Chapter 8: Socioeconomic dynamics of the energy turnaround

This chapter deals with the relation between technical and social innovation. However, it is not the everyday utilization of new technologies that stands in the foreground, but rather the innovation of a production model which is being investigated by taking regenerative power generation as an example. This topic permits us to highlight in an exemplary fashion the problems of ‘path-change’ (when switching to a different socioeconomic development model) and the roles of social actors (in such a phase of social innovation). Furthermore, by dealing with a concrete topic, the research association tries (in this chapter) to integrate questions of sustainability strategies into socioeconomic reporting.

On the one hand, the electricity industry represents the continuity and path-dependent development of a specific production model whose basic technical and economic structures were already developed at the beginning of the 20th century: power generation often far from the place of consumption centralised in a composite system, market concentration in the form of an oligopoly of large corporations. Neither the oil crisis nor continued environmental debate highly critical of growth and of the ecological risks entailed in the fossil-atomic energy industry have so far triggered a path-change.

On the other hand, the Federal Republic has meanwhile become an international pioneer and ‘world market leader’ as far as wind power, photovoltaic, solar thermal energy and consumption of biodiesel are concerned. Nearly all regenerative sources of power generation can point to quantifiable ecologic and economic successes, after an initial phase of support through political regulation of the energy industry (renewable energy law, liberalisation of the electricity sector). Especially in East Germany, regenerative energies are considered to be a promising economic innovation strategy with substantial growth potentials.

In this chapter, we will depict this development as a socioeconomic process of innovation. Renewable energies are a radical systemic innovation their success depending on social conflicts. They result in putting a change of the production model (as regards to power generation) on the agenda. The social dynamics of this innovation – so runs the thesis – is based on a comparatively low level of interference in the predominant way of life: The change affects the regenerative sources of energy and energy efficiency (brought about mainly by technical measures), but not necessarily the consumption pattern of private households (energy saving).

Power generation from regenerative sources triggers a paradigm shift in the energy sector for three reasons:

  • The diffusion of regenerative energy technologies started in the context of a social (socio-ecological) movement which declared ecology to be the new way to take action in the energy sector.
  • New economic actors and new organisational forms of power generation emerged; these new energy producers come from a great variety of social and economic contexts (citizens’ initiatives, farmers, home owners, ‘green’ and SME company founders).
  • Regenerative power generation is technically and economically decentralised.

In report on this paradigm shift, two topical questions take centre stage:

  • How does the innovation’s economic success change the field of action, and what sort of conflicts arise from there, for example between professionalised energy producers of medium-sized companies and civic initiatives; or between economic and ecological arguments legitimising renewable energies? Can production and organisation models be distinguished according to regionally or supra-regionally embedded financing and operating structures?
  • Which conflicts arise from the necessary systemic integration of decentralised power generation supplied from renewable energy sources? How do these transform the centralised system structures of the conventional sector? At least three solutions are conceivable here: radical decentralisation of power generation, distribution and supply; subordinate integration of regenerative energy sources into the centralised system; or, thirdly, technical adaption of existing grid structures to the supply from decentralised and partly fluctuating electricity sources.

Firstly, a quantitative overview is given of the increase in power generation from renewable energies and the emergence of new electricity producers since the early 1990s. Then the attempt is made to typify these electricity producers, their production models and the solutions found so far concerning power grid integration. The most important features of this typology will be shown by examples.


Responsibility for this chapter

Soziologisches Forschungsinstitut an der Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (SOFI)