Until recently the regulation, ownership and governance of the electricity sector was subject to long-standing debates between those advocating for a state-owned monopoly at one end and those for market liberalisation at the other. However, this debate has now been disrupted by dramatic developments in low-carbon technologies which pose a potentially radical challenge to the centralised system of electricity and have huge implications for the nature of electricity markets, policy and planning. Within this dynamic we explore how rapid technological shifts and processes of electricity governance and procurement are interacting over time, across scales, across technologies and within the different national political economies of Germany and South Africa. We find that while the nature of Germany’s regulatory framework introduced in the early 1990s prioritised decentralised renewable energy systems with a strong role for community ownership, the design of South Africa’s national programme for the procurement of renewable electricity two decades later has privileged generation projects at the utility-scale, and in turn the large-scale corporate and financial actors that operate and own them. Yet as such dynamics have continued to evolve, more recent policies in Germany have given greater encouragement to large-scale projects built by corporate actors, while in South Africa, small-scale distributed generation has been installed by wealthy consumers in the absence of appropriate legislation rather than because of it. In exposing these complexities, we challenge the assumption that radical low-carbon technological change will automatically result in a reconfiguration of political, economic and social power structures.
Written by Lucy Baker, Andrew Hook and Benjamin K. Sovacool.