Doing Energy History in Times of Transition

Doing Energy History in Times of Transition

Energy History Working Group of the Tensions of Europe (ToE) Research Network on History, Technology and Europe; coordinators: Ute Hasenöhrl, Innsbruck; Odinn Melsted, Maastricht; and Jan-Henrik Meyer, Frankfurt am Main
Vom - Bis
01.07.2021 -
Candida F. Sánchez Burmester, Maastricht University

On July 1, 2021, the Energy History Working Group of the Tensions of Europe (ToE) Research Network on History, Technology and Europe – coordinated by Ute Hasenöhrl (Innsbruck), Odinn Melsted (Maastricht), and Jan-Henrik Meyer (Frankfurt am Main) – organized the workshop “Doing Energy History in Times of Transition”. The half-day online event was part of the week-long ToE Digital Workshop Festival 2021. Based on pre-circulated papers, its aim was to facilitate discussions on the highly topical and widely used concept of energy transitions from a historical perspective. Focusing on a variety of aspects often overlooked in transitions theory, including incumbent elements of energy systems, past energy futures, failed transitions, the importance of scales, as well as producer and consumer perspectives, workshop participants both deconstructed the term “energy transitions” and evaluated its strengths and weaknesses.

The first panel was devoted to inter- and transnational perspectives on energy transitions. Examining the transition from “black” to “white” coal, SEBASTIAN DE PRETTO (Lucerne) stressed how hydroelectric development in the Alps connected stakeholders from different countries despite competing interests and unequal agency. DANTE LARICCIA (Yale) scrutinized debates on energy governance within the United Nations (UN) in the 1970s and 1980s and emphasized the UN’s institutional inability to set up a coherent energy agenda. Focusing on the Taiwanese electricity sector since the Second World War, TSAIYING LU (Maastricht) highlighted how the Danish company Ørsted reacted to protests of local fisher communities and environmental NGOs by launching research projects on marine life. Similarly, PANAGIOTIS KAZANTZAS and ARISTOTLE TYMPAS (both Athens) also shed light on the challenges connected with large-scale renewable energy projects. Examining “Project Helios”, a planned – but never implemented – solar megaproject in Greece, they stressed the importance to assess not only the sustainability of renewable energy projects in terms of the energy source but also the various technologies needed to make the energy usable.

The four papers presented a diverse set of perspectives on historical energy transitions. They pointed to issues of energy governance from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives, and traced shifts within electricity networks from introducing wind and solar power. The papers demonstrated the analytical benefits of new perspectives, notably of inter- and transnational research. They showed how seemingly national projects are linked to transnational exchanges, while broad transition agendas were also planned by and debated in international organizations. The panel discussion further explored the nature, planning, and implementation of renewable energy megaprojects and examined the tensions between renewability and sustainability. Several speakers and participants critically reflected upon how renewable megaprojects were often planned in a top-down manner at the expense of local societies, such as Alpine villages, Taiwanese fisher communities, or Greek municipalities. These reflections rose the question of “just transitions”: Are renewable megaprojects inevitably exploitative and anti-democratic, or can they be implemented in a fair, democratic and sustainable manner? And what kind of regulatory and political framework – or training of engineers and managers – is necessary to achieve a transition that is both green and just?

The second panel discussed shifts in energy regimes through the lens of various individual and group actors. Investigating climate change knowledge in debates on energy transitions in Sweden in the 1970s, KRISTOFFER EKBERG (Göteborg) showed how political framings of climate change and energy issues facilitated the energy transition from oil to nuclear power while limiting the exploration of renewable energy sources. MICHIEL BRON (Maastricht) challenged the notion that shifts in energy regimes are typically triggered by a new set of stakeholders. Analysing interrelations between nuclear technology and oil actors, Bron emphasized the importance of incumbent actors with their individual agency in the development of new technologies and energy regimes. Focusing on the debates about Swiss pipelines and refineries in the 1960s, NICOLAS CHACHEREAU (Lausanne) also called for a closer look at specific actors, motivations, and discourses when dealing with energy transitions. Similarly, TRISH KAHLE (Georgetown) emphasized the need to “zoom in” on the particularities within regimes by considering the agency of energy workers. Introducing the term “energy citizenship”, Kahle showed that Appalachian coal miners experienced their relations to the state as being part of a high-energy social contract. This tacit agreement included a set of mutual rights and obligations. In short, national welfare states were fundamentally entangled with the energy they relied on.

All four papers persuasively challenged the prevalent systemic, macro-scale view of energy transitions by highlighting the importance of individual actors with their specific agency and perceptions, as well as cultural processes of public persuasion. They also pointed to two sets of actors generally overlooked in the analysis of energy regimes. For one, they focused on incumbents, who enjoyed powerful positions in the old regimes, but were also influential in shaping the transition to a new or complementary regime. For another, they examined energy workers, who often organized themselves collectively to initiate bottom-up changes in the energy sector. The panel discussion addressed how different kinds of actors could influence the way energy regimes were framed and what kinds of meanings were attached to them. These reflections opened up larger questions of energy governance, energy justice, and possibilities of choice (or perceived choice) in processes of energy transitions. The discussion rose fundamental question about who belongs, who governs and who decides in energy regimes, and whether there is such a thing as energy democracy.

The third panel discussion was devoted to conceptual challenges and theoretical approaches. Examining the long history of Berlin’s energy infrastructures in the twentieth century, TIMOTHY MOSS (Berlin) challenged the two most common conceptualizations for sociotechnical trajectories, path dependence and transition. The empirical insights from Berlin revealed the limitations of idealized notions of historical change and the importance to examine the “messiness” of history found in dynamic, non-linear, and hybrid configurations. ODINN MELSTED (Maastricht) also complicated the conceptualization of energy transitions by inviting the conference participants to reflect about the factor “scale”. He stressed that energy transitions are not only neat shifts between energy carriers and technologies, but can also occur as changes in scale within established energy regimes, such as the long-term growth dynamics within long established hydroelectricity or oil regimes. ABIGAIL HARRISON MORE (Leeds) and RUTH W. SANDWELL (Toronto) similarly challenged previous research on historical energy transition by pointing out the invisibility of women and their role and experiences in those transitions. Looking at energy history “through the kitchen window” of European and North American homes, they examined the role of women and their allegedly invisible work in supporting the transition to fossil energies.

The three papers demonstrated both the necessity but also the limitations and challenges of relying on concepts, models, and theories in historical energy transitions research. The very term “transition” is a central concept that can have many different meanings, starting with its use for one overarching transition or multiple transitions in plural. As the discussions revealed, all conceptualizations require rigorous attention to definitions and terminology – and continuous critical reflection. Conceptual work can enrich research agendas and point to new avenues, such as social and material assemblages in Berlin’s infrastructure, transitions in scale, or women’s experiences of energy transitions. At the same time, idealized notions of historical change can make us blind for the “messiness” of energy history, as conceptual work requires balancing theoretical conceptualizations with empirical source-evaluation.

Overall, the workshop gave rise to fruitful and thought provoking discussions about the nature of historical energy transitions. These discussions highlighted the diversity of research on this topic, ranging from grand shifts to small-scale substitutions of energy carriers and technologies, shifts in governance, or in scale. The contributions to this workshop emphasized the necessity to take into account often overlooked actors, such as incumbents in old and new regimes, women in energy history, and energy workers. It can be concluded that the stimulating exchange in this workshop showed the need to further discuss, challenge, and specify the concept of energy transition in future research.

Conference Overview:

Parallel Panel 1: Inter- and Transnational Perspectives on Energy Transitions
Chair: Jan-Henrik Meyer

Sebastian De Pretto (Lucerne), “Reflections on a Transnational-Environmental History of Reservoir Construction in the Alps (1870-1974)”

Dante LaRiccia (Yale), “To Each Their Own: Energy Transition and Conceptual Difference in the Web on UN Institutions”

Tsaiying Lu (Maastricht), “Energy Transition in-the-Making: How Offshore Wind Energy Interacts with Local Society in Taiwan”

Panagiotis Kazantzas and Aristotle Tympas (Athens), “Sustainability Transitions and Mega Energy Projects: The Case of Project Helios”

Parallel Panel 2: Shifts in Energy Regimes?
Chair: Ute Hasenöhrl

Kristoffer Ekberg (Göteborg), “Path-Dependent Transitions? Climate Change and Nuclear Power in the Swedish 1970s”

Michiel Bron (Maastricht), “Preserving Agency in Energy Transitions: A Closer Look at the Position of Oil Actors within the Development of Nuclear Energy”

Nicolas Chachereau (Lausanne), “How the Swiss Debated Pipelines and Refineries in the 1960s – And Thought about Energy and Transitions”

Trish Kahle (Georgetown), “Energy Citizenship: The Coal-Fired Social Contract and the American Century“

Panel 3: Conceptual Challenges and Theoretical Approaches
Chairs: Jan-Henrik Meyer and Ute Hasenöhrl

Timothy Moss (Berlin), “Usable Infrastructure Pasts: Mobilizing History for Urban Energy Futures”

Odinn Melsted (Maastricht), “Transitions in Scale: Incorporating the Factor Scale in Historical Energy Transition Research”

Abigail Harrison Moore (Leeds) and Ruth W. Sandwell (Toronto), “Through the Kitchen Window: Understanding Energy through Women’s Domestic Experiences”