RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2017


24 Reimagining Urban Energy Futures (1): Transformative Low Carbon Infrastuctures
Affiliation Energy Geographies Research Group
Convenor(s) Stefan Bouzarovski (The University of Manchester, UK)
Håvard Haarstad (University of Bergen, Norway)
Chair(s) Caitlin Robinson (The University of Manchester, UK)
Timetable Wednesday 30 August 2017, Session 1 (09:00 - 10:40)
Session abstract This session seeks to advance alternative thinking on sustainable urban energy transformations. Efforts to decarbonise urban energy flows have largely been theorized via frameworks derived from the domain of ‘sustainability transitions’, such as the multi-level perspective. Recent years, however, have seen the emergence of new conceptual sensibilities towards urban energy reconfigurations, informed, inter alia, by experimentation, assemblage, policy mobility and political ecology approaches. The session aims to give a more coherent voice to reimaginings of sustainable urban futures that lie beyond the conceptual mainstream. We highlight the underlying dynamics of power and inequality that underpin energy transformations in cities, particularly in relation to the enclosures and contradictions stemming from the encounter between low carbon transitions and neoliberal capitalism. The session is also geared towards providing a stronger geographical sensibility towards urban energy reconfigurations, by emphasizing the non-linearity of low-carbon urban change, and role of contingencies such as place, scale and territory in this process.
Linked Sessions Reimagining Urban Energy Futures (2:) Pathways to Change
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2017@rgs.org
Towards transformative low-carbon urban reconfigurations: a relational ontology
Stefan Bouzarovski (The University of Manchester, UK)
Håvard Haarstad (University of Bergen, Norway)
This framing paper seeks to highlight the key arguments that underpin the thinking behind the session. We aim to open the space for an innately geographical conceptualization of low carbon urban transformations, in which cities are not seen as rigid and passive physical containers for decarbonization initiatives, but rather as key nodes within vibrant socio-technical networks operating across multiple material sites. Using a case study of the transnational and translocal REACH (Reduce Energy use And Change Habits) project funded by the European as illustration, we show that low carbon urban transformations are immanently constituted of three sets of relational processes across multiple material and social sites. These include (1) politicization, (2) enrolment and (3) the hybridization of human and material agencies.
How do local energy initiatives contribute to reimagining sustainable urban futures?
Mustafa Hasanov (University of Groningen, The Netherlands)
Without a doubt, civil society has a great role in reimagining sustainable energy futures. While previous research has prioritised mainstream market-led and state-led initiatives, recent research suggest that one should not underestimate the power invested in local collective activism. Drawing on a Q Methodology study involving participants in from the Netherlands it explores how and why community activists involved in local ‘self-organised’ constructs different perspectives that contribute to the future states of energy transition. Self-organising is one of the three inter-linked processes (with market-led and state-led mechanisms) that enable a pragmatic and innovative transition to an adapted urban environment that is carbon neutral and resilient in the face of climate change. Local energy initiatives are often associated with the different opportunities local communities provide in envisioning the transition toward low-carbon energy futures. Existing research, along other themes, focuses primarily on the various reconfiguration which local energy initiatives lead to in the transition to decentralised energy systems and reconfigurations in local governance practices (cf Arentsen and Bellekom 2014, Blanchet 2015, North and Longtrhurst 2015; Parkhill et al 2015, Oteman et al 2014). However, less is known about how such initiatives contribute to the current state of energy transition, including public imagination of sustainable urban futures, reflecting local situations in which different entities and agencies work together, and the associated socio-institutional practices. The results suggest that local energy initiatives provide three distinct perspectives which cold serve as inspiration for shaping the sustainable urban energy futures: 1) the radical energy perspective which combines strong support on utilitarianism and well-being and lays strong criticism of neo-liberalism; 2) social-entrepreneurship perspective which factors the at importance on cross-institutional cooperation, between industry, government and civil society, and pragmatic stance that outlines energy initiatives as business models with social relevance and 3) social community involvement with a green component perspective which envisions energy futures as branch of regular local or community activism built upon idealistic understandings of humanity and societal action which is not necessarily loaded with environmentalist sentiment. These perspectives do not pretend to offer universal account on possible framing devices but effectively illustrate that reimagining sustainable urban futures is not straightforward. The narratives derived from the perspectives illustrate that various challenges and opportunities related to issues of entity, relationship between entities, degrees of agency and underlying motivations communicate different possibilities the future of energy policy and practices.
Urban renewable energy transitions: local financial innovations for just and transformative development
Paris Hadfield (The University of Melbourne, Australia)
Attention to urban scale interventions has proliferated in climate policy studies as well as sustainability transitions analyses. However, existing literature falls short in addressing how such interventions are contributing to the scaling up of decarbonisation within and across urban areas (Hansen and Coenen 2015). Grassroots innovation studies, for instance, are less optimistic about the potential for community energy initiatives to facilitate broader renewable energy transition; for example, compared with community-owned projects, corporate models providing small-scale renewable energy systems predominate in US markets (Hess 2013). This is illustrative of lingering questions in existing urban sustainability transitions approaches: whether localised resources are sufficient to drive urban renewable energy transition, and the possible trade-offs between local community development and the scaling up of decarbonisation processes required to mitigate climate change. Given the considerable sunk investment in existing energy infrastructure, and the inevitable cost of renewable energy technologies (Bridge et al. 2013; Castree and Christophers 2015), financial relations are necessarily deeply entwined in low carbon transition processes. Indeed, access to finance is often a limiting factor of urban actors’ capacity to innovate, despite sustainability goals and ambition. This paper thus presents a novel theoretical framework for the study of urban sustainability transitions that aims to conceptualise the role of finance, a critical gap in existing literature. At the same time, recent commentaries call for sustainability transition research and policy to take into account the social equity implications of transition processes. Attempts to render existing consumption and production systems more sustainable may risk reinforcing current patterns of disadvantage. As such, conceptualising the role of finance in urban sustainability transitions must take into account the distribution of renewable energy access, cost savings and investment returns, as well as financial risks and burdens.
Bridging concepts: applying a geography of energy transition to the empirics of urban solar uptake
Siddharth Sareen (University of Bergen, Norway)
How can geography approach the study of solar energy politics to anticipate multi-scalar low-carbon urban transition premised on a rapid political economic enablement of solar technology adoption over fossil-fuel sources? This conceptual piece thinks through some useful mid-level tools to bridge the gap between abstract imaginings and empirical urban contexts of energy flux. Recent headway has been made on the geography of energy transitions with a view to understanding non-linear low-carbon change processes. Bridge, Bouzarovski et al (2013) lay out six pertinent geographical concepts: location, landscape, territoriality, spatial differentiation and uneven development, scaling, and spatial embeddedness and path dependency. Focussing on one of these concepts, namely (de-)territorialisation, Haarstad and Wanvik (2016) propose an assemblage analysis to get a handle on unstable energy landscapes as possibilities, rather than taken-for-granted carbonscapes. The task now is to apply such approaches to the concrete question of what key factors characterise solar power uptake in cities, deconstructing the heuristic of a practice like (de-)territorialisation to attend to constituent empirically-broachable elements. Unpacking such elements produces a relational understanding of power inequities determining urban energy transitions, animating the dialectic of (de-)territorialisation with bridging tools like institutional assemblages and networks, accountability relations, and shifts in materiality, to arrive at empirically-embedded accounts of the stakes for key actors involved and the political nature of the legal and built environments that modulate energy transitions. The intent is to put forward such mid-level tools to mobilise recent conceptual advances in energy geography towards application in the politically-charged urban settings where such transitions are being governed, contested and implemented.
Unfair transitions? A preliminary examination of low-carbon energy pathways in the EU from a domestic energy vulnerability perspective
Sergio Tierado-Herrero (RMIT University, Australia)
Energy transitions towards sustainability are bringing about a fundamental reorganisation in the ways societies capture, distribute and use energy, and open the door for deeper structural transformations of economies and societies. In this process, disadvantaged, vulnerable social segments risk being ‘left behind’ or penalised because, among other reasons, of their lack of capital and capacity for the investments required. The relevance of this predicament is evidenced by the fact that more than 50 million households in the EU are currently struggling to attain adequate warmth at home, pay their utility bills on time, and live in homes free of damp and mould. Against this background the paper aims to at preliminarily identify and conceptualise ways in which the EU’s transition to a low-carbon economy may (or not) be reproducing and reinforcing current energy vulnerability trends in Member States. To this end the paper mobilises the political ecology and environmental justice framework along with the transitions theory and multi-level governance perspective, and provides an initial examination of two urban case study pathways – renewable electricity cooperatives in Spain and advanced thermal retrofits of multi-family buildings in Hungary.