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A spatial perspective on the energy transition

While focussing on ‘learning-by-doing’, transition thinking clearly highlights the role for localised ‘niches’ in which innovations take place. It also explains how change can subsequently follow from learning about successful experiments and by grasping how these experiments influence and interact with higher-level actor networks, institutions and socio-economic practices. Transition management tends to frame these ‘niches’ as individual actors, technologies and local practices where experimentation takes place. The result is that sustainable energy projects tend to be framed largely as initiatives to test new technologies or practical applications largely in isolation from their physical and socio-economic context.

A spatial perspective

From a spatial planning perspective, two additional remarks can be made that might add value to the existing body of academic work on transition management. First of all, we argue that space is largely implicit in this body of academic work. A transition to a more renewable energy system will, as we noted, have vast spatial-physical and socio-economic implications. Issues related to the allocation of production sites for renewables, the development of new infrastructure, accommodating contracts and shifts in power are just a few examples illustrating how much energy production and consumption relate to other societal domains. The ‘footloose’ nature of the existing fossil fuel based energy system has simply made us largely ignorant of how energy might well depend on different spatial conditions. These examples just noted urge us to consider linkages that exist between energy systems and their spatial-physical and socio-economic contexts if we shift towards a more sustainable energy system. Considering these linkages, however, is not just relevant for identifying the challenges of making a transition to a sustainable energy system. Such a transition can also benefit from activating and strengthening linkages between existing organisations, interests and land uses.

Secondly, then, we should pay attention for unique local circumstances when we discuss the energy transition. Our existing fossil-based energy system is hierarchically organised by national and international governments and big corporate actors in the energy arena adjusted to working with large scales and mono-functional energy production. They are also the key actors in discussing the future of our energy system. This rather centralised governance network tends to overlook the diversity of local initiatives and how they connect with local circumstances. If we are to activate and strengthen linkages between energy systems and their spatial-physical and socio-economic contexts, we argue, we also need to take such local circumstances into account. Rather than only relying on a centralised governance network, therefore, we also need to develop area-based strategies to respond to local circumstances.

It is now possible to argue for a spatial understanding of the energy transition that can begin with considering energy initiatives in relation to their spatial-physical and socio-economic contexts. Doing so implies a consideration of the ‘niche’ developments that can be defined by their unique context as area-based niches. Not the novelty of the technological or economic innovation alone that defines the niche, but the way the energy initiative makes use of its unique physical and social contexts and adapts to it. When a local energy initiative spreads and upscales, it strengthens existing linkages or forms new linkages with the local physical and socio-economic landscape. Local initiatives are an integrated part of the landscape; the initiative and the landscape are interdependent.

A spatial perspective draws attention to the interdependence of developments regarding renewable-based energy and the multifunctional landscape. Physically, the type and quantity of renewables that can be generated depend on characteristics of the landscape: the topography, the land-use and infrastructure constrain and enable different types of renewables (Van den Dobbelsteen et al., 2007; Stoeglehner et al. 2011; Stremke, 2010). For energy generation from residual biomass like manure, which causes smell, urban areas usually have less acceptance than agricultural areas. Wind energy is prone to excel in areas not constrained by dense population. Also socio-economically local energy production can contribute positively or negatively to the local economy or the regional identity; it can result in societal resistance when citizens consider the development aesthetically and environmentally undesirable for their ‘backyard’. In various ways local energy initiatives form linkages with the multifunctional landscape and their excellence depends on synergy with the physical and socio-economic landscape.

Figure 5.1: Impression of an energy landscape Impression of an energy landscape Source:

Energy potential mapping

A first important contribution of a spatial perspective lies in recognizing the varying potentials of different landscapes for the production of energy. It should be hardly a surprise that not every area has similar potentials. On a large scale, variations in solar radiation, wind speed, the presence of mountainous areas, geothermal potentials or vast abundances of biomass all dictate alternative options. On a smaller scale, the presence of manure, waste heat from industries, well-suited rooftops for solar energy or residual biomass can be similarly conditioning factors for energy potentials.

Clearly then, a spatial perspective shifts attention to which technologies and options might best be suited in which area. This can also be formalised through the idea of ‘energy potential mapping’ (Van den Dobbelsteen et al. 2007). The idea is that “energy potential maps clarify the local strengths and weaknesses with regard to potentials for specific energy generation or conversion”, where “energy potential maps indicate in which places which energy resources are available.” (Van den Dobbelsteen et al. 2007; p.6). Examples of an energy potential map are included in figure 5.2 for a regional area (1000 km2). The idea is not only to map which resources might be available, but also to pay attention to important conditioning factors of the landscape, so as to point to “locations that are most logical for certain developments if these should be directed by energy supply and if transport of energy over long distances should be avoided.” (Van den Dobbelsteen et al. 2007; p.6). This also includes issues such as historical developments, topography, soil and underground, landscape qualities, heritage etc.

Area-based niches

The idea of an area-based niche starts with seeing an individual energy initiative or a group of energy initiatives as being embedded in their local physical and socio-economic landscape. The local physical and socio-economic landscape then plays a conditioning role for the viability of energy initiatives (De Boer & Zuidema, 2015). That is: a local energy initiatives can become less vulnerable to societal resistance as it is linked to other local land uses, socio-economic activities and fits in better with the local landscape. Furthermore, in benefiting from the role of alternative land uses and socio-economic activities, also means for investment and basis for a profitable business case can increase. In contrast, initiatives that are largely disconnected from their contexts tend to receive more societal resistance and are more prone to failure (De Boer & Zuidema, 2015).

Figure 5.2: Energy Potential Map of a region in The Netherlands Energy Potential Map of a region in The Netherlands To illustrate: dark green shows where forests are for harvesting woody material, light green are areas well-suited for biocrops, circles and lines relate to places where residual heat is either available or might be linked to heat-networks, etc. Source: SREX Team and University of Groningen

An illustrative case of an initiative not connected to its context was the development of a large-scale wind farm around the regional highway in the Netherlands (alongside route N33; Bijl, 2013; De Boer & Zuidema, 2015; Van Dijk, 2012). Local stakeholders, on the one hand, were nationally granted permission to develop a wind farm and therefore largely operate within national policy and regulatory frameworks. Local communities and municipalities, on the other hand, merely faced the social and economic costs associated with visibility, noise and intermittent shade of the wind turbines (Sijmons & Van Dorst, 2012), and therefore they are resisting the current plans. The case illustrates that interference in public space, such as wind farms on the main land, often have externalities and easily result in an unbalance between societal and individual effects of that interference (Ostrom, 2009; Scharpf, 1997; Turner et al., 1994). This observation is underlined by the fact that some large-scale wind farms on the North Sea, where competing uses of the physical ‘seascape’ and environmental concern are fairly limited, have been more successfully pursued in North-Western Europe (e.g. Wolsink, 2010). While practice shows that implementation of wind farms is complex on the main land (Firestone et al. 2009; Jones & Richard Eiser, 2010). A shift to a more area-based and bottom-up approach allowing for local participation and distributing costs and benefits might have resulted in different outcomes of the N33 case. Local resistance groups and municipalities did, for example, express that a ‘regional fund’, which has been successfully applied in other cases to exchange benefits attached to the project, could have created more local support for the plans (Bijl, 2013). The case does not, however, allow us to conclude that it indeed would have.

Alternatively, a good example of a case that is connected to its local context and shows how multiple socio-economic activities can benefit from example is the rural case of Haarlose Veld (again in the Netherlands; De Boer & Zuidema, 2015; Hier Opgewekt 2013). In a diverse and small scale landscape with poor sandy soils, farmers want to create an ‘energy landscape,’ for various reasons. On the one hand, the farmers have low revenues due to the poor conditions of their land. This is the result of mono cultivation, intensive agriculture, restrictive manure legislation, and very little organic matter entering the area, via rivers for instance. On the other hand, it is a groundwater capture area, the water company faces relatively high filtering costs due to the limited filtering capacity of sandy soil. Therefore, the farmers came up with the idea to develop their land by improving the soil filtering capacity, and in turn generating more revenue (Rienks et al. 2013). To begin with, the farmers improved their grounds with crop rotation to enhance the organic matter compound. To this end they make use of ‘energy crops’. While this might reduce some revenues, the water company is willing to compensate farmers as they stand to profit from reduced filtration costs. Secondly, farmers start recycling manure, which they put together with the ‘energy crops’ in bio-digesters for energy production. While this generates revenues itself, the by-product of the digester process is used for improving soil quality. This further reduces the cost of fertilization, improves the filtering capacity of the soil and is a way around the strict regulations for the use of manure. Finally, the ground improvements result in carbon capture in the soil, which may enable farmers in near future to receive carbon credits in return. The threefold synergy-effects of the farmers’ initiative is the result of connecting the energy production, to the local physical and socio-economic landscape. The strength of this initiative is that it is linked to a wider set of interests and is not dependent on one energy production function alone. The integration of functions increases its viability. The synergy between the involved actors makes energy production multifunctional. The land is used for agriculture, energy production, filtration capacity and carbon capture.

Figure 5.3: Poor sandy soils for agriculture Poor sandy soils for agriculture Source:

Of course local area-based energy initiatives are very diverse and go beyond a nice small scale initiative based on local biomass. Diversity exists in both the type of energy they produce and the scale on which they operate and in the ways in which they make use of their context. Every region has its specific qualities in general, but also for energy production. There are quite some examples of area-based energy initiatives that start from the social and physical capital of an area. Individually, a farmer may use manure for the cogeneration of its own electricity and heat, in a combined-heat-and-power installation (CHP) (Pehnt et al. 2005). A household can co-produce electricity and heat with a hybrid solar PV and solar heating system (Zhai et al. 2009, Lazou, Papatsoris 2000). Or in cooperation with others, farming initiatives with biomass available from agriculture and nature maintenance, are able to use such biomass streams for the production of energy (cf. Muller 2009). Also, more and more communities are starting local energy initiatives. Thriving on the social trust in the community (Walker et al. 2010) they may collectively procure solar panels to produce their own energy or have their own wind turbines (Nadaï, van der Horst 2010). In The Netherlands, more than 300 local energy initiatives are on the map (HIER klimaatcampagne 2012). The amount and diversity of local area-based energy initiatives highlights the potential and the creativity in society, but also shows that innovative energy production is hard to understand without its unique context.

These example illustrates how local energy initiatives can benefit from creating synergies with alternative land use functions in their local environment. If they do so, they do not only create possibilities for renewable energy production. They also create changes in alternative societal domains, be it agriculture, the job market, the water system or the regulatory system. In doing so, they seem to be starting points for the kind of co-evolution that transition thinking hints towards. Therefore, they are so called ‘area-based niches’ where innovation goes beyond just working with either new technologies or only the energy system. Instead, we see innovation occurring in a wider context of the initiative. The local innovative initiatives we discussed are embedded in their region and activate area-based linkages. The embedding of an initiative in the existing structures of a region makes it more prone to acceptance by the local society and less vulnerable for failure. From a spatial planners’ perspective, this connection is a pre-condition for successful up-scaling. Such up-scaling, however, is in itself a next crucial point. Because apart from nice examples of how area-based energy initiatives might work, the main question is, of course, if they also help the larger scale transition.

On the one hand, it is important to recognize that the idea of taking into account local area-based circumstances is not confined to small initiatives. Also large wind farms can directly be linked to local circumstances. They can generate revenues for the localities where they are close to. The island of Samsö is a good example where wind energy has created prosperity next to a more sustainable energy production. The idea is that the costs and benefits associated with renewable energy production should then be linked, at least partly, to the local environment. This can be the case for wind farms, large bio digesters, solar energy or geothermal energy. Where there is an apparent spatial impact that is perceived as a societal ‘cost’, engaging the local context might be a way of balancing these costs with local benefits. Revenues partly flow back to local citizens or governments, or local companies are directly involved with construction and maintenance. Furthermore, especially if linkages can be made with existing local land uses and socio-economic activities, also jobs might be created, profitable business cases might be developed and hence, local and regional development might be stimulated. Obviously, doing so is neither easy nor a guarantee that successful implementation of large projects will occur. Without doing so, it is at least clear that risks of societal resistance and failing to benefit and add value to existing socio-economic activities are real.

On the other hand, these initiatives are only the ‘start’. While they help create renewable energy, their impact on the energy system in terms of the percentage of energy generated might be relatively modest. Their added value, however, lies more in experimenting with how we in the future might integrate vast amounts of sustainable energy production in our landscapes. They are indeed niches: we aim to learn from them. After that, also a process of evaluation and up-scaling should occur if we are to make a more significant shift. Not a few individual wind farms, bio digesters or houses with solar panels, but a wide shift to what we earlier called a third generation energy landscape. In making such a shift, as the next chapter will illustrate, a spatial perspective can again be helpful.

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This article is from the free online course:

Solving the Energy Puzzle: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Energy Transition

University of Groningen