Driving the transition to green energy: The virtue of mobilising users

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New research involving TIPC academics show that users and the interaction of various actor groups play a vital role in transitioning to a cleaner, more sustainable, energy system. Findings indicate that policy should contribute to building a shared vision amongst actors and facilitate platforms and opportunities to mobilise and connect.

As manifested in the Global Goals, there’s an urgent need for us to change the way we produce and consume energy with the current reliance on fossil fuels causing severe harm to the planet. Implementing new energy solutions as fast as possible is essential to counter climate change. Despite renewable energy solutions becoming cheaper, more reliable and more efficient every day, transitioning to cleaner energy remains one of the most pivotal global challenges.

While the goals are set (e.g. by 2030 the share of renewable energy is to increase substantially in the global energy mix) the approach remains ambiguous as world leaders struggle to assign clear roles and responsibilities. New research has looked into the drivers that accelerate the installation of more sustainable energy sources, such as solar panels and heat pumps, which are increasingly included in government strategies for achieving net-zero targets. Findings emphasise that users play a crucial role in expediting change.

One study compared the stalled heat pump transition in the United Kingdom with Finland where one in three homes have been fitted with a heat pump. The study suggests Government incentives and subsidies alongside education and training are vital, but that enthusiastic heat pump users willing to share their experience are also needed. Therefore, collective action by households who have heat pumps, using for example social media and online forums and detailing their own projects, are deemed helpful in forming a social movement to actively lobby for a change to the current heating industry dominated by gas companies. The authors urge governments to use policy to help develop this community of heat pump enthusiasts to lead the transition to green heating options.

Another new study compares the development of the emerging niche of solar energy in two Chinese provinces. Kejia Yang, lead author of the recently published paper, said: “We investigated how actors across spatial levels shape the directions of transitions. We were particularly interested in exploring how the new entrants that support solar power development interact with incumbent actors, such as grid companies, coal power regime actors”.

The study found that policies aiming for a transition towards alternative energy sources should nurture diverse actors to work collectively and thus accelerate institutional change. Furthermore, research findings indicate that the build-up of shared visions across dominant and alternative actors is key and likely to accelerate transformation.

Johan Schot, TIPC Academic Director and Professor of Global History and Sustainability Transitions at the Utrecht University Centre for Global Challenges, and co-author of the research said: “Both articles show the crucial role of users in making the energy transition happen. Therefore, policy should aim at mobilising them and their interactions. We call this type of action institutional work which also expresses that inducing sustainable alternatives is just as important as destabilising less sustainable dominant practices. The findings also suggest that institutional work should be multifaceted and connect various levels, local, national and transnational as the energy transition is not a top-down affair.”

Both publications can be accessed via:

Martiskainen, M., Schot, J., & Sovacool, B. K. (2021). User innovation, niche construction and regime destabilization in heat pump transitions. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 39, 119-140.

Yang, K., Schot, J., & Truffer, B. (2021). Shaping the directionality of sustainability transitions: the diverging development patterns of solar photovoltaics in two Chinese provinces. Regional Studies, 1-19.

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