materials were primarily gathered between 2004 and 2008. Social science research often links risks with major current social changes or socio-cultural risk perceptions. In recent international social science discussions, however, a new research topic has emerged those styles of reasoning and techniques of governance that are deployed to manage risk as a practical matter. My study explores these themes empirically by focusing on the specific habitual practices of risk management in the Finnish electricity infrastructure. The work develops various also semi-ethnographic inquiries into infrastructure risk techniques like monitor screening of real-time risks in electricity control rooms; the management of risks in a liberalized electricity market; the emergence of Finnish reasoning about blackouts from a specific historical background; and the ways in which electricity consumers respond to blackouts in their homes. In addition, the work reflects upon the position of a risk researcher in those situations when the research subjects do not define their management of uncertainties by the concept of risk. The work argues based on recent studies and its results that risk discourse in national and military planning offers a substantial resource to consider infrastructures and their contemporary issues. It also considers the idea, prominent in recent studies concerning insurance in particular, that risk management is a way of combining both public and market logics of provision. Drawing on semi-ethnographic data, the author also discusses the compression of timescales in liberalized infrastructure provision and elaborates the metaphor of screening to consider how market devices like computer monitors affect risk management in a large distributed energy market.
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This paper presents a study of the socio-technical ordering of time around wood-fuelled heating systems of detached houses. It analyses the sequences and rhythms that organize the work of domestic heating, its synchronization with other daily activities, and tempo as the subjective experience of time in these activities. The study is based on a large, pre-existing Finnish free-form diary collection. We suggest that domestic energy technologies become useable and useful through the gradual embedding that involves the temporal organization of everyday life. As a result, technologies that organize time are not only convenient in an invisible way but also act as taken-for-granted coordinates and rhythms of human pursuits in everyday life. In many countries, wood-fuelled heating systems remain a common renewable energy technology in detached houses and stand as one option to lower related carbon emissions. However, the broader use of wood is compromised by time and convenience.
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This article extends debates of how organizing practices of reflexivity and collective mindfulness are encouraged and sustained for learning, critique and change. We present, in a practice-based study, a fourfold framework of anticipatory, deliberative, organizing and critically reflexive practices. Our empirical study illustrates how these multiple forms of reflexive practice can support and co-shape one another so that knowing what to do next emerges in the midst of practice. Our analysis demonstrates the value of going beyond the optical metaphor of reflection to that of critical reflexivity and the metaphor of diffraction. This approach extends understandings of reflective practice in ways that foreground entanglement, co-production and the relational qualities of practice. Diffraction encourages managers and practitioners to not only reflect on what has been done but to also map the effects of their practices and interventions. This orientation assists them to notice the impact of their actions and better understand the complexities of organized reflection-in-action.
Book
Everyday life is defined and characterised by the rise, transformation and fall of social practices. Using terminology that is both accessible and sophisticated, this essential book guides the reader through a multi-level analysis of this dynamic. In working through core propositions about social practices and how they change the book is clear and accessible; real world examples, including the history of car driving, the emergence of frozen food, and the fate of hula hooping, bring abstract concepts to life and firmly ground them in empirical case-studies and new research. Demonstrating the relevance of social theory for public policy problems, the authors show that the everyday is the basis of social transformation addressing questions such as:how do practices emerge, exist and die?what are the elements from which practices are made?how do practices recruit practitioners?how are elements, practices and the links between them generated, renewed and reproduced? Precise, relevant and persuasive this book will inspire students and researchers from across the social sciences.
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Has material civilization spun out of control, becoming too fast for our own well-being and that of the planet? This book confronts these anxieties and examines the changing rhythms and temporal organization of everyday life. How do people handle hurriedness, burn-out and stress? Are slower forms of consumption viable? In case studies covering the United States, Asia and Europe, international experts follow routines and rhythms, their emotional and political dynamics and show how they are anchored in material culture and everyday practice. Running themes of the book are questions of coordination and disruption; cycles and seasons; and the interplay between power and freedom, and between material and natural forces. The result is a volume that brings studies of practice, temporality and material culture together to open up a new intellectual agenda.