New Technologies, social practices and social conflict - sustainable energy transitions as a field of contention
Location M213
Date and Start Time 03 September, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Gerhard Fuchs (University of Stuttgart) email

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Short Abstract

Papers dealing with cases of contention, cognitive frames underlying the conflicts, processes of coalition formation, the analysis of forms of protest related to electricity transitions are being solicited.

Long Abstract

Debates about a substantial and sustainable transformation of electricity systems constitute a major field of social contention. New technologies are being developed and implemented, old technologies are supposed to be abandoned. The social structure of the relevant fields and the social practices sustaining them are under stress. Incumbent actors are struggling to cope with changes and a host of new actors is challenging their dominant position.

Conflicts are thus presently dealing with a variety of issues: it might be the choice of technologies, the battle for the most suitable organizational architecture, siting conflicts and much more. Conflicts are linked to conflicting socio-political concepts about the role of sustainability and climate change, but also relate to specific local concerns (nature conservation, nimby-ism etc.). This diversity of interests sometimes leads to odd support coalition, e.g. uniting incumbent utilities and nature conservation groups against the development of renewables.

Papers dealing with cases of contention, cognitive frames underlying the conflicts, processes of coalition formation, the analysis of forms of protest are welcome. Papers can deal with single cases or compare a bigger number. Theoretical perspectives to be applied can be actor network theory, transition theory, path dependency and path creation, theories of gradual transformation, theory of strategic action fields or other conflict-oriented approaches.


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Multi-level analysis of German and UK low-carbon electricity transitions (1990-2014)

Authors: Frank Geels (Manchester Institute of Innovation Research)  email
Gerhard Fuchs (University of Stuttgart)  email
Nele Hinderer (University of Stuttgart)  email
Florian Kern (University of Sussex)  email

Short Abstract

Using the multi-level perspective, this paper compares low-carbon electricity transitions in Germany and the UK. In Germany renewable electricity technologies (RETs) are mainly deployed by new entrants (e.g. households, farmers). In the UK RETs are mainly deployed by incumbents (e.g. utilities).

Long Abstract

This paper compares the unfolding low-carbon electricity transitions in Germany and the UK from 1990 to 2014. It aims to explain why these countries deployed very different renewable electricity and other low-carbon technologies (RETs), with Germany choosing mainly small-scale options (solar-PV, biogas, small onshore wind farms) and the UK choosing mainly large-scale options (biomass conversion, landfill gas, large onshore and offshore wind farms, nuclear power, CCS for coal and gas). To explain this difference, the paper uses the multi-level perspective (MLP) to analyse interacting developments at three analytical levels: 1) the actors deploying RETs, including motivations and incentives, 2) the broader electricity regime, particularly the coalition of incumbent utilities and government and their commitment to existing technologies (coal, nuclear, gas), 3) the socio-technical landscape, addressing both relatively static deep structures and exogenous changes. The comparative case study draws on data from energy statistics, academic books and articles, newspapers, White Papers and company documents. The case studies combine these heterogeneous data sources to develop synthetic, integrative interpretations of the main dynamics in both countries. In terms of the Geels and Schot (2007) typology of transition pathways, the paper concludes that the German transition mainly followed a 'technological substitution' pathway, driven by new entrants. The UK transition mainly followed the 'transformation' pathway, which was enacted by incumbent actors (utilities and policymakers) who gradually reoriented rules, knowledge and practices.

The contestation of wind energy in Germany and the discursive construction of a 'people's movement': Analysing local conflicts about wind energy use

Authors: Bleta Arifi (Albert-Ludwigs University Freiburg)  email
Georg Winkel (European Forest Institute)  email

Short Abstract

This paper approaches wind energy conflicts in the Soon and Taunus forests (Germany) through a discourse-analytical lens, focussing on the discursive strategies and processes of subject-formation of competing discourse coalitions.

Long Abstract

Wind energy has taken centre stage in the more recent commitments of the German government to phase out nuclear energy and shift towards renewable energy technologies. The expansion of wind energy infrastructure from agricultural flatlands into forested mountain areas has ignited protest and lead to the establishment of hundreds of civil initiatives fighting against planned wind parks in their proximity and beyond.

In this paper we compare the conflict over the Ellern Wind Park in the rural and structurally-weak Rhein-Hunsrück region (Rheinland-Palatinate) with the conflict over the planned Hohe Wurzel Wind Park on the Taunus, nearby the affluent city of Wiesbaden (Hesse). Drawing on operationalisations of the Foucauldian concepts of discourse, power-relations/knowledge and subjectification in the Sociology of Knowledge Approach to Discourse and the Discursive Agency Approach, we approach wind energy conflicts as struggles between competing discourse coalitions.

Based on a data corpus consisting of 28 fully-transcribed semi-structured interviews with key actors, participant observation and ca. 100 policy documents, information materials and videos, our interpretive analysis identifies the discourse coalitions and sheds light upon their shifting strategies. We discuss the networking of local initiatives into regional and federal structures and their shift towards knowledge-claims that challenge the basis of the current pro wind policies. Finally, we link subjectification processes to the discursive elements (re)produced in the analysed debates. We show how wind energy opponents are rejecting delegitimizing subject-positions by constructing counter-hegemonic subjectivities, expressed i.a. in their identification as a nationwide people's movement for 'ideology-free' energy policy-making.

Social contention in Denmark over alternative wind power development paths

Authors: Sophie Nyborg (Technical University of Denmark)  email
Julia Kirch Kirkegaard (Technical University of Denmark)  email
Laura Tolnov Clausen (Copenhagen University)  email
Michael Soegaard Joergensen (Technical University of Denmark)  email
David Rudolph (Technical University of Denmark)  email

Short Abstract

Through a case-study on the development of a contested wind farm project in the Northern part of Jutland in Denmark, this paper builds on an STS-approach to shed light on the contested acceptability of wind farm development, which has produced controversy and social contention over energy justice.

Long Abstract

Wind energy projects on land in Denmark are increasingly subject to social contention. Research and policy are mostly directed towards understanding how 'public acceptance' of current market-driven ways of wind power development can be supported and less on exploring the potentiality of alternative paths or understanding processes of coalition formation and reasons for social contention that underlie socio-technical controversies over sustainable transitions. In this paper, we draw on case-study research, inquiring into the contested translation of a Danish wind farm site in the rural area of Nørrekær Enge in Jutland. The paper traces protracted negotiations between a large energy company acting as wind farm developer who bought up dwellings to make space for extending an existing wind farm, land-owners, a farmers' association, and municipalities, as well as with an emergent coalition of citizens and a humanitarian foundation, which proposed an alternative locally owned project. Combining ANT with theories of place attachment (TPA) and theory of the Commons, we map the unfolding controversy, which entails struggles over what entities should be included in and excluded from the project and over energy justice. Through this theoretical lens, we illuminate the contested 'acceptability' of wind energy, contributing to STS-literature, as the paper sheds light on cognitive frames and diversity of interests in 'just' development of wind power. In turn, this opens up for disentangling potential ways in which wind energy is part of Denmark's future energy system and societal development, including aspects of ownership, distribution of economic benefits and contribution to local development.

Unraveling contention in transition framings in Finnish energy discussions

Author: Kamilla Karhunmaa (Helsinki University )  email

Short Abstract

The article analyses how the concept of energy transition has been framed in media and parliamentary energy debates in Finland. The aim is to open up the storylines of energy transitions and examine the contingent processes through which transition discourses are contextualized.

Long Abstract

The concept of transitions originates from research on socio-technical transitions. The concept contains both analytical and normative dimensions and is used both as an explanatory concept and to describe a desired process or state. Transitions have in recent years become ubiquitous in public and academic spheres, especially in the normative sense for referring to the need to urgently change current unsustainable practices.

Analyzing transitions faces the problem of how to define phenomena which are in the making and undergoing change. This article proceeds by taking this as an empirical question, and focusing on energy transitions. How have energy transitions been framed in public energy discussions in Finland and with what consequences? How does the normative imperative of urgent energy transitions become disaggregated in a specific context? Theoretically, the article focuses on what the differing conceptualizations of transitions in public discussions create. I focus specifically on the oppositions that are used to characterize transitions and order discussions, such as old/new, change/stability. Are there certain contentious points during which these boundaries become renegotiated?

The material consists of news articles from two national media sources, and speeches in parliament in the years 2011-2015 from Finland. Finland is an interesting case, since Finnish energy policy has traditionally focused on large-scale, centralized energy production solutions and been based on strong state and elite control. Public discussions have focused largely on the technical and economic dimensions of energy and energy technologies. How does the discourse of transitions function in such a context?

A Workbook for a Rational Debate and Sustainable Energy Transition

Author: Ariyoshi Kusumi (Chukyo University)  email

Short Abstract

It is my perspective that a Habermas-style debate by rational citizens is important to achieve a social agreement on nuclear power. Toward this end I developed an easy-to-use workbook to facilitate the decision-making process and contribute to a resolution of this social conflict.

Long Abstract

Since the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, questioning the necessity of nuclear power has, particularly in Japan, been analogous to questioning the strategy of a sustainable energy transition. It is a field of contention, a social conflict, lacking social practices for a constructive dialogue.

Before Fukushima, mention of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Chernobyl was implicitly frowned upon. The Science and Technology Agency was legally charged with promoting nuclear power, and annual reports on the environment emphasized its contribution to reducing CO2. Advertisements on TV and in other media touted the safety of nuclear power plants, with their protective five-layer containment walls. Influenced by this, a majority of Japanese supported nuclear power. Opponents of nuclear power, meanwhile, were often emotional and unscientific. The debate was basically unproductive, with both sides simply asserting their position. After Fukushima, the tide of public opinion turned, but the debate remained a "field of contention."

It is my perspective that a Habermas-style rational debate by rational citizens is the most effective means for reaching a social agreement. Toward this end I developed a workbook featuring easy-to-use yes/no flowcharts and explanatory texts to facilitate the decision-making process. The main issues are itemized so students can understand and take a stand on each point and ultimately draw a conclusion on the issue as a whole. In classrooms where I used this workbook, I undertook a follow-up survey to confirm its validity, usefulness, and fairness.

Conflicts about a local wind energy project - Emergence,causes and impact

Author: Ulrike Fettke (Universität Stuttgart)  email

Short Abstract

A case study of a project in northern Bavaria illustrates the conflicts, that can occur within the realization of a wind energy project, and their causes and impacts.

Long Abstract

In Germany, wind power is an increasingly used technology for energy production. Although recent surveys find a high public approval of the "Energiewende" policy (i.a. AEE, Allensbach, Greenpeace), there are often protests against wind energy plants. But why do these conflicts occur? The Sociological Approach of Strategic Action Fields views the conflicts as integral parts of a process of mobilization in which actors enforce their vision of the field (Fligstein/McAdam 2011/2012).

A case study of a wind energy project in the north of Bavaria confirmes, that the process of a wind energy project's realization can be full of conflicts. The project's realization was characterised by conflicts within and among groups of field actors. At first, there were conflicts within the initiative of local citizens, who pushed the project in order to avoid the local installation of wind turbines by a wind power project company. Later, the citizens' initiative and a self-appointed counter-initiative, the later supported by citizens from neighbouring communities, engaged in a dispute. When the local council decided to designate land for wind power, the counter-initiative protested. The case study reveals, that the conflicts within local groups had conducive effects on the project's realization. Conflicts among the groups of local citizens were rather inhibiting. In contrast, conflicts among groups of local citizens and external actors had a conducive effect. Additionally, a detailed comparison of the different conflicts illustrates, that wind turbines served as a trigger but are far from being the only cause of the local conflicts.

Exploring the transformative potential of renewable energy initiatives

Authors: Antonia Proka (Dutch Research Institute for Transitions)  email
Matthijs Hisschemoller (Erasmus University Rotterdam)  email
derk Loorbach (Erasmus University Rotterdam)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the role of business models, described as narratives/stories of how organisations work, in articulating the underlying conflicts between niche and regime, as well as, how business models can contribute to coalition building for the acceleration of the energy transition.

Long Abstract

The dominant fossil fuel-based energy regime has achieved to conceal its full cost. While regime practices are backgrounded, in a hegemonic way regimes define what is acceptable and what not, and the shared orientation towards the maintenance of the status quo fortifies the complex relationship between governments and incumbents.

Yet, a misalignment of the material, organisational, and discursive formations of the fossil fuel hegemony is noted, as divestment campaigns challenge fossil fuels legitimacy, incumbents (discursively) reposition themselves and, paradoxically, build strategic alliances with formerly considered competitors.

At the same time, renewable energy cooperatives and energy service companies redefine taken-for-granted assumptions underpinning the regime, imagining and illustrating an alternative energy system. Nevertheless, radical innovations, where conflict becomes apparent, run the risk of incompatibility with the regime they wish to influence. Therefore, niches engage in a 'war of position', seeking to enrol new actors and build the countervailing networks that will allow them to compete with the established regime.

For a regime shift to take place niches need to be empowered. Our argument is that Business Models (BMs), described as narratives/stories of how organisations work, articulate the underlying niche-regime conflicts as regards issues like technology, organisational structure, and associated social practices, and may facilitate coalition building.

With the aim to examine how BMs can empower niches to accelerate a regime shift, and in order to assess their transformative potential, we study the BMs of a number of renewable energy initiatives in the Netherlands and introduce a framework for analysis.

The technopolitics of the energy transition in Taiwan: The case of power shortage

Author: Chihyuan Yang (Lancaster University)  email

Short Abstract

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, an outcry breaks in Taiwanese society demanding a sustainable energy transition. However it is deeply trapped by the question: can renewable energy satisfy the nation's need? This article explores the technopolitics of the 'perennial' power shortage in Taiwan.

Long Abstract

After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, an outcry breaks in Taiwanese society demanding a sustainable energy transition. High modernism, as a dominant sociotechnical imagination in the post-war Taiwan, manifests itself in the questions of what a better society should be, how we make technical choices to achieve that goal and, regarding the constitution of energy, what the most pragmatist and viable approach is to make the particularly dreamed future come to reality.

This article explores the string of the closure of alternative energy future brought by the high modernist rationality. It looks into the feature of the high modernist argument in the nationalist-pragmatist storyline shared by the governmental actors, which designates a strategy of emphasizing shortage at present and prosperity in the future-if current shortage is solved in a feasible way. Focusing on the energy contention that happened from 2011 to 2015, it provides an analysis of discursive strategies which exemplifies how power shortage is presented in the mass media and of how the claimed crisis jumps to the centre of public debates via the institutional practices of power rationing. Renewable energy is continually seen as an 'immature' source and 'not viable' when it comes to satisfying the nation's need. This is built on the routinized practices in the calculation of reserve margin in electricity planning and the public witness of operating reserve in the public communication scheme, both of which come with their assumption and political implication and, therefore, need to be put under scrutiny.

16000 feet under: territories and meanings of deep geothermal energy

Authors: Philippe Chavot (Université de Strasbourg)  email
Yeny Serrano (University of Strasbourg)  email
Anne Masseran (Université de strasbourg )  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how stakeholders are constrained by and invested in different territories (physical, legal or rhetorical) during socio-technical controversies. It examines the debates on deep geothermal energy projects taking place within the Eurometropolis of Strasbourg in 2015.

Long Abstract

Structured around a case study of several public inquiries on the implementation of deep geothermal energy sites within the Eurometropolis of Strasbourg in 2015, this paper shows that in the midst of the controversy, stakeholders are constrained by and invested in different territories (physical, legal, symbolical, rhetorical) to support their points of view. In this context, the administrative territories (municipal banns, public inquiries sites) are facing the realities of geographical, geological, demographical and economical territories. These territories do not overlap and are leaving open the questions about the benefits and harms of geothermal energy, the legitimacy of the decisions that were taken.

This debate also led the different stakeholders to reinterpret/rethink their own territories: living spaces, natural environment as well as political life, information or debate territories. To do so, they draw knowledge and arguments from different worlds of reference (scientific, political, associations...). Other strategies are sometimes implemented when facing a robust legal framework: local residents are recruiting allies from the political sphere, taking legal action before the administrative court… In short, they are investing territories on which they had sometimes never ventured before. However, time will show if the industrials and the authorities will consider these words and actions to be legitimate or not.

We will assess the appropriation of these territories and how science, technology and industry are becoming public affairs by intersecting three corpus: notices and documents produced during the public inquiries, interviews with stakeholders, local residents and journalists and, finally, an analysis of the local media.

Visions of interconnectedness or disconnectedness- tracing emerging social tension and coalitions in the transition towards new electricity systems

Authors: Kristina Hojckova (Chalmers University of Technology)  email
Björn Sandén (Chalmers university of technology)  email

Short Abstract

The electricity system is in transition, but whereto? To global or regional super grids or to self-sufficient disconnected prosumers? This paper aims to identify tensions and new coalitions that emerge among actors in efforts to support the transition in a certain direction.

Long Abstract

The conventional electricity system built around central utilities is facing ever growing problems of aging grid infrastructure and plants, fossil fuel dependency and environmental impact. At the same time, rapid innovation and massive deployment of renewable electricity production and storage enable a transition to, not only a more sustainable electricity system, but also more distributed generation. Such a system can, however, be designed in different ways with varying levels of interconnectedness, from global or continental super grids via regional and national grids to self-sufficient off-grid communities and households of electricity prosumers. At this point the eventual system design is not a given.

Based on our understanding of the electricity system as a socio-technical system we see this path-selection as a process emerging out of complex interaction between heterogeneous components including numerous actor constellations, technical artifacts and institutions. The aim of this paper is to identify the growing tensions but also new coalitions that emerge among actors and stakeholders in efforts to support the transition in a certain direction. In order to trace new forms of interaction we map the structural system components of new electricity systems that are growing in niches inside the old one. More specifically, we trace novel technical building blocks, scientific knowledge, articulated visions and experimental laws and regulations and how these are supported or contested by various actors groups.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.