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Transitions and Innovations Towards a More Sustainable Energy System

This article deals with the socio-technical transition processes to a more sustainable energy system.
© University of Groningen
Shifting from a predominantly fossil fuel based energy system towards an energy system based more or even predominantly on sustainable sources is not a simple task. In response, planning and policy scientists have also begun pursuing new concepts that might help us better understand the quest for a more sustainable energy system. Prominent among these pursuits is to frame this quest as a socio-technical ‘transition’ (e.g. Foxon et al 2008, Grin et al. 2009, Loorbach 2007, Meadowcraft 2009, Rip & Kemp 1998, and Rotmans et al. 2001).
Transitions refer to a deep socio-technical transformation over a longer period of time. Thinking in terms of transitions can help us understand the complexity of pursuing a more sustainable energy system and offers suggestions for how we might proceed in our pursuit.
The issue: Path dependence
Thinking in terms of transitions helps us see current unsustainable practices as rooted in different societal domains, cross various spatial levels, touching all levels of authority and are affected by a multitude of often conflicting values and perspectives (e.g. Loorbach 2010). Within such a system of interrelated actors and networks, aspects such as existing technological infrastructure, routines of interaction and expectations about each other’s behaviour are all conservative forces that tend to make the existing system resistant to change; a condition referred to as path-dependency (Martin & Simmie 2008, Meadowcraft 2009).
Our current dependence on fossil fuels is a good example of path-dependency. Large amounts of accessible fossil fuel and natural gas allowed for the rise of an energy-intensive society. Fossil fuel and natural gas can be transported over large distances which allowed for energy generation, transformation and consumption to become spatially detached. A ‘footloose’ energy system emerged with a fine-grained network of power grids, gas pipelines, oil tankers, and petrol stations in most parts of the world. Industry invested in technologies that make clever use of the qualities of fossil-based energies, such as the steam engine and later the combustion engine, and benefitted from economies of scale. The investments also led to sunk costs, which make changes in the energy system quasi-irreversible (David, 1994).
The ‘footloose’ availability of energy is strongly embedded in our societies. People are accustomed to having a passive role regarding energy procurement; they simply pay their energy bill. The easiness of the ‘footloose’ energy system is keeping people from developing more active behaviour regarding energy generation and consumption (Burch, 2010). This is reinforced by an increasingly complex web of laws, international standards and regulations that are coordinated by a few central authorities to guarantee energy supply. Governing the energy system, consequently, is centralised for coordinating large-scale energy generation, large-scale energy transformation plants, and large distribution networks. All in all, the energy system can be said to be path-dependent with these routines, economies of scale, technological standards, social embedding and centralised energy governance.
The path dependence of the existing energy system makes shifting to a more sustainable energy system difficult. For breaking out of a path-depend lock-in, transition thinking argues for an approach highlighting the role of innovation, learning and co-evolution between new technologies and social, economic and institutional practices. The term co-evolution comes from biology and refers to the reciprocal relation between separate biological evolutionary processes. Within the realm of social sciences, co-evolution is used to express how changes within one societal domain can resonate with changes in other societal domains (e.g. Hadfield & Seaton 1999, Kemp et al. 2007, and Norgaard 1984). Co-evolution is based on the positive feedback that can occur between changes in one societal domain that, without determining them, do influence or ‘shape’ changes in other societal domains and vice versa. For example, new technical innovations in using solar, biomass and wind potentials can trigger local business and households to increasingly use them. This can subsequently trigger large energy companies to respond and co-invest, whereas grid companies need to adapt their infrastructure, and governments have to reflect both on exiting tax regimes, energy legislation and possibly change them. This reinforces investments and can pave the road for subsequent change. It is such positive feedback that shows a co-evolution between social, economic, institutional and technological sub-systems and possibly create a new development path.
Structuring transitions
For understanding how deep societal changes (i.e. transitions) occur two main perspectives are central within transition thinking: the multiphase and multilevel perspective. First, the multi-phase perspective explains that transitions do not tend to occur according to a linear and predictable path. Instead, transitions tend to have different phases or ‘stages’ (Rotmans, et al., 2001; Loorbach, 2007; Rotmans and Kemp, 2009; Van Buuren and Loorbach, 2009), see figure 3.1. In the so called pre-development phase, experimentation with new idea, technologies and practices takes place and is essential. There is not yet much societal impact, but through pilot-projects experience, improvements and societal acceptance of innovations can all increase. If successful, the next phase is the take-off phase where the process of change starts to make progress. Innovations are being increasingly used and adopted and gain in societal impact. The acceleration phase (or breakthrough phase) is when innovations really become big and spread rapidly and when an accumulation of changes is happening in various societal domains reinforcing each other. This is called the breakthrough phase. The final phase is when societal change basically has occurred and the transition comes at its end and it loses speed: the stabilisation phase.
Figure 3.1: The so called S-curve depicting the four different phases in a transition The so called S-curve depicting the four different phases in a transition Source: Loorbach, 2007
The ‘multi-level perspective’ explains that deep societal changes can be understood to follow from the interaction between three main societal levels (figure 3.2). Although this not obviously not an exact science, doing so helps to solve the analytical puzzle of how transitions might well be understood (Geels 2011).
Figure 3.2: The three societal levels The three societal levels Source: Geels & Kemp, 2000
The macro level is described as the ‘socio-technical landscape’. It is based on both material elements, such as out roads, houses, energy networks and waterways, and immaterial elements, such as the existing political culture, social values, worldviews, the macro economy, demography and natural environment (Kemp 2010). It is here were we can see the slow rise of support for more sustainable energy sources. Nevertheless, change tends to be slow and it is difficult to influence the socio-technical landscape.
The second meso level is described as the ‘regime’. The regime refers to dominant actor networks and institutions (Kemp, Loorbach 2006). Therefore, the regime consists of the rules, roles and belief systems of the regime guide decision-making processes. To put it in easier terms: it is here where we face governments, regulations, the law, the contracts between shareholders, governments and energy companies and even the contracts we as individual consumers have with our energy providers. These rules and institutions are crucial for giving stability to society; they protect rights, distribute responsibilities, provide legitimacy to policy choices and provide us with security over for example our energy supply. Nevertheless, in being crucial for stability, the regime is also relatively hard to change; it is partly even designed to institutionalise existing routines and behaviours.
In contrast to the continuity and stability of the meso level, the third micro level is characterised by high dynamics. This level is described as the ‘niche’ level. It is here where individual entrepreneurs, companies or, for example, local governments develop new ideas, technologies and practices. They can vary from scientists working on a new energy technology, entrepreneurs trying to develop a business case based on biofuels or local governments experimenting with new contracts and public private partnerships. These novel and pioneering ‘niche’ activities are not based on routine yet and often tend to be difficult to pursue as they are not always in line with existing regulations or behaviours. Many fail or develop slowly, but some might well be the starting points of the development of the new pathways we just discussed.
Understanding transitions
Transition thinking describes the dynamics within and between these phases and levels; the basic hypothesis is that transitions come about through the co-evolution of processes at different levels in different phases of the transition (Kemp, 2010). “A transition is the result of the interaction between changes and innovations at these different levels; slowly changing trends lead to new ways of thinking (paradigms) that lead to innovation and vice versa” (Kemp, Loorbach 2006; p.108). In more practical terms we can use the example of solar energy to describe how a new pathway can be developed out of niches and create an acceleration effect.
EXAMPLE: Solar energy. After World War II a small group of scientist and inventors studying how solar energy might best be harvested. They create the first devices able to produce electricity from solar rays. These applications were at first expensive and not very efficient. Nevertheless, the development of satellites and spacecraft provided a good market for these innovations and pushed the existing technologies to be developed and improved. Slowly, solar panels became better and could potentially also be used as small energy plants for companies and individuals. Their prize remained high and efficiency low, making them hardly attractive on the open market yet. Furthermore, the existing infrastructure of the electricity grid, contracts and regulations was not open for them. Some enthusiast nevertheless pioneered, while some companies and governments saw the potential of solar energy and supported further research and development. Improvements followed, making solar panels more efficient and easy to attract; i.e. we move from the ‘predevelopment phase’ to the ‘take-off phase’. Gradually, more people and companies bought solar panels, governments began subsidised their use, installation companies began to emerge and the practice of using solar energy became more common. Change was not just inspired by the more attractive prizes and efficiencies, but also by a gradually changing mind-set (macro level of the socio-technical landscape) where the use of solar panels has become more common, accepted and even popular. It is also at this time that the small niche development base on technology really began to have an impact on other societal domains and on the regime. Gradually, grid companies begin to adapt their practices, installation companies specialise, energy companies change contracts and also governments adapt regulations. That is: the niches developments slowly begin into alter the regime and enter an acceleration phase.
Managing transitions?
A key question to ask is how we might trigger, stimulate or influence processes of co-evolution? Academic debates on managing transitions are putting forward suggestions, even though they often remain a bit general (also Shove and Walker 2007). What is clear is that to start a transition we should move away from a reliance on the traditional focus on pursuing ‘end-states’; i.e. a blueprint for a transition is not the way to go (e.g. Loorbach 2007).
First, we are uncertain which new pathways we should rely on. It might be attractive to rely on wind farms and solar energy, but technological developments might also offer us new and potentially more attractive options. We simply don’t really know yet. Maybe we should wait a bit longer or maybe we need to swiftly invest in these existing technologies in the face of the current urgencies of climate change. These are choices that are not necessarily easy to make (e.g. Rydin et al., 2013; De Laurentis, 2013). Science can offer some answers, but there will remain uncertainties and hence, different perspectives on which choice is a good choice. Secondly, even if we think we have identified the best technologies to rely on, how we should exactly pursue them is tricky. Who should invest, how do we distribute the ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ and, while doing so, how do we make fair and legitimate choices. Finally, the question also remains: who is ‘we’? As we discussed, a topic as big and complex as energy cannot be controlled by any single party or government.
Instead of framing the future as a predefined ‘end goal’ to be implemented, transition thinking frames this future as a direction to inspire societal changes and policies that might help us achieve them (Loorbach 2007). Hence, while the future directions of the energy pathways may be uncertain, transition thinking nevertheless aims to steer co-evolutionary processes towards a more general ‘visionary future’, such as that of a sustainable energy system (Rotmans et al. 2001). It does so by offering four key activities (Loorbach 2010, see figure 3.3).
Figure 3.3: The transition management cycle The transition management cycle Source: Loorbach, 2010
The first activity is called ‘strategic transition management’ and involves setting long-term visions and goals, problem definitions, strategic debates, long-term anticipation etc. Strategic activities, as Loorbach (2007; p. 104) explains, are about ‘debates on norms and values, identity, ethics, sustainability, and functional and relative importance for society’. Taking up to maybe 30 years, ‘strategic transition management’ means to formulate a long term general vision for society as a whole, focussed on for example a more sustainable energy system. Such a vision can be used to inspire more practical policies and sets a framework for evaluating successes and failures.
The second activity of ‘tactical transition management’ becomes more concrete. Situated within the regime of existing institutions and regulations, the idea is that policies are developed that can actually be translated in more abstract targets. Rather than focussing on a long term strategic vision for the society as a whole, tactical transition management’ aims for setting targets and implementing policies within a narrower domain; such as a single country or single policy domain. It is thus focussed on setting intermediate objectives that help for a transition to take place (Loorbach, 2010). They typically involve a mixture of top-down and bottom-up processes. Based on forming coalitions between groups (governments, entrepreneurs, scientists and companies) that can develop an agenda for action, the idea is that existing regulations and policies change so as to help push innovation and change forward. For example by making decisions in the top to create subsidies, tax reductions or investments in renewable energy sources. Based on that, bottom-up developments become easier. Experiments are stimulated, knowledge is produced and some successful experiments can be upscaled. Also information moves bottom-up from the micro-level to the macro-level, such as about obstacles that are experienced on the micro-level or information about well functioning regulations and contract arrangements.
The third activity involves ‘operational transition management’. Now we face the mixture of experiments taking place in niches where companies, local governments or entrepreneurs tend to work with more narrow targets and a short timespan of only months or a few years. It is about actually getting things done. Partly, these policies can be about setting targets for an innovation, for example a three year project to improve the efficiency of a wind turbine. They can also be about creating a new business cases for bio digesters or altering a currently obstructing governmental regulation. Partly, these policies can be about spreading and upscaling successful activities. The spreading of new technologies such as smart meters in houses, a plan for a new wind farm or a housing company using solar panels in their new project.
The fourth and final activity is ‘reflexive transition management’. It is about a continuous learning about successes and failures so as to continuously adapt existing visions, plans and projects. For example, as Loorbach (2010; p. 148) also explains, ‘when an experiment has been successful (in terms of evaluating its learning experiences and contributions to the transition challenge), it can be repeated in different contexts (broadening) and scaled up from the micro- to the meso-level (scaling up)’. Reflexive policies are about finding out which of these experiments is successful, which regulations still form barriers or really prove to be successful in triggering innovation and development or where new sources of renewable energy seem less attractive due to their impact on the environment or society (e.g. biofuel vs food production).
© University of Groningen
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Solving the Energy Puzzle: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Energy Transition

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