An institutional approach to understanding energy transitions

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Energy is a central concern of sustainability because how we produce and consume energy affects society, economy, and the environment. Sustainability scientists are interested in energy transitions away from fossil

Energy is a central concern of sustainability because how we produce and consume energy affects society, economy, and the environment. Sustainability scientists are interested in energy transitions away from fossil fuels because they are nonrenewable, increasingly expensive, have adverse health effects, and may be the main driver of climate change. They see an opportunity for developing countries to avoid the negative consequences fossil-fuel-based energy systems, and also to increase resilience, by leap-frogging-over the centralized energy grid systems that dominate the developed world. Energy transitions pose both challenges and opportunities. Obstacles to transitions include 1) an existing, centralized, complex energy-grid system, whose function is invisible to most users, 2) coordination and collective-action problems that are path dependent, and 3) difficulty in scaling up RE technologies. Because energy transitions rely on technological and social innovations, I am interested in how institutional factors can be leveraged to surmount these obstacles. The overarching question that underlies my research is: What constellation of institutional, biophysical, and social factors are essential for an energy transition? My objective is to derive a set of "design principles," that I term institutional drivers, for energy transitions analogous to Ostrom's institutional design principles. My dissertation research will analyze energy transitions using two approaches: applying the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework and a comparative case study analysis comprised of both primary and secondary sources. This dissertation includes: 1) an analysis of the world's energy portfolio; 2) a case study analysis of five countries; 3) a description of the institutional factors likely to promote a transition to renewable-energy use; and 4) an in-depth case study of Thailand's progress in replacing nonrenewable energy sources with renewable energy sources. My research will contribute to our understanding of how energy transitions at different scales can be accomplished in developing countries and what it takes for innovation to spread in a society.