3-5 May 2021
Europe/Vienna timezone

C - Towards Low-Carbon Energy Systems

C.1 Just transitions, whole systems, and the lived experiences of decarbonisation pathways

Martisaknen, Mari (University of Sussex), Sovacool, Benjamin (University of Sussex), Turnheim, Bruno (University of Manchester), Hook, Andrew (University of Nottingham)

It is well-known that we need to reduce the vulnerabilities and risks associated with continued fossil fuel consumption. As such, rapid transitions to low-carbon energy and transport systems are required to address and mitigate the impact of polluting systems. While ‘low carbon’ systems are typically considered as preferable because they reduce carbon emissions, there may however be under-examined justice implications and impacts of such transitions. This session therefore aims to examine and discuss the under-explored justice implications and impacts of low-carbon transitions. We focus particularly in the ways that low-carbon transitions link to energy justice, and how low carbon transitions may worsen pre-existing vulnerabilities – or create new ones – for individuals and communities.

Our session aims to highlight the need for whole systems, multi-scalar analysis of low-carbon transitions using rigorous methods so that we can fully assess the social, economic, and environmental impacts of low-carbon transitions.  


KEYWORDS: energy justice, energy transitions, decarbonization, climate policys


C.2 The use of Situational Grounded Theory: a research method to understand the development of energy transition in transition areas in Dutch cities

Van Dijck, Egbert-Jan (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences)  

Understanding transitions is largely a scientific activity. Sustainability transition research has evolved enormously in the last decades. But knowledge is no-guarantee for successful urban experimentation at city-level. ‘Real life situations’ are difficult, complex, and sometimes a nightmare. Cities consider the introduction of a future heat- and cold system predominantly a large engineering project. Real estate developers avoid risks, and do not consider the same system as ‘proven technology’. Process industry and data centers have a strong interest to distribute their waste heat. End-users are most interested in comfort. All stakeholders follow their own player specific intentional logic. This means barriers are proffered instead of solutions and some projects fail to be successful.  

Despite an abundance of guides local authorities should in order to be able to make the best choices be given clear and succinct information regarding ‘the situation’. The information can be very useful especially for local authorities and transition teams who are involved in niches like a demonstration project of new technologies as part of a smart or sustainability project.

Drawing on insights that have been developed over four years within the scope of an interregional European research program HeatNet North-Western Europe (NWE) which was intended to overcome barriers to accelerate energy transition in six cities in NEW a PhD-research proposal is written. This process evaluation research is a multiple case study aimed to improve the understanding of ‘real-life situations’ in their own local context with regard to sustainability transitions from a multi-level perspective. It will use Situational Grounded Theory in combination with Straussian Grounded Theory and Multi-actor process management as a research method to understand the development of energy transition in transition areas in Dutch cities. Purpose of this research is to add to analysis and explanation, specifications for interventions to transform present practices in the public sector and improve the effectiveness of future oriented demonstration projects initiated by local authorities. The ultimate aim is to accelerate the transition towards sustainable energy systems. On a more practical level, it will give local authorities a tool to enhance insight into barriers and solutions in exemplar projects and the way barriers are closely linked to human and not human elements in their geographical, political, and cultural context and the way they are using their power. Another objective of this research is to connect academic research and education in a way that knowledge and skills are imparted.

Researchers are very welcome to contribute to the debate about the idea, the methods, and the new knowledge that can be generated.

KEYWORDS: system innovation, sustainable energy transition, district heating and cooling systems, design-oriented research, situational analysis


C.3 Incumbent enterprises and sustainability transitions

Kungl, Gregor (University of Stuttgart)

This session explores the role of incumbent enterprises in the sustainable transformation of energy, mobility and food systems. In the field of transition research incumbent firms have traditionally been conceptualised as large, stable organisations which impede sustainable developments. Because of their vested interests and their entrenchment with the rules and the culture of socio-technical regimes they are expected to be unlikely to support radical changes (e.g. Geels 2004). More recently, however, scholars have moved beyond initial dichotomies (conservative regime actors vs. radical new entrants) and have shown that incumbents can well play diverse roles (e.g. van Mossel et al. 2018). Under some circumstances incumbents may re-orient towards new business models (e.g. Kungl and Geels 2018) or form coalitions with innovative new entrants (e.g. Apajalahti et al. 2018).

This session welcomes theoretical and empirical contributions from all fields of social sciences which deal with the diverse roles of incumbents in the course of sustainability transitions. We are as interested in reflections on reactive, manipulative or hostile activities as in elaborations on proactive, supportive strategies. It is of particular interest to find out under which conditions incumbents are likely to switch from resistance to support or vice versa. In this context we aim at bringing together research from different sectors such as energy, mobility or food and explore the various factors which can explain incumbent behaviour. We are thus interested in such diverse firms as electricity providers, car manufacturers and suppliers, food processing enterprises or retail chains. We particularly encourage submissions which engage in cross-sectoral or comparative analyses.

Topics of interest include (and go beyond):

  • The overcoming of incumbent inertia and the dissolution of organisational path dependence
  • The phenomena of political, economic or discursive power of big companies
  • The relevance of industry crises for the reorientation of established companies
  •  The importance of organisational cultures for sustainable sectoral transformation
  • The various forms of interaction between small actors and incumbents (collaboration, co-optation etc.)
  •  The interaction of incumbents across sectoral borders (e.g. foreign invasion, cross-sectoral collaboration)

Papers studying such issues and related topics are cordially invited.


Apajalahti, Eeva-Lotta; Temmes, Armi; Lempiälä, Tea (2018): Incumbent organisations shaping emerging technological fields: cases of solar photovoltaic and electric vehicle charging. In Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 30 (1), pp. 44–57.

Geels, Frank W. (2004): From sectoral systems of innovation to socio-technical systems: Insights about dynamics and change from sociology and institutional theory. In Research Policy 33, pp. 897–920.

Kungl, Gregor; Geels, Frank W. (2018): Sequence and alignment of external pressures in industry destabilisation: Understanding the downfall of incumbent utilities in the German energy transition (1998-2015). In Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 26, 78-100.

van Mossel, Allard; van Rijnsoever; Hekkert, Marko P. (2018): Navigators through the storm: A review of organization theories and the behavior of incumbent firms during transitions. In Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 26, pp. 44–63.


KEYWORDS: Incumbents, energy, mobility, food, barriers

C.4 Energy policy advice: What kind of scientific advice is needed to support the sustainability transition of energy systems?

Capari, Leo (Institute of Technology Assessment of the Austrian Academy of Sciences), Ornetzeder, Michael (Austrian Academy of Sciences), Suschek-Berger, Jürgen (Interdisciplinary Research Centre - IFZ)

Although the global energy system is still heavily based on fossil fuels, the shift towards a post-fossil future is clearly under way. Recent studies (e.g. REN21 2016, 17 ). show that the world has added more capacity for renewable power than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. In addition, there are signs that growth in the global economy and energy-related emissions may be starting to decouple. However, the upcoming transition to a decarbonized future is not an easy task. Hardly ever before has such a far-reaching change been intentionally accomplished. As a consequence, numerous uncertainties and unknowns come along with the transition of energy systems. Not only new opportunities arise, but also new risks and undesirable side effects are to be expected. Socio-technical change is extremely complex and can therefore only be managed to a limited extent by the political system.

This session offers the opportunity to discuss future challenges of research in the field of energy policy. We are looking forward to practical examples for the use of knowledge in advisory settings as well as new methodological and conceptual approaches and critical reflections.

The following questions are of particular importance: 

  • What can we learn from practical experience with energy policy advice? What can and should be done better? What do we know about possible knowledge gaps?
  • What role do reflexive research such as TA and STS play in the field of energy policy?
  • Do we need new institutions, theories and methods or do known approaches still provide satisfying results?
  • How important are quantitative and qualitative modelling approaches in this context? To what extend are these tools able to shape energy transition policies?
  • What challenges will research face when the energy transition really takes off?


KEYWORDS: Scientific energy policy advice, transition of energy systems, challenges and uncertainties, new approachess

C.5 Frames, imaginaries, and storylines in European shale gas futures

Jonn Axsen (Simon Fraser University), Abigail Martin (Sussex University), Benjamin Sovacool (Sussex University), Andy Stirling (Sussex University), Laurence Williams (Sussex University)

The recently announced moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in England potentially marks the end of one of the longest running and most enthusiastic pursuits of a domestic shale gas industry in Europe, and represents a possibly decisive blow for the dream of a ‘European shale gas revolution’. The move brings England into line with the rest of the UK and much of Europe where a variety of moratoria, bans and partial bans have been imposed on the controversial technique since 2011. Can we now talk of the failure of ‘fracking’ in Europe? How do these various European ‘failures’ compare? And why have they occurred across Europe in particular?

This session invites abstracts from a range of disciplinary backgrounds and with a range of methodological approaches that:

(1) consider the rationales, knowledges, and visions that underpin the desire on the part of many actors across Europe to pursue the aim of exploiting domestic shale gas resources;

(2) reflect on the reasons for the failure on the part of these actors to bring this envisaged future about;

(3) compare different experiences of governance and public responses to shale gas within Europe or between Europe and elsewhere (e.g. Argentina, China, US, etc.); draw out the broader implications of the European shale gas case for environmental politics, low-carbon transitions, public participation in sociotechnical controversies, democratic governance and more besides.


KEYWORDS: Shale gas, natural gas, carbon policy, energy policy

C.7 Sustainability transitions and institutional change 

Kriechbaum, Michael (TU Graz / University of Graz)

Incumbent institutional structures such as widely shared norms and values or commonly held beliefs and expectations play important roles in socio-technical transitions. They are strongly aligned with existing (and unsustainable) socio-technical systems, making it difficult to establish new (and more sustainable) socio-technical configurations. From a sustainability perspective it is therefore crucial to understand the processes and mechanisms by which such institutional structures change. While much is already known about the processes that drive the emergence of new institutional settings within socio-technical niches (e.g., formation of expectations, learning processes, building of actor networks), research is still needed to understand the institutional dynamics that characterise transitions during periods where emerging niches have already begun to break into and transform the established socio-technical system. Hence, this session invites contributions that shed light on how transition processes relate to institutional change within established socio-technical systems. 

KEYWORDS: Sustainability transitions; institutional change; incumbency; socio-technical systems