Sunday, November 11, 2012

What can we learn from the British coal industry concerning energy transitions ?

A picture of a mountaintop removal coal mining
operation in the US,
by JW Randolph
This topic is the subject of a really interesting article published recently in Energy Policy and written by B. Turnheim and F. W. Geels intitled "Regime destabilisation as the flipside of energy transitions: lessons from the history of the British coal industry (1913-1997)". While many articles focus mainly on emerging technologies (wind turbine, biofuels, energy storage, etc...) concerning energy transition, it can be useful to detail how occur the destabilization of existing regimes. In this article, this perspective is illustrated with two historical cases of the British coal industry (1913-1967, 1967-1997). This perspective is also conceptualized as a multi-dimensional phenomenon including aspects belonging to the industrial economics, the neo-institutional theory or performative approaches in management.
The authors explained that, while technical and economic drivers were crucial concerning the destabilization of the British coal industry, their effects were echoed by social and political factors - obviously, details, as the specific lessons from the historical cases concerning destabilization, can be found in the article.
Without saying that what happens today is a perfect copycat of what happened yesterday, the authors explore how these cases can offer some relevant insights concerning the energy transition imposed by climate change. One of the first lessons is that climate-related crises can accelerate destabilization when they "erodes the cultural legitimacy if existing industries and stimulate the introduction of gam-changing technologies" (I quote the authors). This erosion is made easier if long-standing debates have stressed the importance of the phenomenon and if other options are available. But social concerns about climate change are unlikely to "destabilize existing technologies if they are not expressing in conjunction with economic factors", as explained by the authors. In fact, they conclude that stimulating green technologies is not enough, weakening the social, political and cultural dimensions of fossil-fuel industries is part of the energy transition process.    

-> "Regime destabilisation as the flipside of energy transitions: lessons from the history of the British coal industry (1913-1997)", B. Turnheim and Frank W. Geels, Energy Policy 50 (2012), 35-49


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