1. Introduction: Tamera’s Solar Test Field as a Living Laboratory
Transitions to future energy systems are characterised by stability and change across time, space and scale, within institutional structures and through relational processes [1
]. They comprise elements of sociotechnical transitions as well as of energy justice that research has only recently begun to address in an integrated manner [2
]. There is a need to build bridges across analytical perspectives in order to progress in this interdisciplinary field [4
]. A rewarding step towards accomplishing this in recent times is living laboratories (e.g., [6
This article explores the challenges of stability and change in transitioning towards future energy systems in a solar test field in southern Portugal. It is the product of reflexive engagement between three researchers over the course of a year: one a social scientist researching the governance of energy transitions, and two physicists working hands-on to develop sustainable community-scale energy solutions in the Tamera eco-community, primarily through the use of solar thermal systems. The authors draw on a long-running example of a transition to future energy systems in Tamera in the southwestern reaches of the undulating Alentejo region. Tamera is an intentional eco-community of 160 people working towards a trust-based form of social organisation and communal living since 1995, alongside energy, food and water autonomy. This can serve as a living laboratory for understanding processes of stability and change over time (cf. [7
]). Specific to energy transitions, Tamera’s decade-old solar test field represents a rare and fruitful coming together of community engagement in sociotechnical change processes (cf. [8
]). The solar test field takes the continuing form of 25–30 people living in a cluster within Tamera’s 130 hectares of land, moving towards energy autonomy through solar and other renewable energy innovation in conjunction with changes in lifestyle that they collectively determine to be sustainable. The take-home from these experiences for wider actionability responds to two research questions: (i) What learning does the solar test field’s experience offer to understand energy transitions? and (ii) How can this knowledge inform energy transition policies in other European contexts?
In keeping with the research questions, the work is two-fold. First, we draw on the extensive experiences of Tamera’s solar test field from multiple perspectives in an interdisciplinary manner, to consolidate learning from its manner of having addressed energy transition challenges so far. Methodologically, this has been facilitated by intensive interactions during two in-person visits to Tamera (in September 2017 and August 2018) by the lead author with the two physicists, who are long-running residents of Tamera, as well as correspondence during periods of writing. We unpack the nature of stability and change in the solar test field’s efforts in having achieved approximately 60 percent self-estimated energy autonomy; trace the linkages to the wider spatiotemporal issues implicated in this sociotechnical process informed by Tamera’s keen commitment to energy justice; and dwell on the test field’s navigation of socioeconomic and pragmatic considerations at its interface with the Portuguese institutional framework and broader set of global connections (cf. [9
Second, we identify the key learnings that can fertilise policy and action in other European contexts based on the solar test field’s experiments, including intangible process-oriented lessons. These are particularly relevant given that the Alentejo and Algarve regions of Portugal are currently being developed on a massive scale (cf. [10
]), with large-scale solar parks redefining their landscape for rapid adoption of renewable energy sources in keeping with a general European push [5
]. The stark contrast between an eco-community’s considerations in installing sub-100 kW solar capacity over years, versus the current proliferation of grid-scale solar energy systems within a two-year span, raises questions of the actionability of knowledge on sociotechnical transitions. On what basis are which types of solar energy technologies promoted, at what scale and by whom, and with what consequences for social and environmental justice (cf. [5
])? We co-generate ideas on whether and how such contextualised epistemological advances can aid understandings of an overall societal move towards future energy systems (for analogous work on cities, see [11
]). The article thus captures responses to both research questions, and urges future policy pathways to open up to more socially informed, integrated treatment of energy transitions across European contexts (see also [12
Our work builds on a lively strand of social innovations scholarship. Two decades ago, Kemp et al. [13
] posited the emergence of technologies as modulated by strategic niche management. To them, social innovation involved coupling expectations with the technology, articulating sociotechnical practices linked with its uptake, and forming a network of actors to enable uptake. A decade later, Røpke [14
] (p. 2496) emphasised attention to practices in relation to sustainability, noting that “most valued practices are performed with little or marginal concern for the environment.” Seyfang and Haxeltine [15
] highlight this focus on practice while expanding the arena of attention beyond internal factors to external ones. They point out that social innovations are “often countercultural and self-consciously formed in response to unsustainable regimes: hence, the scope for easy translation of ideas and practices between niche and regime is reduced” [15
] (p. 396). They moreover emphasise the role of individual and community identity and purpose in determining social innovations around technology and how linked goals emerge and evolve. How to engage with such variation at the community scale in a manner that supports outscaling and enables truly participatory decision-making in energy transitions remains a pertinent issue [16
]. Thus, we can see that scholarship calls for both improved insight into social innovation around technology within communities, as well as reflection on the uptake of such innovation beyond the local scale and its implications for energy transitions.
Informed by the extant academic discussion, the research questions are premised on co-producing knowledge about the following concerns around social innovation under energy transition: to bring about epistemological complementarities between applied researchers and practicing agents; to problematise linking across scale between a community and institutionalising powers; and to develop actionable efforts that integrate complementary foci on systems thinking and power dynamics towards transformation. Rather than explicitly targeted as headlines, these concerns are approached in conversation together as authors who have co-produced this text from different vantage points—either as an applied researcher with expertise on governance and energy transitions or as practice-oriented researchers-cum-members of the solar test field with long-running links within the Tamera eco-community. This collaboration foregrounds key learnings with regard to the materiality of the technology, people’s conditioning and social dynamics, access to financial capital and incentives, and how technologies fit together and within the social context.
2. Materials and Methods: The Solar Test Field’s Multi-Dimensional Energy Transition
During the first fortnight that the lead author spent in Tamera, he engaged extensively with the solar test field’s members and its technology team in particular, in addition to undertaking a curated introduction to Tamera’s portfolio of activities, of which energy autonomy is one major thrust. The introductory course brought him in contact with many of Tamera’s residents and included multiple daily group sessions over the course of a week. During the second week, he engaged intensively with residents of Tamera’s solar test field as part of a ‘hands-on week’. During this period, he helped build a compost heating system, and his understanding of the test field’s aims and practices is based as much on these hands-on impressions as on lengthy interviews and conversations conducted during this stay, which he prepared for through detailed discussions and consultation of documents for months before the visit. Fifteen interviews were conducted, ranging between 30 and 120 min, each with one or two interviewees; there were 19 interviewees in all from among Tamera’s residents.
Interviews focussed on understanding Tamera’s energy autonomy efforts and the practices associated with everyday energy use, with a focus on various solar energy forms. Interviewees were selected based on relevance: as a function of their role in Tamera, by snowball sampling based on others’ recommendations, or following the advice of resident co-authors. Discussions and correspondence continued during the writing process, supported by a three-day follow-up visit within a year’s span for shared reflection during manuscript finalisation. These broad concerns guided the lead author’s questions during semi-structured interviews: (i) the informant’s everyday engagement with the solar test field, (ii) their views on solar uptake and energy transitions both in Tamera and more widely in Portugal or elsewhere in Europe that they knew about, (iii) their knowledge on specific aspects of Tamera’s energy autonomy efforts, spanning social, technical, economic and political issues, (iv) energy-related aspects they wished to discuss in detail (e.g., fundraising and communication around solar and electric transport projects, particulars of cooking with solar energy, energy use to heat public and living spaces such as offices, rooms and caravans, depending on the informant’s role and expertise), and (v) other questions the informant wished to explore and other Tamerans they thought could contribute valuable insights for the study.
While Tamera is over two decades old, the solar test field took off in earnest in the mid-2000s, and has evolved incrementally to its present form. Progress may seem to the outside to be slow, due to the depth of inner work required as a consequence of its members seeing themselves as participants in a living laboratory on energy autonomy. Where quick fixes would be inadequate, the community has a preference for weighing the multiple impacts of alternative energy solutions across space and time, then trying some out to see how they work in relation to everyday lives. An additional reason for the gradual pace of change has been the requisite financial resources, which for such projects are usually raised by donations. Tamera’s work on autonomy and cooperation as principles encompasses not only energy autonomy, water retention, food self-sufficiency and natural resource conservation, but also in-depth social experimentation, making for a complex interaction between projects and resource allocation that seeks to takes into account the needs of the whole.
One of Tamera’s and the solar test field’s oldest members, recounting its early days, discussed how in the initial years after establishing the eco-community on this site, Tamerans lacked even basic power outlets and access to tapped water. With a shrug of the shoulders, he gestured to the impressive workshop apparatus surrounding him, including power tools and multiple computers running in the room, pointing out that much like many other places, the solar test field is quite dependent on technologies that consume significant energy. Yet switching to these has been accompanied by shifts away from sources like wood and reduced dependence on a grid whose electricity is partly produced using fossil fuels. The solar test field uses biogas from biomass produced within Tamera using food waste, as well as concentrating solar power, to cook food for 50 people on a daily basis for most of the year. Not only does the entire site now have abundant water, this has moreover been achieved in a manner such that Tamera’s presence contributes positively to replenishing groundwater levels.
The relationship between the solar test field and the wider eco-community of Tamera merits clarification. The test field operates based on its residents’ preferences in a manner that is autonomous on a day-to-day basis, but also places itself within the framework of Tamera’s overall goals of a comprehensive paradigm shift towards a social structure based on trust. To develop and maintain coherence over the whole project requires communication, which takes place through multiple forums that are adaptive in the spirit of Tamera’s social experimentation. For instance, a form that was prevalent in 2017 but has since evolved entailed: (i) weekly meetings where the entire community gathers to listen to one of a set of main speakers, who on occasion focus on this part of Tamera’s vision; (ii) discussions within a smaller group of individuals in Tamera who deliberate upon the profound aspects of the eco-community’s efforts including ones pertaining to energy autonomy; and (iii) interactions that all Tamera residents have with solar test field residents as well as with those visitors whom the technology team invites in to contribute their competence to the test field’s projects during short and often repeat visits. Additionally, special events such as the annual ‘defend the sacred’ gatherings hosted by Tamera enable enrichment and cross-fertilisation with similar efforts globally. The 2018 edition, which concluded as the authors finalised the manuscript together in Tamera, focussed on solidarity against drilling for oil off the Portuguese coast in defence of water as a sacred resource for life. These political economic developments weighed heavy on the authors’ minds in relation to the second research question of how community efforts can enable policy learning in the face of such overwhelming obstacles to energy transition.
Setting priorities for time and financial decisions is a dynamic process involving many different and interconnected groups who aim to find decisions based on humanity’s evolutionary path, with an emphasis placed on profound cooperation with nature, with as much awareness as possible given to perceiving and addressing selfish motivations that otherwise remain hidden drivers within discussions and decision-making. The community aims to find and follow the interests of the whole; an energetic line that holds beyond individual opinions. With this overall aim, attention is given in Tamera’s various councils to distinguishing between opinions, prejudices and facts, including when this leads to transformational personal processes. For instance, as elaborated in Section 3.2
below, some men were perceived as dominating a conversation rather than contributing based on relevance; recognising this tendency enabled constructive discussion.
The solar test field’s social relationships with inventors and innovators have resulted in many experiments and advances. Among these is a Stirling engine that can efficiently convert heat captured using concentrating solar power and stored temporarily in the form of hot oil in insulated containers into electricity. This engine, however, is now unused while the feedback that it was too noisy for users is taken up. A new almost silent engine has been developed since this round of testing and its operationalisation is awaited. An energy-producing greenhouse structure equipped with linear Fresnel lenses served to capture solar heat for circulation as hot oil while providing plants a cooler environment to thrive in during the arid Portuguese summer functioned in conjunction with the old Stirling engine and now forms part of the ‘museum’ of solar solutions that solar test field visitors get a tour of. The chief on-site development project from 2015 onwards till 2018 is a lightweight paraboloid mirror that uses transparent and reflective inflatable membranes, creating a precision optical surface using air pressure to achieve high solar concentrations. This concentrating solar power device, in combination with a kiln, both designed in-house, is intended as a decentralised modular power producing element for small-scale industrial processes and cooking. It will hopefully allow the solar test field to manufacture its own lime cement using solar energy and also store solar energy in natural, locally available materials such as specific stones for cooking around the clock. The latter solution is used by the small team working on this project to brew their coffee, and night-time pizza cooking events and aluminium castings are currently only occasional demonstrations. (At the time of concluding manuscript revisions, progress on this project had stalled despite its advanced stage of functionality due to legal disagreements between external partners, which we are unable to address here due to reasons of sensitivity. However, the existence of this problem itself is worth noting, as an example of the challenges inherent in efforts to shift existing paradigms such as our relationship with energy. It evokes questions such as how we can move from a resource ontology to different ways of viewing energy systems in society.)
Such projects have been made possible by grants and donations combined with the free skilled labour of some solar test field residents who comprise the technology team. Using Tamera’s wider networks, this small team with a handful of members has repeatedly invited in others with specific competencies to aid in their experiments. The hands-on week the lead author participated in was preceded by a week of planning for future advances in energy autonomy. Two direct outcomes of the hands-on week were: (i) the construction of a shed roof over the biogas plant as shelter for users and in order to mount a photovoltaic panel on it, and (ii) setting up a compost heating system as a prototype for a sustainable solution to heat the houses and caravans in which Tamerans live over the Portuguese winter. Energy poverty is a significant problem in Portugal [18
], and finding solutions to keep buildings warm over the winter is a dual priority for the solar test field: to improve Tamerans’ quality of life while furthering energy autonomy (the compost heating system uses almost only locally available materials, with the exception of a small pump motor and an insulated pipe, and the side effect is to produce valuable compost material rather than any form of waste), and to demonstrate a more widely useful solution for potential adoption elsewhere. Ontological accounts of such community efforts are hard to find in nascent literature on this subject. Such epistemological complementarities emerged during the collaboration. Tamera’s work on water retention landscapes, for instance, has been recognised as salutary and resulted in many invitations for assistance, leading to some Tamerans being in demand as expert consultants.
But when it comes to the uptake of photovoltaic solutions, the solar test field has been selective, deploying such systems in a decentralised manner across Tamera rather than as a large-scale installation to rapidly increase their energy autonomy (Tamera uses hybrid energy sources: biomass, biogas, concentrating solar power, solar photovoltaic, car fuels, electric grid supply, stored heat and biophysical energy. Data availability on each source varies based on its materiality, temporality, and community-level monitoring capabilities. Since our study is not concerned with the historical evolution of energy uptake and also out of respect for the privacy of all Tamerans, we do not provide figures on installed capacity and usage). One reason for this is an ethical concern for the impact that extracting the materials used in the photovoltaic infrastructure (e.g., the metals used in batteries) has on people elsewhere (echoed in [19
] and emerging telecoupling scholarship, e.g., [20
]). This awareness is highlighted by Tamera’s relationship with a Colombian sister community as part of its peace work; this community is in a region with extraction driven conflicts. Another reason for limited uptake of photovoltaic solutions is concern for the environmental externalities involved in their production; the test field did identify producers who prioritise environmentally responsible practices, even though these entail higher costs, but such producers are hard put to stay alive in the evolving solar market and one identified company did in fact fold, as is typical of the Schumpeterian creative destruction that currently characterises the renewable energy innovation space. As an alternative that does not suffer from these issues, the technology team is working on thermal energy storage solutions using readily available materials. Similar concerns are evident in action research on community wind energy, including in Portugal’s Alentejo region.
A third important reason was expressed by a leading technology team member, who emphasised the test field’s commitment to doing and testing cutting-edge, innovative solar solutions in a living laboratory setup. He pointed out that while larger research institutions have far better funding and infrastructure to carry out ambitious scientific experiments to design state-of-the-art solar technologies, the solar test field’s strength as a research institution is in generating these solutions in and for a community setting and seeing how they can fit within their lived experience. To him, the solar test field’s priority was to demonstrate the promise of particular solar energy solutions in a socially-integrated manner, then leave the details to better-equipped laboratories as long as it would eventually be possible to pass on the benefits to a wide range of users (a hybrid take on the internally and externally oriented niches theorised by [21
]). The inflatable membrane mirror in particular held much promise in this regard, being scalable so that many similar ones could be added to increase industrial process capacity and produce cement and cook at scale for a larger community.
To date there has been no systematic engagement between the socially innovative eco-community and the policy environment on solar energy solutions in Portugal (which resonates with discussions on strategic niche management and grassroots innovation elsewhere in Europe, cf. [22
]). In fact, none of the solar test field members brought this up as a topic they accorded much consideration. One called Tamera and Portugal the ‘Wild West of Europe’, indicating that regulations had little to do with what happened in practice in remote locations such as Tamera. While national legislation on solar micro- and mini-generation does allow for the installation of the modest solar capacity the solar test field has on an individual basis, there was no strategic push from Tamera towards demanding laws for community solar projects. One reason is the perceived need to demonstrate fully-integrated solutions before such efforts. Portuguese political discourse in recent years having turned strictly against any subsidies for renewable energy including solar sources, there is perhaps less to be gained from such efforts in the short run than by fundraising from other sources for specific projects the test field hopes to realise. In the long run, however, this can limit the contribution of inputs from the test field’s efforts to the Portuguese and European solar uptake strategy; even so, the communication of its activities via Tamera’s networks and media outreach does reach an international audience. In the next section, we broach the second research question of key learnings that can fertilise policy and action, and whether and how they can constitute actionable knowledge.
4. Discussion: Integrated Energy Transitions Require Both Stability and Change
Energy transitions are proceeding apace. Whether or not community knowledge informs action, the energy sector will be massively reconfigured in decades, if not years—more likely the latter in relation to solar energy. As noted at the outset, these transitions are characterised by stability and change across time, space and scale, within institutional structures and through relational processes [1
]. In southern Portugal and particularly in its Alentejo region where Tamera is located, these changes are poised to happen at a rather more dramatic spatiotemporal magnitude [10
]. Over 2 GW of solar capacity is in the pipeline, compared to less than a GW previously installed in the whole of Portugal. Whether and when all of this will be installed is a complex question dependent on a multitude of factors that are likely to be determined as much or more by political economic factors as by technical ones, with attendant implications for energy justice [5
]. Yet some of it is already underway, including a solar park exceeding 220 MW, which leads us to the question of what this means for Portugal’s energy future and indeed what difference community knowledge can or should make at this key juncture.
The energy future that is at stake at the moment is one that can be driven by massive and rapid photovoltaic installations, accompanied by massive transmission infrastructural growth or by a more gradual phasing out of Portugal’s two coal plants and eventual replacement with solar sources in southern Portugal. Alternatively, it can be premised on many smaller community-scale solar installations, with stable mini-grids directed primarily at local consumption while also connected to the national grid, leading to a stable, flexible system without the need to develop massive transmission infrastructure; instead, one can add some decentralised local infrastructure near small towns and big villages [12
]. Going by the scale of proposed solar capacity and the policy framework that favours larger players in terms of the requirements for the procurement of licenses, what we are likely to witness is one of the former scenarios (akin to the gloomy analysis Dóci et al. [21
] make vis-à-vis the transition potential of Dutch renewable energy communities). The latter might well be a missed opportunity to transform the logic of our energy system in the Portuguese case—a transition to a cleaner source, without the promise of energy democracy.
Yet the multi-dimensional nature of solar energy uptake in the solar test field as well as the learnings highlighted from it in the preceding sections suggest that we can do better. Or at least that, no matter what happens, there are things to be done at the community level, partly by citizens but mainly through policy incentives (cf. [27
]), that can help move the logic of our energy system towards one where technology and its social use are more in sync, where the promise of solar energy is being harnessed in ways that approach sustainability in a manner that integrates sociotechnical and energy justice aspects [5
]. Ultimately, this can contribute to more efficient systems, harmonised with people’s needs [15
]. But equally, the trajectory in Tamera points out a truth about energy transition dynamics—that these are contingent on many diverse factors: the materiality of the technology, people’s conditioning and social dynamics, access to financial capital and incentives, and how technologies fit together and within the social context. While these considerations are likely to play out differently across contexts, and in ways quite unlike those in an intentional community, they nonetheless need to be understood in a situated manner so that policy support can enable energy transitions through social innovations around technology uptake [16
]. While not necessarily directly resolvable through science, our empirically identified challenges contribute towards an understanding of how to institutionalise improved, more just decision-making systems.
In sum, while energy transitions involve considerable change, this change is modulated by structures and processes that are as old as the Alentejo hills. Actors with greater access to capital will be able to install more solar capacity more quickly, those well-entrenched in the current fossil fuel dominated energy sector will be able to influence its course more than others in terms of key decisions pertaining to timing, spatial allocation and scalar preference, and cheaper technological forms such as photovoltaic solar will dominate over concentrating solar power uptake unless the latter finds a way to integrate storage cheaply using simple physical processes in an easy-to-use manner. Living laboratories like the solar test field provide a microcosmic insight into how some of these contingencies play out (cf. [14
])—others require an understanding of the national or sub-regional political economic dynamics, or even global geopolitics (cf. [1
]). Within the solar test field, power dynamics are still ubiquitous: women are under-represented in technological engagement, parental projection and competitive dynamics modulate social deliberation. This study supports the argument that community knowledge has a role to play in improving our integrated understanding of energy transitions as this interplay of stability and change (cf. [22
]), given their multi-scalar and multi-dimensional nature, but also signals that it can be challenging for such knowledge to perform this role. That said, channelling such learning into conversations about energy transition is crucial towards stabilising social imaginaries of desirable energy futures driven by social innovation. Community energy is an important part of the solution alongside other energy sector transitions, which must be complemented by similar changes in transport, production, and cognate sectors.
5. Conclusions: Learning from or with a Community Test Field?
In this concluding section, we turn a reflexive gaze upon ourselves and this article. As an output, it is partly an artefact of the first author’s role as an applied researcher trying to be a change agent, partly of the many inhabitants of the solar test field and its technology team who gave generously of their time as practice-oriented members trying to be change agents, especially the co-authors from among them as researchers in their own right, and partly of the nature of academic production. What is the afterlife of this artefact once it is made public, and is there a more intangible output that accompanies its production? Have two purposes been served in its creation: the first the mutual enrichment of its authors’ perspectives as we gain insights from the contexts our counterparts are most familiar with, and the second the reflections it triggers in the minds of readers and hopefully the subsequent actions that these partly inform?
Time will tell with regard to the first, but in closing we append our current reflections. We have found this collaborative exercise tremendously generative with regard to the first research question on what learning the solar test field’s experience offers for understanding energy transitions. For the social scientist lead author, it has brought the intricacies of community energy initiatives to the fore in full empirical complexity; for the Tameran authors, it has enabled repeated confrontation with the question of their modalities of engagement with systemic change, especially as manifested in the political economic developments of Portugal’s energy transition and their stake therein. While the former is an expected, desirable outcome, the latter is an unanticipated, productive conjuncture with potency for future action.
We trust that the answer to the second question is a resounding yes. We have modestly treaded the tortuous terrain of how epistemological complementarities between applied researchers and practicing agents can be brought out, and problematised the scalar links between a community and institutionalising powers only in passing (cf. [24
]). Somewhat more directly, we have analysed how actionable efforts that integrate twin foci on systems thinking and power dynamics towards transformation can be developed, and the challenges involved therein (as called for by Geels et al. [4
] and furthered by Sareen and Haarstad [5
]), drawing upon community knowledge with specific reference to energy transitions. This makes modest headway towards addressing the second research question on how community knowledge through social innovation can inform energy transition policies in other European contexts, but much remains to be done. While Tamera’s lack of emphasis on direct engagement with energy policy means that this study cannot comment on any existing external impact from the learnings above, this fact renders our contribution all the more useful as bringing new community energy knowledge to inform systemic transition efforts.
We urge the adoption of future policy pathways that are responsive to more socially-informed, integrated treatment of energy transitions in Portugal and also across contexts worldwide. Opening up to learning from living laboratories such as the solar test field at the community level would certainly be a step along this way (see also [6
]). Equally, taking proactive measures to understand the needs of communities everywhere, and then identifying and making pertinent knowledge on and resources for energy transitions available in a manner designed with them in mind, will bridge the prevalent knowledge gap and sub-optimal resource prioritisation on the academic and policy state-of-the-art for sustainable energy transitions. Certainly, in a world where a country as blessed by the sun and other renewable sources as Portugal can pursue offshore drilling for oil despite public protests and soaring summer temperatures and wildfires that desecrate its land and life year upon year, there is an urgent need to attend to robust social innovation modes of energy transition. Such recursive efforts are in order if we are to move to learning not only from but also with a community test field.