STS - conferences, IST2012

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Understanding Governance Regimes and System Innovations for a Low Carbon Transition
Ronan Bolton

Last modified: 2012-03-20


This paper examines the governance of system innovation in energy sectors by developing and elucidating the concept of governance regimes. The diffusion of low carbon technologies tends to be discussed in terms of specific policy instruments and their influence on the uptake of individual technologies, for example, the appropriate design of a feed-in-tariff for renewable generation. While the design and implementation of such policy instruments is an important factor in stimulating radical innovations in low carbon technologies, we argue that in order to bring about structural transformations, or system innovations, in infrastructure based sectors, there is a need to move away from a linear, cause and effect conceptualisation of governance. We develop the concept of a governance regime in order to capture the broader context within which energy system transformation takes place. This concept draws on recent contributions to the environmental governance field, and the wider literature on state theory, governmentality and risk regulation regimes. Taking the UK as an example, we observe that there are two coevolving governance regimes shaping the transition to a low carbon energy system. Firstly, the liberalisation regime, which is associated with a market based logic and achieving marginal efficiencies, and, secondly, a decarbonisation regime, which is characterised by long term targets for emissions reduction and state intervention. In a number of respects these can be seen as competing logics. Through a discussion of recent developments in UK energy policy – the Electricity Market Reform, the smart meter roll out and efforts to promote active distribution networks - we show that the interactions and conflicts between these two governance regimes play a key role in shaping technological and institutional change. This, we argue, can inform our understanding of socio-technical transitions and their governance.