Community Energy, Path Dependency and the Low Carbon Transition

Research Theme: Place, Well-being and Healthy Environment
Supervisors: Dr. Brendan Murtagh (b.murtagh@qub.ac.uk)

The combined crises of climate change, peak oil and energy security have been powerful drivers on initiating the low carbon transition in western societies. This involves complex and long term shifts in many aspects of the socio- technical systems related to energy, including market mechanisms (such as carbon pricing and trading, Tietenberg 2014), technological innovation (such as those related to energy efficiency, renewables and carbon storage, Shi and Lai, 2013), major infrastructure development (grid extension and electrification of the energy system, Foxon 2013) and a wide range of new policy initiatives (Geels 2014). Transition studies have been insightful for developing an understanding of such complex changes, offering explanations for the role of society – technology interactions, innovation niches regulatory regimes, exogenous factors and place and other time/place dependent factors. In terms of renewable energy, the aspects of society-technological relations that have been particularly emphasised have been under the broad rubric of ‘social’ acceptance’ (Wustenhagen et al, 2007), having socio-political, market and community aspects.  The issue of community acceptance has been particularly prominent in relation to wind energy, with a focus on the site disputes surrounding specific projects, the dominance of the ‘NIMBY’ framing of this issue and responses that follow this, such as site avoidance or enhancement of community benefits. A range of case studies have suggested that the nature and extent of community objection to wind energy projects may be influenced by, inter alia the scale and proximity of the project, distribution of costs and benefits, perceptions of procedural justice and a range of contextual factors relating to historical and geographical context. It has become clear that the development paths of energy have strongly shaped the nature of the renewables industry in different countries, with Denmark being typified by a cooperative based sector, in Germany there is a high presence of locally owned projects, while in the UK and Ireland, the wind industry is overwhelmingly large scale and owned by large multi-national companies. These factors have had a strong influence on public attitudes to wind energy and the prospects for initiating more innovative trajectories for the energy sector. Despite this, governments in the UK and Ireland have recently sought to stimulate a community energy sector, with the aims of encouraging local economic development and overcoming community hostility to wind energy projects. However, compared to other jurisdictions (for example Denmark or Germany), it can be hypothesised that the centralised, large scale, ‘hard’ energy path of the UK (Lovins 1976) have created major obstacles to the development of a community energy sector.

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