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Actor interactions and niche acceleration: explaining China’s rapid wind and solar development

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posted on 2023-06-09, 23:29 authored by Kejia Yang
Since the beginning of the 21st century, due to climate change and other environmental concerns, the energy sector has been shifting rapidly towards renewable energy. Green and low carbon have emerged as new priorities shaping the sector’s future development. This development has not only been put into motion by a whole set of new actors, but it has also involved existing incumbents. While interaction between these two groups of actors has recently received more attention in the sustainability transitions literature, overcoming an original bias towards new entrants, the inner workings of this interaction are yet to be explored. This thesis addresses this research gap. The main question it asks is how the interaction between new entrants (called niche actors, following the sustainability transitions literature) and incumbents (called regime actors) shapes the rapid expansion of renewable energy development (called niche acceleration). This research examines the case study of China. The country not only has the world largest energy sector, with entrenched coal power, but it also experienced rapid growth in renewable energy, in particular wind and solar power. China can therefore serve as an exemplary (or revealing) case study to investigate how the new entrants interact with incumbent actors in shaping the low-carbon transition dynamics in its electricity socio-technical system. The thesis focuses on wind and solar power development from 2000 to 20170F 1 at the national level and within two provinces, Inner Mongolia and Jiangsu, where divergent developments were observed. Inner Mongolia’s rapid wind and solar power development fits into the existing centralised power system. In comparison, Jiangsu province’s relatively moderate wind power development combined with rapid solar photovoltaics (PV) development are transforming the existing centralised power system towards a more distributed one. This thesis offers both conceptual and methodological contributions presented in three core chapters (chapters 3–5), which have been either published or submitted as journal articles. Chapter 3 develops a novel conceptual framework to study how the alignment dynamics between niche actors and regime actors unfold and shape niche acceleration. Moreover, it offers a novel quasi-quantitative methodology to map their alignment dynamics. Chapter 4 contributes a new understanding of how niche actors interact with regime actors to shape niche shielding dynamics that hold off selection pressures from the socio-technical regime. Chapter 5 proposes a new conceptual framework to study how niche actors interact with regime actors to shape the directions of niche development. Chapters 4 and 5 add a spatial dimension to the conceptual discussions. The synthesis of the three core chapters’ research findings suggests three key conclusions: 1) Strong alignment between niche and regime actors’ expectations is necessary for niche acceleration (rapid niche development) in China at both the national and the provincial level. Despite China’s specific governance characteristics, I suggest that this may also apply to other contexts. 2) The alignment between niche and regime actors can take different forms across multiple regime dimensions and across multiple scales. These forms are crucially important for understanding the building up and phasing out of effective shielding niche strategies. 3) The specific nature of niche and regime actors’ alignment influences the direction of niche development, towards either a centralised or a decentralised energy system. The nature of their alignment is characterised by three aspects (i) the portfolio of institutional work that niche and regime actors enact in terms of working on creating niches, maintaining the existing regime and actively disrupting the regime; (ii) whether niche actors play a leading role in shaping institutional change working with regime actors, or regime actors play a leading role and ignore the disruptive institutional work of niche actors; and (iii) how they mobilise institutional conditions across multiple scales. 1 The focal analysis stages of cases in the three core chapters are slightly different. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the historical development from 2000 to 2017. Chapter 5 covers the period from 2000 to 2018 because the study and analysis were conducted at the later stage of four years’ expanded PhD project.


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University of Sussex

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