We now go on to present our results and analysis. They are structured into three subsections, wherein we address access, capacity, and opportunity to participate in ECs. From the vantage point of access, we discuss the perceived attractiveness of solar energy and the inclusiveness of ECs as organizational forms. We will argue that egalitarian views have paradoxically led to a lack of attention for diversity. We then address capacity concerning support from energy companies to show how organizational embeddedness and associational experience can contribute to the longevity of an initiative and affect the types of engaged actors. Through opportunity, we examine women’s board member experiences in ECs. We show that women’s opportunities to engage in the boards are positively affected by other’s women as role-models and peers. We also show that the boards of ECs replicate gendered recruitment patterns present in the energy sector and STEM.
Access: accessible energy sources and organizational forms
The attraction of solar energy
The following section is about the perceived attraction of solar energy and the expectations board members have in increasing the participation rates, particularly on behalf of women. We encountered reoccurring themes, some of these affirming stereotypes of women and female behaviour. According to Eagly and Steffen, stereotypes are related to social structures and the distribution of social roles . They both represent and distort reality, and according to these authors, will remain as long as there are unequal distributions of social roles . Thus, we have chosen not to discard these themes but to analyse them as an aspect of recognition, and to see what they indicate about women’s engagement with renewable energy initiatives.
The most common theme in terms of the appeal of solar energy for women was their perceived closeness to nature and family orientation. ‘It feels like, to put it quite unscientifically, that the sun as an energy source appeals to women quite a lot’ (Interview 2b), we were told by an interlocutor from one of Sweden’s first ECs. Or as another interlocutor put it: ‘Women tend more to the children and grandchildren, and what (the kind of future) they are going to inherit’ (Interview 1b). Women were attributed with values, such as vulnerability to climate change, closeness to nature, virtuousness, and with roles as mothers and protectors. These have also been strategically invoked in ‘Western’ environmental activism, as well as echoed in much of the literature about gender and climate change . Women environmentalists speak of protecting children, ensuring a future for coming generations, preserving the home and family life, and maintaining health and quality of life for people in their communities (, p. 4). Some international findings confirm women’s stronger environmental attitudes and behaviours than men . For example, research from the US shows that men tend to be less likely to be concerned about environmental harms and less likely to engage in pro-environmental actions in daily life than women . A tendency to be disengaged with environmental challenges stems from the desire to protect a masculine identity and the social privilege it affords . As we see, the links between women, nature, and family orientation are recognised widely both in research, activism, and practitioner discourses. Such discourses attribute false values on women and contribute to naturalizing women as stewards of nature, placing upon them the burdens of adjusting their behaviours to tend to their families’ social needs and to their communities’ environmental needs.
Another reoccurring theme was women’s perceived high-risk aversion and low trust in technology,
We have worked here at the energy company with gas sales since the 1980s, with the gas network. With gas, there is an apparent division. Women do not want gas at home, but it is older men, engineers who think it is great with gas. You have such high faith in the technology, and you know exactly how it works. If you are not technically interested, you have more confidence in solar energy because it’s risk-free… It appeals to women more because it’s more about the species’ survival, and you can feel it in your heart, like, solar energy feels safe and right in every possible way. (Interview 1b)
This interlocutor works in the energy sector, and it came through during the interview that they had reflected upon women’s engagement with different energy sources and different technologies over a long period of time. These perceptions are consistent with findings from the US and Germany, which confirm that women are more concerned than are men about a wide range of risks [33, 43, 55]. According to Swedish findings, women are more concerned than men about environmental risks . White men stand apart from other groups when it comes to risk perception. The explanation for such a position is related to procedural justice, that white men tend to be more often in a position of power than other groups, and this privilege allows them to perceive the world as less dangerous . A study from the US finds that women tend to trust science and technology less than men, and that trust in science and technology is negatively related to environmental concerns . Women are not only more concerned about environmental risks: they are also more prepared to act upon them . More Swedish women than men experience that they can act to curb climate change . They are also prepared to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions . Thus, in theory, women’s lower risk tolerance and lower trust in technology positions solar energy as a desirable choice.
We have herein presented the perceptions held by interlocutors in terms of how gender affects participation. Interestingly, solar energy was recognised as an appealing choice for women. It was perceived as resonating with their environmental concerns, their family orientation, and their aversion to risk and low trust in technology. While these themes reoccur in activist, research, and practitioner accounts, they are also problematic from a justice perspective. They can leave unjust power relationships unexamined and could distribute unfair expectations upon women to act as stewards of nature.
ECs as inclusive organizational forms
This section is about the member composition of ECs and the board members’ lack of recognition of insufficient diversity. One of the energy communities studied was founded during the 1980s as a housing association focusing on ecologically well-thought-out and energy-efficient housing. The community was built on an aspiration to live according to a long-term sustainable strategy, where the design and residents’ everyday lives had to consider environmental impacts and encourage social activities. During the interviews, it became clear that this EC reflected the social motivations for engaging described in earlier research . The community was organised in different working groups running everyday activities. As described by one of the interviewees, these working groups were, however, gendered: ‘The movie group is only men; the workshop group is only men… Also, the energy group consists of men. That is, of course, a pity’ (Interview 4a).
The gender divide was in this sense reflected by the organization, despite their gender-balanced board. During interviews, interlocutors of the other ECs stated that they perceived their solar ECs as quite inclusive. They were not selective about who the members were, or as one interlocutor put it, ‘we are not interested in where the person comes from and what they look like’ (Interview 1b). On the webpage of this EC it is highlighted that the opportunity is there for ‘people from the entire country’, and they do not require potential members to be customers of the energy company they worked with. ECs were also perceived as less capital intensive than household installation of solar panels,Footnote 2 they do not require installations on the housing units of the members, they do not require knowledge on the technology on behalf of the members, and shareholder engagement is not time demanding, as most ECs meet with members once a year. There are likewise no requirements on the extent of members’ engagement, beyond the purchase of a share to be enrolled. There was a sense of accomplishment expressed by multiple interlocutors on the point of their communities being inclusive, particularly of women, as the following answer to a question about the relative distribution of women and men among the members shows: ‘I have to look a little carefully (at the member lists), but I think you would be surprised how many women there are’ (Interview 2b). Men tended to speak about the inclusion of women more often, which could be associated with social desirability issues, which implies that they have provided a more socially acceptable answer in a country, where gender equality is a dominant discourse.
None of the interlocutors engaged in a discussion on the inclusion of people of a varied ethnic origin or young people at great length. Language skills or lack of economic capital were briefly referred to as the absence of the former or the latter group. In terms of most of the members being fifty and older, interlocutors stated that this generation would like to make up for the unsustainable lifestyles they might have led and invest into their children and grandchildren’s future. As we noted in section ‘Data collection and analysis’, this is an age group that has the time and money to invest. One interlocutor from the housing association reasoned like this when asked if gender equality is an important issue for the community:
I cannot imagine that anyone actively or consciously would oppose or reject equality…but no I have not experienced this as a problem and this is probably easy to say for a white man. Still, no, I have not experienced any issues with equal treatment. (Interview 5a)
From the gathered data, it can be observed that the studied ECs had egalitarian ideals. At its outset, the housing association aspired to stimulate social and inclusive lifestyles. The other ECs perceived their organizations as inclusive due to the little that they demanded of their members. The most significant investment was the decision to come on board and pay the fee. While energy communities can, in theory, make it possible for more groups to invest in solar production, it does not always look like that in practice . Not all citizens can participate in associational life . The following interlocutor is making a point that there are different kinds of social activities that women and men engage in:
I think it is often men (who join ECs); you can also see that it is usually men on the boards in tenant-owner associations. This is because women have so many other social networks. You hang out with your girlfriends and have different groupings. But men are pretty bad at that general social stuff. So then it is appropriate for them to join associations because they get a network. Especially if there is something about the technology involved, and it is with solar energy. That’s why I think it’s men who get involved. Slightly older men who may have the time to… Men need something to do when they retire. Women often have it. (Interview 3b)
This interlocutor was from an EC with around 20 members from the local area, where most of them knew each other. During the interview, they confirmed that men might dispose of more free time than women due to the differences in the amount of care labour performed (tending to family members, the home and cooking). Civic associations are, furthermore, not an organizational form that appeals or is available to people of all socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds. Scandinavian countries have high rates of civic engagement when compared to other EU countries. However, men still have a slightly higher probability of doing voluntary work than women, and participation rates are low for ethnic minority groups, poor people, etc. [44, 58, 59]. The research on social capital in Europe by van Oorschot, Arts, and Gelissen confirms this point . These scholars argue that European women are more involved in informal helping and neighbourhood activities, while men take the lead in voluntary organizations. Studies on women’s involvement in citizen participation schemes in renewable electricity production in Germany indicate similar findings, as women’s participation seems to be lower than those of men in general. On average, 22% of the owners are women, and 75% are men . The data we gathered with the Swedish ECs also indicates that women are a minority both as members and managers. Therefore, the question is if community energy can provide services and engage with communities broadly, or if they are likely to concentrate on well-resourced groups  is also relevant for the cases presented herein.
When it was possible to choose between different working groups in an EC, such as the housing association, the energy group was occupied by men. At the same time, the women engaged in other groups not related to energy. Energy was seen as something technical, as knowledge that men brought with them before the EC membership (Interview 6a). When there is no physical intervention of the members’ households, electricity is still symbolically tied into the household, which is the most gendered spheres across societies . As such, for better or for worse, owning a share in a solar EC does not affect the members’ everyday lives. Neither does it challenge the social relationships, divisions of labour, and power structures they engage in. Abstract ideas of equal opportunity can mask the existence of deep, structural injustices [33, 36]. According to Johnson et al., renewable energy projects cannot achieve gender and social equity, as energy interventions do not automatically tackle the structural dynamics embedded within socio-cultural and socioeconomic contexts (, p. 2). This seems to be confirmed in our cases.
Capacity: support from energy companies and its effect on diversity
The following section will examine the effect of the support offered by energy companies. While we confirm previous research findings that position support is essential for the longevity of the ECs, we argue that it affects the lack of diversity of their managerial composition. Seven out of the 11 ECs have been started by or in cooperation with energy companies, with several interim board members from these companies. The data gathered confirmed findings on the topic that champions in the companies interested in renewable energy took the initiative to start up . Ideally, local citizens are the driving force in each step of realizing a renewable energy community: planning, mobilization of resources, and its operative implementation [43, 63]. However, an institutional story of origin is common in Sweden. As the electricity market is centralized, there is already a high share of renewable energy in the system, and the low electricity prices leave little room for incentives by grassroots . Based on findings in Sweden, citizen involvement, Magnusson and Palm argue, is a niche phenomenon, dependent on a community’s access to capital, technical knowledge, and institutional settings . There are few case studies of renewable energy communities in poor communities, as they experienced challenges in obtaining resources, such as money, material, knowledge, and time . The following quote from and EC that works closely with an energy company and has a board member that is an employee of that company confirms the view that institutional support is necessary to manage the aspects that volunteers do not have time or expertise for:
He does this (board member duty) partly during his working hours because the company is also a partner in this. If he drops out, then it would be difficult without the skills (he has). We are all doing this non-profit. And… he has that competence (which is required). The rest of us are pretty exchangeable on the board. Some of us are, say, good at social media, but many can do that. (Interview 5b)
We can see a facility coming from the backing of energy companies, as in the case above; for example, a technical expert on the board could be paid for their time. Nevertheless, there was the issue of person dependency, as the person held knowledge and skills deemed essential. If the company restructured this person’s work assignments, it would dramatically change the situation of the EC. Interlocutors also told us that it was not easy to build a board as not many were interested in becoming board members. Board members from ECs who collaborated with energy companies stated that it was difficult to find others who would dedicate time without paying for it (Interview 1b). The boards’ missing spots are filled through the companies or their partners investing in the ECs (Interview 13b). When the initiative did come from the grassroots, the engagement with energy companies was not only perceived as benefiting the ECs, but also the companies:
For them, it became a good advertisement that they create electricity in this way. And we got good financial conditions because we needed to pay our debts quickly. For both liquidity and solvency in the association. And they may not have had the strength to do this. We have personal relationships with people who could be shareholders. We were this soft power. And they had the muscles, and it became a good combo. (Interview 3b)
This grassroots EC was initiated by a group that had a history of working together on various initiatives. While they only had 20 members at the time the research was conducted, the interviewee stated that they all had different competencies and different technical knowledge levels. Most importantly, they all had contacts who could supply them with technical expertise when necessary. Their shared experiences made it possible to mobilize their social capital and other resources efficiently. They acknowledged the energy company’s role in supporting them technically and economically, but they also perceived the relationships as a symmetric exchange, wherein they supplied the social relationships. The networks they had established—and having started the EC due to their personal engagement—brought them a feeling of ownership and independence that increased their decision-making capacity.
As we can see from the cases presented in this section, the advantages of creating and EC with an energy company’s backing were multiple. They were able to draw on former experiences of organization and business models; there was contact with customers who could be potential members, expert knowledge, and the capacity to put the infrastructure into place. Smaller grassroots initiatives also needed to find a fruitful collaboration with energy companies and maintain an elaborate network of contacts that could be mobilized and maintained a certain level of their independence. The ECs founded by energy companies relied on their staff and institutional networks for filling the board positions. The grassroots initiatives, on the other hand, had their reliance on members who have cooperative experience. This can be tied into Wirth’s argument on the circularity of familiarity with cooperative forms of ownership, leading to homogeneity among groups of actors and lacking heterogeneity conditions . As shown in the former section, it is still men who still have a slightly higher probability of doing voluntary work . From these perspectives, it can be gathered that while organizational embeddedness and associational experience contribute to the longevity of an initiative, they can also affect the types of actors that are engaged. In a procedural justice perspective, actors will have a privileged position based on their technical knowledge and their already acquired capacity to navigate organizations and mobilize resources.
Opportunity: women as board members
This section will explore how women experienced procedural justice and their possibility to participate in the boards, and the barriers and enablers they encountered. Formal access to management positions in ECs is a condition to have the opportunity to engage in the decision-making process and accrue decision-making power . While the numbers reporting the gender ratio within EC’s in Sweden indicate that the Swedish ECs engage relatively higher percentages of women than their counterparts in, for example, the aforementioned cases in Germany, solely focusing on the percentage of members risks diverting the gaze away from issues of power structures and leadership. None of the interviewees reported unpleasant experiences on boards due to their gender. The interviewed women reported that their experiences were positively affected by being surrounded by other women who played a similar role:
There were several of us, LisaFootnote 3 was also there… So, we were two women and three men or something like that, or maybe they (the men) were four, I do not know, so it did not feel so strange. And then if you have been (working), like me, in the real estate industry and the construction industry, then you are as used to it, to the narrative, or what to call it, of (working with) middle-aged white men… There was no difference, but it was fun that Lisa was so driven and then Amanda, my boss (was there), so there were still women there. (Interview 13b)
This interlocutor was a board member in an EC initiated by an energy company. While this interlocutor experienced her time on the board as friction-free, one must consider her employment history in male-dominated sectors. This background enabled her to navigate new spaces and practices, wherein women were a minority. Fraune  draws a parallel between renewable energy production and German sports organizations. Women are underrepresented in executive bodies of sports organizations, since a precondition is a long and continued commitment to sport and sports organizations. In relation to renewable energy production, experience in either business or technology, which many women might lack due to the aforementioned gender segregation of STEM, might be a precondition for taking part in executive boards. The interlocutors’ statement also confirms that women can inspire other women to start engaging in energy-related activities [15, 16]. The research about women in sport organizations also indicates the importance of female role models , and role models enhance girls and women’s attitudes towards STEM as a possible career choice . Research on women’s professional networking in the sphere of renewable energy in the USA and Canada confirms that mentoring is critical to women’s professional development. Mentoring and networking are among the most critical factors leading to career success for those employed in the U.S. solar energy industry .
While the ECs were represented as welcoming of women, both as members and on boards, one interlocutor did indicate that in the energy branch in general, being a woman and a non-white person could pose obstacles to one’s professional identity:
So, you are often questioned when in groups, if you do not know the people. I am questioned in the circle I am in because it is still unusual for a female, non-white person to be involved. But it is not a problem, as soon as you have explained who you are and what you have done. But you do have to explain yourself, unlike if you had been a white man. It is not a matter of course that I enter a room and that everyone understands what I can do. (Interview 12b)
The interlocutor quoted herein underlines that their positionality affects the extent of their everyday professional interactions in the energy sector. ECs tend to score better in terms of energy justice, as they can, in theory, provide joint ownership, decision-making, and access to the profits generated. However, research does indicate that problematic aspects can arise, such as in the differences between involved individuals and how they engage in participation . Other interlocutors have not referred to these kinds of interactional issues with regards to the ECs.
We now discuss the gendered structure of decision making is and how the power relationships look in the boards. Findings form the energy sector in Europe and Sweden confirm that women are a minority [23, 25, 27]. Thus, the board compositions reflect general patterns in this sector:
They are engineers. We laugh at that too. I am not, but many are. On the board, we are two environmental scientists. Yes, it is engineer-driven. And you can understand that, they understand electricity … (laughs). (Interview 5b)
The board that this interlocutor was a part of had experts from engineering. This was particularly the case with the ECs initiated by energy companies. The gender segregation of the labour market and women’s underrepresentation in STEM thus gains special importance for the matter . Issues of women’s leadership and inequality are particularly salient in STEM-related fields and activities. As forementioned, research has here confirmed the importance of role models and mentorship for women’s inclusion, particularly in leadership [65, 66]. Women can inspire and engage more women, but for this to happen, there need to be structural preconditions in place, such as gender policies for the boards. Johnson et al. argue that not taking gender into account can benefit the groups that are already in a more privileged position, such as men, who are more often recruited in the system of energy supply . Thus, if there is no greater awareness of the gendered patterns of recruitment and volunteering in the energy sector, the ECs risk replicating the sector’s inequalities. Women and underrepresented groups are essential enablers of change. They need to have real agency in participation, recognition, and decision making  in energy system transition and to be able to reach the goals in EU’s Clean Energy for all package.
From this section, it can be gathered that women’s opportunities to engage in EC’s boards are positively affected by other’s women functioning as role-models and peers. Our interview data nevertheless indicates that the energy sector has problems when it comes to procedural justice and especially in relation to inclusion and diversity. Our findings confirm that the boards of ECs replicate gendered patterns in the energy sector and STEM more generally, benefiting men who are the primary group to be recruited.
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