Contested energy futures and temporalities in retrospective: instruments and practices of forecasting and scenario work
Location 121
Date and Start Time 03 September, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Markku Lehtonen (école des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales / ESSEC Business School) email
  • Francis Chateauraynaud (EHESS) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This track proposes a cross-country retrospective analysis of the use of various instruments and practices of "producing energy futures", notably through forecasts and scenarios. It examines, from various disciplinary perspectives, the associated temporalities, controversies, and exercise of power.

Long Abstract

This track calls for contributions examining the various alternative means - instruments, practices and processes - of "producing energy futures" that various actors involved have employed throughout the history. It proposes a retrospective and comparative perspective to the ways in which energy futures have been and continue to be (co-)constructed, imposed, deliberated, and contested, in different socio-technical and cultural contexts. The "instruments" include conventional techno-economic forecasting by "accredited" experts and organisations, but also a range of alternative instruments and practices, such as participatory scenario-building and backcasting. Whether expert-led or collaborative, these instruments address different temporalities - entailing tensions such as those between urgency and imperative to wait, short-term forecasts and long-term scenarios, between different types of possible irreversibilities, in contexts of variable degrees of uncertainty. Each instrument entails its own typical practices, institutions, political arenas in which it is defended, contested and transformed - thereby shaping expectations, legitimacies and - ultimately - the concrete technologies and energy policy choices.

Contributions in this track can examine, for example, 1) the operation of the means of producing energy futures across diverse country-specific settings (e.g. technopolitical cultures or regimes, "socio-technical imaginaries") and over time; 2) the various temporal scales embedded in the means of producing energy futures; 3) the sources of credibility, legitimacy and political weight of instruments, practices and groups involved in the production of energy futures. Analysis from various theoretical vantage points is welcomed, including historiography, futures studies, political science, political economy, and STS.


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


The "Structural Disaster" of Renewable Energy Development: A Strong Similarity to "Nuclear Village"

Author: Miwao Matsumoto (The University of Tokyo)  email

Short Abstract

This paper elucidates a structural similarity of the social mechanisms which run through “nuclear village” and renewable energy regime employing the concept of “structural disaster” with reference to the carry-over effects of wrong expectation in the initial wind turbine development in Japan.

Long Abstract

The "structural disaster" indicates the repeated occurrence of failures of a similar type deep-rooted in the science-technology-society interface. This paper elucidates a strong structural similarity of the social mechanisms which run through "nuclear village" and renewable energy regime employing the concept of "structural disaster" with reference to the initial wind turbine development process in Japan. In particular, the paper focuses on the path-dependent process after the initial technology assessment in which the myth of the impossibility of wind turbine generation was created. This myth can be regarded as comparable to the myth of safety in nuclear power generation. The paper argues that such a myth-creation can be traced back to the haphazard events in the initial assessment of wind turbines which led to the "lock-in" state where a maker producing technologically appropriate wind turbines was excluded from the domestic market. There are two different factors involved. Firstly, the underestimation of the potentiality of wind turbine generation by the government made the policy goal of future energy supply by wind power unduly lowered. Secondly, the accidental breakage of imported wind turbines being tested by TEPCO created the myth of impossibility of wind power generation, which made domestic makers withdraw from wind turbine development. The paper draws sociological implications from the working of such a myth from the perspective of "structural disaster" with particular attention to carry-over effects from wrong expectation as manifested in the myth of safety of "nuclear village".

FBR futures in France - 1970s - 1990s: ambiguity in organisations as a means to deal with uncertainties on energy futures

Author: Claire Le Renard (EDF R&D, LinX, LISIS)  email

Short Abstract

In the early 1970s, industrial projects for Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) nuclear technology contained their own scenarios for energy futures. We shall analyse how, in the 1980s, majors actors gave a central role to uncertainties regarding this technology development, thus reopening energy futures.

Long Abstract

Industrial projects for Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) nuclear technology emerged in the early 1970s in several industrialised countries, following the construction of research facilities and prototype reactors. In France, the vision of a nuclearized future that prevailed then justified the industrial development of this fuel-regenerating technology, expected to solve the problem of nuclear fuel depletion then deemed certain. FBR developers regarded technology development as linear, assuming that increasing the size of the plants would reduce costs. We suggest to re-read these developments, interpreting them as a means employed by key policy actors to perform a linear scenario of the future of energy policy, relying on a techno-scientific promise, and thereby producing legitimacy, credibility and irreversibility.

However, over time, this scenario became isolated. Publicly accessible archive documents from the 80s and 90s reveal contradictory statements from members of nuclear organisations, which in turn introduced diversity into the possible (yet nuclearized) futures: while the FBR developers foresaw the construction of an FBR fleet in the short to medium term, expressing optimism regarding technology and costs, the head offices of the same institutions highlighted uncertainties, which led to different visions of the future and to an imperative to wait. Yet they expressed their view in ambiguous terms, in order not to impede the development of FBR technology. We shall analyse how these disagreeing actors performed energy futures by discussing FBR technology and its economy. We will further discuss the introduction of ambiguity and long-term future visions as a means to reopen a linear pathway driven by a techno-scientific promise.

Battles on the futures of French nuclear energy

Author: Martin Denoun (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)  email

Short Abstract

Scenarios about the future of nuclear energy are more and more contested in France. We'll see how the "fourth generation" of nuclear reactor is engaged in intense force fields.

Long Abstract

Since the 50's, France has planned its energy future with nuclear. Since the 70's, nuclear power has almost been the only way to produce electricity. But since about 20 years, the configuration is quite different: Superphénix fast reactor - which was expected to be the future of french nuclear - has been closed by a political decision ; the climate issue has emerged ; other sources of energy appeared, like renewable energies and shale gas ; « Fukushima » accident happened ; Asia became the main area where reactors are being constructed.

In France, where the nuclear actors are historically very tied to each other, there is probably a trend towards their split. New battles are going on : actors, who seemed before to get into line, mark more and more their disagreement. Thus, institutionnal actors are challenging the energy forecasts made by those who promote a nuclear future. Some contest the credibility of these forecasts, while others put up different scenarios with a very small part of nuclear in the energy mix. At the same time, anti-nuclear actors make an effort to demonstrate that nuclear isn't sustainable nor desirable.

We will show, through a long-run corpus analysis and a series of interviews, that, in spite of the inertia force of nuclear technology, the future of French nuclear, and especially the « fourth generation » reactor, is quite dependent on a lot of events, including some unpredictible ones.

Review of long-term energy planning in Ireland, UK and Denmark

Authors: Celine Bout (DTU- Technical University of Denmark)  email
Kristian Borch (Technical University of Denmark)  email

Short Abstract

This paper reflects on the elements that energy specialists have identified for Denmark, Ireland and UK as keys towards the achievement of 2020 or 2050 targets, but also on the elements they do not mention, and through this analysis contributes to a critical reflection on quantitative scenario work.

Long Abstract

In 2009, through the Renewable Energy Directive, the EU committed to increase the share of energy needs met by renewables to 20% by 2020. This goal is to be achieved through national legally-binding targets, informed by scenarios presented in National Renewable Energy Action Plans. In parallel, a substantial research has been dedicated to studying scenarios likely to ensure achievement of the targets, and beyond to 2050. Most of these scenarios are model-based, an approach that affords the possibility of assessing technical and economic feasibility, and has become an integral part of energy scenario planning.

Energy data are inevitably tied to social behaviours and political orders(Hughes & Strachan, 2010), energy models however are pure quantitative tools. A well-known distance thus exists between the quantitative making of a scenario and its qualitative origin and purpose (Alcamo, 2008; Grunwald, 2011), and consequently between positivistic and constructivist paradigms.

This paper examines the quantitative energy scenario modelling undertaken since 2009 for Denmark, Ireland and UK, the European countries with the highest amounts of wind, resulting in significant developments of their wind sectors over the past three decades. Following a systematic review of the field, this research reflects on the elements that energy specialists have identified as keys towards the achievement of the targets, but also on the elements they do not mention, and through this analysis contributes to a critical reflection on quantitative scenario work. Covering Denmark, Ireland and UK creates a comparative output of each country's approach towards energy scenario planning and wind development.

A Multi-Scale Battle of Systems: Contested Heating and Energy Futures

Authors: Mark Winskel (University of Edinburgh)  email
Ronan Bolton (University of Edinbrugh)  email
David Hawkey (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

Energy system futures are being contested across multiple scales. We analyse the contest over heating and energy systems futures across Scottish, UK and European scales, as articulated in policy statements, energy scenarios and modelling, and in stakeholder interviews and observation.

Long Abstract

In a context of distributed political institutions and identities, it is unsurprising that energy futures are being contested across different governance scales. As Erik Van der Vleuten and colleagues have observed, our age of European integration is also, paradoxically, the era of the nation-state, the region, and the city, with simultaneous system building on different scales. Rather than any coherent 'transition pathway', or any dominant version of 'system integration', what we see are varied and rather incoherent multi-scale dynamics, with different contributions offering alternative system boundaries, evidence bases and technological and organisational affiliations. As Paul Edwards has noted, developing an analytical perspective that can capture and understand multi-scale infrastructure dynamics is an important but formidable interdisciplinary challenge for social science.

Drawing on a number of related ongoing research projects, this paper offers a theoretically and empirically informed contribution to analysing multi-scale energy system battles. Empirically, the paper addresses the contest over low carbon heating infrastructures across Scottish, UK and European scales, as articulated in policy statements, energy scenarios and modelling, and in interviews and participant observation with policymakers and other stakeholders. Theoretically, the paper draws on the Large Technical Systems tradition in STS to develop a view of energy system change as contested process with multiple tensions and inconsistencies, across a variety of material, institutional and ideological bases. While these battles reflect wider contested national identities and political futures, they are not reducible to them - energy systems retain a transborder and transgressive quality, inviting a detailed socio-technical analysis.

Unconventional energy futures: rendering Europe's shale gas resources governable

Author: Magdalena Kuchler (Uppsala University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper scrutinizes practices through which resource availability and recoverability are assessed and rendered governable. The analysis identifies visions of shale gas potential in Europe and interrogates technologies of quantification and prediction that produce evidence for future energy claims.

Long Abstract

Following the shale gas boom in the United States, unconventional natural gas extracted from shale formations has generated increasing attention in the European Union (EU). This considerable interest has been triggered by a range of often optimistic estimates and scenarios regarding the volumetric and recoverable potential of shale gas extraction from beneath the surface of the European continent. Despite large uncertainties and unreliability of geological-economic data, these assessments and projections are nevertheless translated (or lost in translation) into specific energy security policies and strategies, consequently fuelling and legitimizing political-technological hopes for certain energy futures in the EU. The paper critically examines tools and devices through which states of resource availability and recoverability are diagnosed, assessed and thus rendered governable (e.g. strategized and securitized). By combining socio-technical imaginaries and governmentality approaches, the analysis is guided by two objectives: to identify and map visions of shale gas potential in Europe contained in a range of resource estimates and scenarios; and to scrutinize practices and technologies of calculation, quantification, visualisation and prediction deployed to produce evidence for these future energy claims. By taking the case of inventorying and anticipating shale gas potential in Europe, the article demonstrates that unconventional resources and reserves are not stable and fixed objects but rather they are political, namely, due to their largely uncertain and contested character they are constantly (re)defined and (re)discovered through practices of volume measurements and recoverability estimates. Hence, the evidence for powerful future energy claims lies buried deep underground.

Not the new Kuwait: Poland's shale gas narratives from illusion to deception

Author: Roberto Cantoni (Universität Bonn)  email

Short Abstract

In 2011, data from the US Energy Administration about Europe's non-conventional gas reserves was a trigger to shale gas exploration. I examine the case of Poland, whose resources were at the core of a campaign depicting the country as a 'new Kuwait'. Four years later, little was left of that narrative.

Long Abstract

In 2011, the US Energy Information Administration attributed Europe's largest reserves of shale gas to Poland. This data prompted sudden interest by a number of foreign gas companies. The Polish government strongly supported shale gas exploration by supporting a neoliberal agenda centred on a socio-technical imagery of national energy autonomy from Russia, low fiscal burden for companies wanting to operate in the country, and on the image of Poland as a new energy titan, a 'new Kuwait'. Think tanks and consultancy companies in particular proposed long-term scenarios in which Poland would export its gas to the EU, while on a national scale the narrative of gas as a cleaner energy than coal, on which the Polish energy mix heavily depends, was used to defuse the 'threat' of green activism. However in the last two years fluctuating tax regimes, difficult geology, and on a lesser extent local-based protest against shale gas technologies, prompted a radical change of scenario. Most foreign companies left Poland, considering the shale gas business there unripe. Thus the 'new Kuwait' narrative propagated by the Polish media backfired, and the issue died out so quickly that in last political elections no party even mentioned it. Through a series of interviews carried out locally with representatives of oil companies, NGOs, activists and consultancy firms, I analyse the crumbling of the Polish energy autonomy dream.

A carbon tax dating the future energy market. Arguments and controversies in the French context

Authors: Josquin Debaz (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)  email
Emmanuel Combet  email

Short Abstract

Despite overall agreement concerning the main objectives of a carbon tax, precise reform scheme remains controversial causing a recurrent ‘implementation gap’. Different temporality arguments show short and long run diverse expectations, and result in irreconcilable visions of the future.

Long Abstract

Since the first warnings in the late 80's, the use of a price of carbon to mitigate the level of CO2 emissions and climate change has been advocated. With certain exceptions, carbon tax suffers from a recurrent 'implementation gap', as the failed attempt in France in 2009. While the long-term objective of this instrument is largely accepted - to mitigate CO2 emissions and climate change - many actors are against its implementation for short-term reasons.

This paper analyses how different expectations of the future co-exist and explain the recurrence of an 'implementation gap'. The 2009 French debate is used as material for a close scrutiny of the actors' positions and arguments. Although an agreement concerning the main objectives seems to exists (fairness, competitiveness and environmental efficiency), the precise reform scheme that would allow their conciliation remains controversial. We examine, in particular, how the different temporality arguments contribute to support or reject different reform schemes; and how short and long run expectations do not result in a consensual and common vision of the future.

Economic models and calculations are essential when comparing the expected effects of alternative reforms (tax rates, tax bases, and revenue-recycling modes). How actors use the results of the economic analysis? We put forward three dimensions that may not properly be captured into these models, but matters in explaining competing expectations at short and long run: dependence on fossil fuels, household heterogeneity and the redistributive consequences, economic agents responses and indirect effects of the alternative reforms.

Smart Energy Finland 2030 in a delphi panel survey design

Author: Mikko Jalas (Aalto University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper describes futures work that has been performed when planning a delphi panel survey for imagining and constructing a ‘Smart Energy Transition’ to a ‘Paris Compatible’ energy system.

Long Abstract

This paper describes futures work that has been performed when planning a delphi panel survey for imagining and constructing a 'Smart Energy Transition' to a 'Paris Compatible' energy system. These open expressions imply a malleable network of potential actors, multiple interpretations and an interplay between policy and technology. An interactive delphi process hence becomes a site of arbitration over likely and desirable energy futures. Moreover, the process is circumscribed by supporting funding instruments, previous knowledge and the academic interests amongst the panel organisers. Based on different empirical data including participant observation, position papers, presentations and interview data, we take account of the consolidation of interest among the researchers of a 'Smart Energy Transition'-project in Finland and the enactment of a collective understanding in a form of a delphi panel and survey questions. The outcome, we argue, is a mix of specific academic interests of the organisers, public energy discourses such as 'energy security' as well as neoliberal policy approaches of seeing futures as business opportunities.

Futures of personal mobility: a tale of two innovations

Authors: Noam Bergman (University of Sussex)  email
Tim Schwanen (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

We address energy futures by analysing future explorations of the role of electric vehicles and car clubs in UK transport. We find large differences in framing, assumptions and recommendations between these innovations, reflecting different positions vis-à-vis the incumbent automobility regime.

Long Abstract

Private vehicles in the UK have unsustainable energy consumption and CO2 emissions. We study future personal mobility in the UK focusing on two innovations: electric vehicles (EVs), which offer technological reduction in emissions, and car clubs, which offer cultural and behavioural shift. Using sociology of expectations, we analyse a variety of future 'explorations' (forecasts, visions, etc.), to see how they frame potential futures, including assumptions about demand and mobility, and policy recommendations.

Many more explorations address EVs than car clubs. The former are more national in scope and developed by 'mainstream' and government actors, whereas the latter are local (London) and regional (Scotland) in scope. EV futures are framed as market transformations. Recommendations include supporting R&D and infrastructure, and incentivising manufacturers and consumers, but also 'technology neutrality' amongst low carbon vehicle options. Assumptions include constant (auto)mobility: little change in demand for cars, modes of travel, or mileage. Car club futures focus on whole system, integrative transport, framing car culture as problematic, and assume club members reduce driving and car ownership; here changing mobility demand and modal shift are integral to reducing emissions.

These differences are significant. EVs offer technological substitution, with little user behaviour change, conventional market mechanisms and diffusion through normal business models. They pose little threat to vested interests and existing power structures. Car clubs bring more uncertainty and promise of radical change. Whilst many potential futures are explored, EV explorations work to instil an imagining of the future as an unbroken continuation of the past and present.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.