EPRi - The story so far and looking ahead to 2020

This is a personal one, prompted by two very important people in my life - my partner Abi and the inspirational Robin McAlpine at Common Weal. It's a thank you to EPRi members and supporters new and old, and to give you some background as to our ethos and how we've got where we are, what our plans are for this critical year for climate change, and how you can get involved.    

For those of you not familiar with how EPRi works, we rely solely on the hard work of our members, guided by the hands of what (I hope!) is a benevolent tripartite dictatorship of our co-founders - myself, Ron and Scott - with Helen increasingly taking on the important role of making sure we don't deviate too far from our core mission of promoting excellence in research to support energy poor and otherwise vulnerable householders. Technically, all decisions are supposed to be made by a majority vote between the co-founders - which in reality often means Ron and I make a call and Scott finds out about it sometime after it's been implemented - whilst the three of us all retain executive decision-making powers over things like deciding which projects we take on and who we partner with on them. It works because of the trust and mutual respect we've developed since Scott and I first met way back in 2009. It'll be a nightmare to explain when we finally formally constitute ourselves as a not-for-profit organisation, but that's one for the future, possibly this year but we'll see.

EPRi follows the 'ICARB model', another organisation I co-founded with my dear friend Prof Sue Roaf in 2007 (we like models, just not where they concern data or catwalks). ICARB was active for ten years until Sue began her semi-retirement in 2017, bowing out into its own semi-retirement on a big high with the PLEA 2017 conference in Edinburgh. Again, it was built from a strong foundation of committed volunteers willing to put their own time and money into an organisation they believed served an important role in shaping policy (it should come as now surprise that Scott was also involved). At its peak, ICARB was a bigger beast, but also an unconstituted one, and won plaudits from the Scottish Government as being the leading source of independent expertise on carbon accounting in Scotland, at one point point organising 15 (out of a planned 17) free workshops and an international conference in one year. 

But there are some differences. ICARB benefitted from fairly substantial funding, not least from Sue's own back pocket, the three years in which we received £10,000 from the Scottish Government, and regular sponsorship of the international conferences from the Chartered Institute of Building Service Engineers (CIBSE) Scotland thanks to the support of Stuart MacPherson. It also had a dedicated webmaster, first Richard Roaf and then later Ric Lander, and an honorary Steering Group chaired by Sarah Boyack MSP. EPRi, to date, is entirely funded and steered by us co-founders. And whereas ICARB was supported by universities from the start (Heriot-Watt, Edinburgh, Glasgow Caledonian, Surrey, and Imperial College), plus Ecometrica and the Forestry Commission; EPRi has had to earn its wings and was only formally recognised by Glasgow Caledonian in 2019 (Kent State, Durham, Sheffield Hallam, Salford, and Stirling also deserve special mentions here). However, like ICARB, we have had considerable buy-in from key stakeholders from the start, notably Energy Action Scotland, Renfrewshire Council (thanks to Ron), Orkney Islands Council, and more recently the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA), and the City of Edinburgh Council (Ron again).

Yet our most important partners reflect the fact that EPRi's mission is an overtly social democratic one, and yes, a pro-Scottish independence one. Hence our inseparable allegiance with Common Weal - Ron, Laurie and myself are all members of Common Weal's Energy Working Group, which (we later discovered) was itself formed in 2018 when Ron and I joined forces with Gordon Morgan and Iain Wright after about six months of battering at their door. And there are more common links via the most influential energy think tank you'll never have heard of, the Claverton Energy Research Group (hat tips to Chris Cook of UCL and Herbert Eppel of HETranslations). It's that Claverton link that brought Geoff into the fold, via Dave Elliott's pushing for a book on Scottish renewable energy policy - originally with Geoff as sole editor, then passed to me, and then finally finished 7 years later as a joint effort. But we learn from experience, and just as the Speird Project was born when Ron and I decided we could combine our PhD work, replicate it four times, add a pilot study, and do the whole thing in a year, The Palgrave Handbook of Managing Fossil Fuels and Energy Transitions was born from a similarly ambitious plan to edit a global overview of energy policy in fraction of the time it took to cover Scotland.    

This focus on providing informed and provocative critiques of policy also means lobbying and campaigning is absolutely central to our work, as is shown by our frequently combative approach to responding to consultations and so, unlike ICARB, we never set out to gain approval from the sorts of academics who rarely dare to set foot outside their ivory towers and whose idea of a field trip is far removed from visiting the likes of deepest darkest Paisley or the parts of the highlands that the Scottish Government would rather the tourists don't know about. This is where we find common ground with the likes of Aimee Ambrose at Sheffield Hallam and the great work being done by her and other members of the Fuel Poverty Research Network (FPRN), via whom we recruited Liz Errington and John Grant; and our expansion into Nigeria via Emmanuel Unaegbu is based on recruiting members with the same personal ethos and self-motivation. Yet eschewing traditional academia hasn't stopped us gaining international recognition at the highest level, and being invited to write an article for Nature Energy was an honour that owes everything to all those who have supported our campaigning for 'folk first' solutions (a meme coined by Ron, much to Scott's annoyance), and particularly our complexity science guru, Brian Castellani.    

So it saddens me that the term 'campaigner' is frequently used with less than positive overtones. It's actually pretty easy to be recognised as an 'academic' - one good paper, or even one weak paper and a good university PR department, can be all that it takes. Yet it is a relatively rare for a campaigner to be recognised as having made a difference unless they've spent years, if not decades, of working behind the scenes and demonstrating a dogged commitment to a cause. I'm proud to call myself a campaigner, and if I was forced to choose I'd take 'campaigner' over 'academic' on my tombstone, but I'm lucky enough that what used to be my voluntary work has become central to my paid work. My heroes are the likes of Pete Flack of Leicester Social Forum and the comedian / campaigner Mark Thomas - people who have genuinely changed their worlds but who have never sought and will probably never receive the recognition and high salaries afforded to those whose ambitions are tied to the academic career ladder.  

Which brings me on to the role of the media, often viewed by academics as at best a double-edged sword, and one which can expose their weaknesses as poor communicators unable to make their work feel relevant to the public. Yet, and perhaps because I started working as a journalist in the relatively safe field of technology journalism under Mark Fihn at Veritas et Visus, I welcome any opportunity to engage with the media, and particularly the more populist right wing-leaning outlets. It's too easy to preach to the converted and easily convertible, and I do find it amusing that academics who regularly expose themselves to the scathing criticism of their peers and journal editors can find their fragile egos shattered when exposed to the views of those outside the academic bubble. That's not to say all my experiences have been positive, but in reality the likes of professional shit-stirrers such as Julia Hartley-Brewer are a tiny minority in the media. The vast majority of journalists are seekers of the truth just as much, if not even more so, than academics, and so when we refer to organisations such as talkRADIO and presenters such as James Whale as friends of EPRi, comrades even, this is with genuine affection and respect.

Again, a key difference between EPRi and ICARB is that we actively seek out opportunities to make our collective voices heard in the media, and our collaborations with the likes of The Conversation and Commonspace are of immeasurable value. So whilst I admit to finding it a bit annoying that, having spent years working on fuel poverty, some of our best international media coverage has come from 'that bloody article on airships and sub-orbital loops', I can still say that with a wry smile. That's not to say that working with the media is entirely risk-free, and live shows carry their own particular set of risks as university media units can't vet what researchers have to say or the questions we may be asked, but good media training, a bit of preparation, and a good degree of trust goes a long way to avoiding and mitigating the potential pitfalls. And I'm very grateful to GCU's media services unit (and particularly Chris Fitzgerald and the recently departed Rob Flett) for the support they've given me over recent years. 

And so, to bring this post to a close, I'll end by looking to the future and what 2020 and beyond holds for EPRi. If you're reading this you will no doubt be aware that we are busy working to establish a Scottish Energy Development Agency, and that the COP 26 climate change summit is coming to Glasgow in November. But there's a bit more to this than we've been talking about publicly, and I'm going to be a bit cagey here because we're still a few steps away from the formal announcement, but if you scour our website carefully you may spot references to a programme of work underway with the brilliant and highly innovative data visualisation and remote sensing company Astrosat (another link made via Common Weal). All I'll say for now is that this is absolutely central both to our core work on energy poverty and our wider work on heat, infrastructure, and mitigating the socio-economic impacts of climate change. November is looking very exciting. Watch this space.

So, if you've got to the end of this and are thinking EPRi is an organisation you might be interested in joining, please just drop me an email at my university address. We have no recruitment policy as such, but we're always looking for people who support our mission statement and share our ethos, have ideas we can help bring to reality, and a bit of spare time to throw at them. Sometimes we've deliberately sought to recruit people with specialist knowledge and skills that fit gaps we know exist (Fraser, Brian, Laurie), and sometimes it's been to recognise some very talented people whose work we think deserves the extra little bit of exposure we can offer (Liz, Emmanuel). But we only have so many pairs of eyes and what I'd really like to do this year is bring some new people into the fold to build capacity ready for what promises to be a very hectic end to the year, and to start planning for 2021. Whether you want to join us, collaborate with us, or support us in whatever way you think might be useful, we look forward to hearing from you.