On renewables versus fossil fuels- games incumbents play… #Manchester #climate #LootingTIvoryTower

lootingivorytowerHere’s the latest “Looting the Ivory Tower” blog post, by Sarah Warren. Sarah worked in the NHS for a number of years and is currently studying with the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales, towards a MSc in Sustainability and Adaptation.

Geels, F. W. (2014) ‘Regime Resistance against Low-Carbon Transitions: Introducing Politics and Power into the Multi-Level Perspective’, Theory, Culture & Society, 31(5), pp. 21–40. doi: 10.1177/0263276414531627.


Their argument in a tweet: “Incumbent UK energy companies effectively obstruct the transition to renewables by exerting influence over government, who in turn set terms for debate.”
Should activists pay attention?: Yes. Current UK energy policy is being dictated by nuclear and fossil fuel industries, and addresses none of the key issues: energy security, high energy prices, climate change.
Should activists try to read the source material, or is this summary All A Busy Activist Needs To Know? Summary suffices

What’s the issue (and why should we care)?
Why isn’t the transition to renewable energy taking place more effectively, based on current rapid technological developments? What is the role, if any, of players in the incumbent energy companies?

What do they have to say?
The traditional way of thinking about new technologies penetrating a market is that innovations gradually build up momentum, then as they begin to change the market landscape, this creates pressure on the incumbent market players, destabilising them and creating a window of opportunity for the new players. However, Geels considers the penetration of renewables into the UK electricity market, and argues that the incumbent regime actually actively resists the incursions of the new players. The established market players form an alliance with policy-makers oriented towards maintaining the status quo – because of their close mutual dependency. Companies use overt lobbying, but ministers also begin to internalise the points of view of incumbent industry, as a result of close working and frequent meetings.

How convincing is their methodology?
Convincing. Geels illustrates the article with data demonstrating that UK coal and nuclear generation are both increasing. He also considers what other writers have had to say about political power, and about the framing of media coverage – which has moved on since the financial crash from focusing on climate change, to a much greater concern for short-term cost.

What would a critic say?
A highly-regarded and much-cited paper by a world-leading scholar in the field.

What else could they have said?
Paper seems pretty comprehensive. I guess he could have looked at other industries or countries, to establish if the same issues arise – although these are dealt with in his wider body of publications.

What are the implications for local activism?
Fracking continues to be pushed hard by government, and will require concerted and determined direct action from the whole community to resist. Meanwhile, obstacles (both financial and planning) are being put in the way of renewable development – so these will require very active and imaginative support from the whole community to have any chance of success.

What else do these people refer to that looks interesting?
Hess, D. J. (2014) ‘Sustainability transitions: A political coalition perspective’, Research Policy, 43(2), pp. 278–283. doi: 10.1016/j.respol.2013.10.008.

Levy, D. L. and Newell, P. J. (2002) ‘Business Strategy and International Environmental Governance: Toward a Neo-Gramscian Synthesis’, Global Environmental Politics, 2(4), pp. 84–101. doi: 10.1162/152638002320980632.



For sake of transparency – The author of the paper under discussion is the PhD supervisor of the editor of Manchester Climate Monthly.  So, accusations of sycophancy etc etc.  The author of the review (Sarah Warren) was not asked to write what she did!

For the sake of the pedants- don’t write in about the tweet being too long.  “Incumbent UK energy comps effectively obstruct transition 2 renewables by exerting influence over govt, who in turn set terms for debate.”


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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3 Responses to On renewables versus fossil fuels- games incumbents play… #Manchester #climate #LootingTIvoryTower

  1. The one major criticism I would have (based on just reading your post) is the exclusion of the interactions with GB grid actors. Although both the transmission and distribution incumbents have become much better at dealing with renewables if not always really facilitating (grid access has gotten much better after Connect and Manage was implemented and similar changes)….the fundamental technological regime of GB transmission is anathema to renewables .And I would say that National Grid has an equal role in defining UK energy policy as the Big 6, if not more so- fluctuating but often on par with DECC, Ofgem, BiS and the Treasury themselves. And National Grid is still a traditional power system engineer dominated organisation- e.g. they like centralisation and are especially resistant to the structural changes required of GB transmission (which is the main determining component of the overall GB grid architecture) if we were to move to a high renewables penetration world. They are very resistant to lowered capacity and tighter, more dynamic balancing margins- too risky for them in ‘keeping the lights on’.

  2. Oh and equally mate, I would want to look at his analysis and conceptualisation here of the role of large incumbents in dominating and delivering most renewable capacity. I mean hell, E.ON was actually broken up into two separate business a year or two ago- one for the renewables and one for traditional thermal (e.g. coal, nuclear and gas). So SSE for instance has a significant foot in both camps. So yeah, even with the lobbying role EDF has I think the other Big 6 firms and similar incumbents like DONG make the picture more complicated.

  3. Sarah says:

    Fair points Miles. I don’t think either of these issues are explicitly dealt with in the article.

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