Transitions and Innovations Towards a More Sustainable Energy System
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Solving the Energy Puzzle: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Energy Transition
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 Source: Loorbach, 2010The 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).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.
Solving the Energy Puzzle: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Energy Transition
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