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Sustainability 2010, 2, ; doi: /su OPEN ACCESS sustainability ISSN Article Assessing Sustainability Transition in the US Electrical Power
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Sustainability 2010, 2, ; doi: /su OPEN ACCESS sustainability ISSN Article Assessing Sustainability Transition in the US Electrical Power System Scott Jiusto 1, * and Stephen McCauley Interdisciplinary and Global Studies, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 100 Institute Rd., Worcester, MA , USA Graduate School of Geography, Clark University, 950 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01610, USA; * Author to whom correspondence should be addressed; Tel.: ; Fax: Received: 7 January 2010 / Accepted: 9 February 2010 / Published: 12 February 2010 Abstract: This paper examines sustainability transition dynamics in the US electricity system, drawing on the socio-technical systems approach. We view system change as unfolding along several critical dimensions and geographical scales, including dynamics in the environment, science, civil society, discourse, and state regulatory institutions, as well as in capital and technology formations. A particular emphasis is given to the interaction of discourses, policy networks, and institutions. We trace four distinct regimes which have characterized the evolution of this discourse-network-institutional nexus over the last century. The research examines dynamics that present a challenge to the incumbent energy regime based on fossil fuels, nuclear and hydropower, and demonstrates how the actor-network supporting renewables and energy efficiency has grown stronger and more capable of moving toward a sustainability transition than at any time since the sustainable energy movement began a generation ago. Keywords: socio-technical systems; sustainability transition; technological change; electricity systems; energy policy Sustainability 2010, Introduction In July of 2008, former Vice-President Al Gore [1] made a prominent and provocative call for the US to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years, claiming that the goal was achievable and affordable and that the future of human civilization is at stake. Some 31 years earlier, President Jimmy Carter, speaking from the energy crisis of the 1970s, had similarly framed energy system transformation as the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes, yet one that we will not solve in the next few years, [instead] it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. Subsequent developments geopolitical, economic and climate-related have proven this last statement prescient. What then are the prospects for a sustainability transition in the US electricity system, understood as a restructuring that significantly steers this system, which presently accounts for approximately 40% of both primary energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, toward a far more renewable and energy efficient trajectory? Even before the extent of the current economic downturn became obvious, the Obama administration took office on a platform calling for investment in green energy technologies to promote economic growth and address climate concerns. Clean energy development now forms a central part of the country s economic recovery plan, reflecting the belief that a major rebuilding of the country s energy infrastructure is required and that the scope of such an effort would generate significant economic activity [2]. While these developments represent a major shift in the political discourse in the United States, the process of transitions in large socio-technical systems remains complex, fraught with competing interests, and heavily dependent on historical contingencies. This paper presents a long-term analysis of dynamics in this critical socio-technical system, exploring four distinct regimes that have characterized the system over the last century and that have conditioned the likelihood of a substantial near-term shift toward the sustainability transition Gore envisions. Should the system move substantially in this direction in the next decade, the genesis of this transition would lie in a broad range of social, environmental and technical processes that represent both continuity and disjuncture with these historic regimes and with the generation of sustainable energy innovation initiated in the 1970s. A growing body of research on sustainability transitions emphasizes that shifts in socio-technical systems often embody a fundamental rupture in critical processes undergirding an incumbent socio-technical regime [3,4]. This incumbent regime in the energy sector, characterized by persistently increasing electricity demand and almost complete reliance on fossil fuel, nuclear and large hydropower generating plants, has shown great resiliency over the past half century. Since 1980, electricity and coal consumption in the US have both increased over 70%, while renewables have grown to just 2.4% of total net generation (Figure 1). Few analysts predict a sharp break with these trends, and most technical and economic analyses of climate change mitigation embrace scenarios far closer to the Energy Information Administration s [5] business as usual reference case scenario that shows electricity consumption and carbon emissions increasing more slowly than previously, but still by over one-quarter between 2006 and 2030, while renewables increase to just 6.8% of net generation. With annual revenues of some $500 billion, business as usual in the electrical power industry enjoys the support of powerful social, financial and political interests reinforced through public and private institutions that constitute and manage the electricity system. At the same time, we show below that an Sustainability 2010, increasingly effective sustainable energy actor-network has grown and attracted new actors to challenge conventional energy systems and, relative to their limited successes in the 1970s, is now achieving more broad-based changes in the laws, policies, and investment decisions affecting this industry. Figure 1. Trends in electricity-generating fuels in the US (data source[6]). Part and parcel of these energy sector developments are evolving, competing theories of how change in these systems can (and should) occur [7]. Academics no less than others debating the costs and consequences of climate change operate from complex sets of disciplinary and individual commitments and perspectives that are only partially bridgeable through recourse to empirical evidence [8,9]. Key insights informing our analysis are: that energy systems are central to human-environment relations due to their unique thermodynamic role in economic and ecological systems [10,11]; that very substantial and immediate changes toward low-carbon energy systems are required to mitigate climate change [12]; that while the resource base of fossil fuels is of diminishing quality, the flow of renewable energy resources wind, sun, tidal flows, geothermal, etc. vastly exceeds human demand [10]; that large no net cost energy efficiency and carbon emissions improvements are available through improved policy measures and concerted, though not heroic, effort [13]; and that sustained policy deliberation will be necessary but hardly sufficient to realize the potential for a renewables and efficiency transition. The analysis here includes, but extends beyond, questions of price and technical efficiency to explore how processes of innovation and system change unfold through complex social, environmental, and technological dynamics. We situate our work in relationship to the literatures on socio-technical systems [14], policy networks and discourses [15-17], and sustainability transitions [3,4,18]. As it has become more evident that radical restructuring of critical societal systems is required to achieve sustainability [3,19], research on innovation and socio-technical system change has focused on steering systems toward more sustainable configurations. Energy systems, though not the only systems of interest in this research (see [4,20]), have received considerable attention. Much of this work examines dynamics in European electricity systems (e.g., [7,21,22]), as surprisingly little research has analyzed from a Sustainability 2010, socio-technical systems perspective the major shifts that have occurred in the US electricity sector and their potential impacts on a system-level sustainability transition (though see [23]). Essential literature informing this study includes Hughes [24,25] account of the early evolution of the US electrical system that introduced core concepts that continue to shape socio-technical analysis, including the essential broadening of the concept of technological system to include alongside technical components power plants, transmission lines and the like a panoply of social actors, including inventers, entrepreneurs, financiers, politicians, and others driving system evolution through a seamless web of economic, political, institutional and technical processes. Hirsh [26] carries the story forward to the late 1990s, through two major changes in the institutional landscape and emphasizing more the role of elite groups in shaping the industry s evolution. While we draw on these sources theoretically and empirically they, like Sine & David s [27] useful account of the effect of institutional change on electrical sector entrepreneurial activity during , do not forefront in their analyses implications for sustainability, nor take into account more recent, large changes in the industry and energy-environment landscape. We also extend the socio-technical systems literature, which generally focuses on lessons from past system changes, whereas our question, while historically grounded, also concerns prospects for future change. Finally, the work contributes to a growing body of work [28,29] which centers the concept of discourse formation in the analysis of socio-technical system change. In the next section, we discuss theory informing our analysis. The remaining sections present an empirical analysis of developments in the US electricity system, organized around major themes identified in the theory section, including sections on environment and science; civil society; discourse, state action and institutions; and a look at changes in related capital and technology development decisions. We conclude by highlighting key themes revealed in the analysis. The research is based upon analysis of secondary sources, including previous studies of sectoral change and reports of recent electrical sector innovation investments. The lead author participated in a study [30] of sustainable energy advocacy efforts in the 1990s that involved 50 interviews and a focus group with a wide range of informants from academia, industry, utilities, advocacy groups, and state officials. All information contained herein, however, is sourced to publicly available records. 2. Theory Unlike analyses focused more narrowly on market dynamics, policy outcomes, or the behavior of firms, socio-technical systems analysis seeks to illuminate the complex interactions among a broad and diverse range of factors that influence system change. At the core of the approach is the notion that large technical systems are comprised by a complex configuration of social dynamics, including legal, institutional, regulatory, educational, and cultural processes, which co-evolve with the material and technical artifacts in a system. This perspective is particularly useful for revealing the dynamics of system transition. The embeddedness of electricity generation, transmission, and distribution technologies within complex social networks lends such systems a strong path dependence. While resistant to change, research on historical shifts in entrenched socio-technical systems has shown that, where alternative system configurations achieve sufficient strength, even large technical systems can Sustainability 2010, shift quite rapidly toward an alternative system as the configuration of interacting social and technical factors re-aligns around the alternative [4,31,32]. In the case of energy systems, new technologies typically augment rather than replace existing systems. For example, today the US burns thirteen times more coal for power production than in 1950 (Figure 1), and uses more coal for all purposes than in the 1920s, when coal was the dominant energy resource. This particularly strong path dependence is partly explained by the political economy of energy. The large capital flows commanded by energy industries and the centrality of energy for economic production lead to close alliances between energy producers, utilities and states, and to institutions, relationships, market rules and complementary industries strongly supportive of the entrenched energy regime [33,34]. Unruh [35] explains how such techno-institutional complexes defined as large technological systems embedded in a powerful conditioning social context have systematically advantaged fossil fuels and led to carbon lock-in in the industrialized world. Fossil fuel lock-in has to date been a major barrier to carbon-saving technologies and the rise of alternative energy systems. Thus analyzing the prospects of an energy system transition requires a focus not only on technological change and innovation, but on the social structures and processes that maintain the incumbent regime and those that might destabilize it [14]. We conduct this analysis with a view toward assessing whether the current sustainable electricity movement, building on the efforts begun in earnest in the 1970s, can realize the significant system shift that was envisioned at that time but not yet realized. An important conceptual model in the socio-technical systems literature is the multi-level perspective (MLP) model. The model, which Geels [20,36] organized and which many others have advanced [4,37,38], identifies three conceptual levels involved in the process of socio-technical system change: the niche, the socio-technical regime, and the socio-technical landscape. The meso-level comprises the socio-technical regime the deeply-entrenched, conventional configuration of social groups and actor networks, routines and rules, and material and technical artifacts that dominate a technological system. Path dependence and lock-in are the norm, as structural barriers to change maintain and protect incumbent actors, social networks, and technologies [35]. At the micro-level, small-market or technological niches act as incubation spaces, shielding potentially disruptive new technologies from mainstream market selection and allowing novel technologies to develop. The macro-level is the socio-technical landscape, the political economic and environmental context that shapes the dominant regimes over long time spans. System transition occurs when the incumbent regime is challenged or stressed, either by its own contradictions or by external pressures, and the niche technology advances enough to compete with and eventually replace the existing regime [38]. The MLP has proved a useful model for organizing analysis of socio-technical regime change, and numerous case studies, on energy systems [38] and other large technical systems [39] have utilized the approach. Current work is enriching the MLP model in useful ways by either elaborating the mechanics of the model [4] or by developing important dimensions of the transition process which are not well captured by the MLP model [29]. We add to this latter body of work by exploring transition dynamics in an important empirical case the large and complex US electricity system. The MLP provides a useful heuristic for understanding the contours of historic system transitions, yet analysis of ongoing transitions requires a richly empirical approach which highlights the multidirectional and complicated dynamics through which system change unfolds. In analyzing the contestation between Sustainability 2010, entrenched incumbent regimes and more sustainable alternatives, we follow Laird [15] and others [29] in asserting the importance of ideas and discourses, and the ways in which ideas transform the terrain on which the transition process occurs. Our analysis focuses particularly on the nexus between discourses, political networks, and institutions. Discourses are narratives used to contest or enforce power and decision-making by explaining (and obfuscating) dynamics of change, and there is a rich body of literature describing the role of discourse in shaping environmental policy [40,41]. Policy networks refer to the broad range of actors, spanning civil society and advocacy groups, government, industry, and investors, among others, who engage in the practice of generating discourses and linking discourse with policy prescriptions. Networks have become particularly crucial in policy formation with the shift from government to governance [42]. Institutions refer to the routinized practices and bodies which carry out policy and governance [43]. Discourses, policy networks, and institutions interact dynamically with each other, yet we follow Lovell and colleagues [29] in asserting that discursive shifts, supported and promoted by policy networks, precede institutional changes. Institutions, by definition, enforce stasis and therefore change only slowly and incrementally in response to shifting discourses. Where Lovell and colleagues [29] emphasize the embeddedness of discourses in physical and material realities, we emphasize the articulation of discourses with existing institutions and the ways in which institutions and policies formations are transformed through discursive shifts. Our analysis of socio-technical change in the US electrical power sector thus focuses on shifts in the discursive and regulatory regime which are potentially supportive of moving the system toward a broader sustainability transition. We identify four distinct phases in this regime over the last century, and we examine in detail how shifts from one regime to another embody both new opportunities and legacies from prior regimes. The extent to which discourses become embedded in institutions and policy formations to a large extent depends upon the strength, skill, and strategies of policy networks supporting those discourses and transforming them into particular policy approaches. These networks are described by Richard and Jordan s [44] policy communities, Sabatier s [45] advocacy coalitions, and Hajer s [41] discourse coalitions. Each in some way reveals how substantial changes in policy require the dominance of new discourse coalitions and the institutionalizing of new ideas. We emphasize, however, that remnants of past discourses remain institutionalized even as new discourses ascend, and the result the actual policy and institutional formation in which electricity management, governance, and innovation occurs is often a messy hybrid of past and new discourses shaped by political negotiations. Our study shows that the particular form this discursive and institutional hybrid takes results in unique barriers, but also opportunities, for system change, with distinct implications for sustainability. The emphasis on discursive regimes and their institutional articulation reveals the shifting concerns and values which have supported the US electricity system over the last century. In some ways these concerns have passed through the three major elements of sustainability economic, social, and environmental at different moments highlighting different domains of social interest. The rise of the climate change discourse and its convergence with electricity policy discourses [29], suggests that the environment can no longer be subordinated to economic or social interests in electricity policy. Nature can now be seen as an agent in the broad electricity system. Nature does not speak for itself, however, and science has been critical in identifying and interpreting environmental change and its strong Sustainability 2010, connections to fo
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