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The politics of governing ‘system innovations’ towards sustainable electricity systems

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:22 authored by Florian Kern
Electricity production and consumption are at the heart of modern life and are therefore of great interest to public policy. Threats such as security of supply concerns, the volatility of fuel and electricity prices, and especially environmental concerns like climate change, are putting increasing pressure on current electricity systems. One key response by governments has been support for innovation. It is widely acknowledged that electricity systems will have to change fundamentally in order to deliver on political goals. This will require deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Incremental change along established technological trajectories is unlikely to be sufficient. Instead ‘system innovations’ have been suggested as a solution by scholars and policy makers. What are the politics of such an endeavour? To answer this question this thesis looks at two distinct policy initiatives to promote more sustainable electricity systems: the ‘Energy Transition’ project in the Netherlands and the ‘Carbon Trust’ in the UK. While the aim of the two policy initiatives is similar, they try to tackle the challenge in very different ways. The analysis is based on semi-structured interviews as well as a review of documents and secondary literature and follows a process tracing method, combining within-case and cross-case analysis. By utilising a framework based on ‘discursive institutionalism’ (as per Hajer and Schmidt) the study aims to shed light on the importance of both discourses and institutional contexts in shaping policy initiatives to promote ‘system innovations’. It demonstrates the mechanisms by which particular framings of the problem, expressed through new storylines, come to legitimate particular government policies. It emerges that existing institutions not only shape which storylines are politically acceptable but also constitute tangible features of the organisational and technical environment which those initiatives must change. In conclusion, the thesis argues that the politics of governing ‘system innovations’ can usefully be conceptualised and explained by struggles about meaning. These are shaped in turn through discursive interactions between actors as well as existing institutions. By highlighting the interplay between discourses, interests and institutions, the results provide an input to scholarly debate and policy making alike, in ways that offer to help inform the rethinking of strategies for fostering socio-technical ‘system innovations’.


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  • SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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