Latest INNOPATHS publications

Volatile Photovoltaics: Green Industrialization, Sacrifice Zones, and the Political Ecology of Solar Energy in Germany

The development of solar energy has been depicted as a paradigmatic break in unsustainable global growth, largely because it is framed as an innovation with minimal carbon emissions. On the contrary, drawing on literatures from spatial justice and political ecology, including on authoritarian populism, this article analyzes the rise and fall of the solar industry and the associated failures of “green industrialization” in Bitterfeld, East Germany—an area that is characterized by political, economic, and social peripheralization, marginalization, and the rise of the far right. The development of solar energy, we argue, is merely the latest iteration of an industrial growth model that is rooted in a similar modernist mode of development. Based on original mixed methods field research in eastern Germany, it argues that many of the same inequalities that characterize fossil fuels and “gray” (de)industrialization—undemocratic and unsustainable industrial processes, the concentration of corporate power and profits, and externalized waste and pollution—are replicated by solar energy. What is distinct is the fact that such contemporary “green” manufacturing processes appear to negatively affect a wider and more dispersed range of spatial locations, also denying these locales the benefits of accumulation, production, and consumption. This unevenness reflects the reconfiguration of global supply chains over the past thirty years and the nature of green production processes that depend on a wider range of inputs that invariably produce localized sacrifice zones. We offer a spatial justice framework for solar energy, zooming in at the manufacturing stage, to explore the multiple sacrifice zones at the different stages of solar energy. Finally, we highlight the politics of resignation that is the product and foundation of capitalist realism that serves to dispossess communities around solar energy manufacturing sites in eastern Germany and might feed into the rise of the populist far right. The article contributes to the emerging critical literature that analyzes the dark side of renewable energy and, in doing so, reveals the social and ecological costs of energy transitions that continue to be underresearched yet deserve heightened attention.

Written by Andrea Brock, Benjamin K. Sovacool and Andrew Hook

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How has external knowledge contributed to lithium-ion batteries for the energy transition?

Innovation in clean-energy technologies is central toward a net-zero energy system. One key determinant of technological innovation is the integration of external knowledge, i.e., knowledge spillovers. However, extant work does not explain how individual spillovers come about: the mechanisms and enablers of these spillovers. We ask how knowledge from other technologies, sectors, or scientific disciplines is integrated into the innovation process in an important technology for a net-zero future: lithium-ion batteries (LIBs), based on a qualitative case study using extant literature and an elite interview campaign with key inventors in the LIB field and R&D/industry experts. We identify the breakthrough innovations in LIBs, discuss the extent to which breakthrough innovations—plus a few others—have resulted from spillovers, and identify different mechanisms and enablers underlying these spillovers, which can be leveraged by policymakers and R&D managers who are interested in facilitating spillovers in LIBs and other clean-energy technologies.

Written by Annegret Stephan, Laura Díaz Anadón and Volker H. Hoffmann

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Who are the victims of low-carbon transitions? Towards a political ecology of climate change mitigation

This study critically examines 20 years of geography and political ecology literature on the energy justice implications of climate change mitigation. Grounded in an expert guided literature review of 198 studies and their corresponding 332 case studies, it assesses the linkages between low carbon transitions—including renewable electricity, biofuel, nuclear power, smart grids, electric vehicles, and land use management—with degradation, dispossession and destruction. It draws on a framework that envisions the political ecology of low-carbon transitions as consisting of four distinct processes: enclosure (capture of land or resources), exclusion (unfair planning), encroachment (destruction of the environment), or entrenchment (worsening of inequality or vulnerability). The study vigorously interrogates how these elements play out by country and across countries, by type of mitigation option, by type of victim or affected group, by process, and by severity, e.g. from modern slavery to organized crime, from violence, murder and torture to the exacerbation of child prostitution or the destruction of pristine ecosystems. It also closely examines the locations, disciplinary affiliations, methods and spatial units of analysis employed by this corpus of research, with clear and compelling insights for future work in the space of geography, climate change, and energy transitions. It suggest five critical avenues for future research: greater inclusivity and diversity, rigor and comparative analysis, focus on mundane technologies and non-Western case studies, multi-scalar analysis, and focus on policy and recommendations. At times, low-carbon transitions and climate action can promote squalor over sustainability and leave angry communities, disgruntled workers, scorned business partners, and degraded landscapes in their wake. Nevertheless, ample opportunities exist to make a future low-carbon world more pluralistic, democratic, and just.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool

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Systematic review of the outcomes and trade-offs of ten types of decarbonization policy instruments

The literature evaluating the technical and socioeconomic outcomes of policy instruments used to support the transition to low-carbon economies is neither easily accessible nor comparable and often provides conflicting results. We develop and implement a framework to systematically review and synthesize the impact of ten types of decarbonization policy instruments on seven technical and socioeconomic outcomes. Our systematic review shows that the selected types of regulatory and economic and financial instruments are generally associated with positive impacts on environmental, technological and innovation outcomes. Several instruments are often associated with short-term negative impacts on competitiveness and distributional outcomes. We discuss how these trade-offs can be reduced or transformed into co-benefits by designing research and development and government procurement, deployment policies, carbon pricing and trading. We show how specific design features can promote competitiveness and reduce negative distributional impacts, particularly for small firms. An online interactive Decarbonisation Policy Evaluation Tool allows further analysis of the evidence.

Written by Cristina Peñasco, Laura Díaz Anadón and Elena Verdolini

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Leveraging private investment to expand renewable power generation: Evidence on financial additionality and productivity gains from Uganda

Effectively mitigating climate change entails a quick upscaling and redirection of electricity infrastructure investment towards clean power. Given that the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions increases until 2050 will come from low- and middle-income countries, finding cost-effective ways to mitigate climate change while meeting development targets is essential. However, recent research has shown some of the limitations of broad financing mechanisms, such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and existing carbon markets. This has resulted in a growing interest in designing novel investment support schemes, such as modifications of feed-in tariffs (FiTs) that may be more cost effective and better targeted towards particular outcomes when compared to traditional deployment subsidies or broad financing mechanisms. We evaluate the design and outcomes of one such novel support schemes: the GET FiT (Global Energy Transfer Feed-in Tariff) investment support scheme in Uganda, which has attracted ~ 453 million USD in private sector investment for 17 small-scale renewable energy projects (solar, hydro, bagasse) in only three years. Using financial modelling on detailed project-level data, we find that most projects were additional and would therefore not have been built without the subsidy. In addition, using firm-level panel data, we show that power outages hamper manufacturing performance in Uganda. In the absence of reliable outage-data for the entire Ugandan territory, we use nightlight variations to proxy changes in outages. We show that outages have declined substantially since the introduction of GET FiT. Yet, our analysis also demonstrates that programmes to incentivise additional renewable generation in developing countries funded internationally or domestically should liaise closely with grid authorities to ensure that supply does not outstrip demand.

Written by Benedict Probst, Lotte Westermann, Laura Díaz Anadón and Andreas Kontoleon

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Reducing the Decarbonisation Cost Burden for EU Energy-Intensive Industries

Carbon leakage features prominently in the climate policy debate in economies implementing climate policies, especially in the EU. The imposition of carbon pricing impacts negatively the competitiveness of energy-intensive industries, inducing their relocation to countries with weaker environmental regulation. Unilateral climate policy may complement domestic emissions pricing with border carbon adjustment to reduce leakage and protect the competitiveness of domestic manufacturing. Here, we use an enhanced version of GEM-E3-FIT model to assess the macro-economic impacts when the EU unilaterally implements the EU Green Deal goals, leading to a leakage of 25% over 2020–2050. The size and composition, in terms of GHG and energy intensities, of the countries undertaking emission reductions matter for carbon leakage, which is significantly reduced when China joins the mitigation effort, as a result of its large market size and the high carbon intensity of its production. Chemicals and metals face the stronger risks for relocation to non-abating countries. The Border Carbon Adjustment can largely reduce leakage and the negative activity impacts on energy-intensive and trade-exposed industries of regulating countries, by shifting the emission reduction to non-abating countries through implicit changes in product prices. 

Written by Panagiotis Fragkos, Kostas Fragkiadakis and Leonidas Paroussos

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When subterranean slavery supports sustainability transitions? power, patriarchy, and child labor in artisanal Congolese cobalt mining

Through the critical lenses of “modern slavery,” “dispossession,” and “gendering,” this study examines the contours of power, patriarchy, and child labor in the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). There, a veritable mining boom for cobalt is underway, driven by rising global demand for batteries and other modern digital devices needed for future sustainability transitions. Based on extensive and original field research in the DRC—including 23 semi-structured expert interviews with a purposive sample, 48 semi-structured community interviews with ASM miners, traders, and community members, and site visits to 17 artisanal mines, processing centers, and trading depots—this study asks: What power relations does ASM cobalt mining embed? What are its effects on patriarchy and gender relations? Critically, what is the extent and severity of child labor? It documents the exploitation of ASM miners by the government, the police, and even at times other mining actors such as traders or local communities. It reveals the often invisible gendered nature of mining, showing how many vulnerabilities—in terms of work, status, social norms, and sexual abuse and prostitution—fall disproportionately on women and girls. It lastly reveals sobering patterns of child labor and abuse, again at times by the government or police, but other times by families or mining communities themselves. These factors can at times make cobalt mining a modern form of slavery and a catalyst for social, economic, and even regional dispossession. However, rather than despair, the study also draws from its empirical data to showcase how mining can in selected situations empower. It also proposes a concerted mix of policy reforms aimed the Congolese government (at all scales, including local and national); suppliers and end-user companies for cobalt; and international governments and trading bodies. In doing so, the study humanizes the plight of Congolese cobalt artisanal miners, reveals the power relations associated with the recent mining boom, and also proposes pathways for positive change.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool

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Beyond the Energy System: Modelling Frameworks Depicting Distributional Impacts for Interdisciplinary Policy Analysis

Since the signing of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by the United Nations Member States and the Yellow vest movement, it is clear that emission‐reducing policies should consider their distributional impacts to ensure a sustainable and equitable growth compatible with the Paris Agreement goals. To this end, the design of environmental and energy policies should be accompanied by an interdisciplinary analysis that includes potential effects on distinct groups of society (defined by income, age, or location), regions, and sectors. This work synthesizes common modeling frameworks used to assess technical, socio‐economic, and environmental aspects in policy analysis and the recent progress to portray distributional impacts in each of them. Furthermore, the main indicators produced by each method are highlighted and a critical review pointing to gaps and limitations that could be addressed by future research is presented.

Written by Roland Cunha Montenegro, Panagiotis Fragkos, Audrey Helen Dobbins, Dorothea Schmid, Steve Pye and Ulrich Fahl.

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Low-Carbon R&D Can Boost EU Growth and Competitiveness

Research and Innovation (R&I) are a key part of the EU strategy towards stronger growth and the creation of more and better jobs while respecting social and climate objectives. In the last decades, improvements in costs and performance of low-carbon technologies triggered by R&I expenditures and learning-by-doing effects have increased their competitiveness compared to fossil fuel options. So, in the context of ambitious climate policies as described in the EU Green Deal, increased R&I expenditures can increase productivity and boost EU economic growth and competitiveness, especially in countries with large innovation and low-carbon manufacturing base. The analysis captures the different nature of public and private R&I, with the latter having more positive economic implications and higher efficiency as it is closer to industrial activities. Public R&D commonly focuses on immature highly uncertain technologies, which are also needed to achieve the climate neutrality target of the EU. The model-based assessment shows that a policy portfolio using part of carbon revenues for public and private R&D and development of the required skills can effectively alleviate decarbonisation costs, while promoting high value-added products and exports (e.g., low-carbon technologies), creating more high-quality jobs and contributing to climate change mitigation.

Written by Kostas Fragkiadakis, Panagiotis Fragkos and Leonidas Paroussos.

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Patenting and business outcomes for cleantech startups funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy

Innovation to reduce the cost of clean technologies has large environmental and societal benefits. Governments can play an important role in helping cleantech startups innovate and overcome risks involved in technology development. Here we examine the impact of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) on two outcomes for startup companies: innovation (measured by patenting activity) and business success (measured by venture capital funding raised, survival, and acquisition or initial public offering). We compare 25 startups funded by ARPA-E in 2010 to rejected ARPA-E applicants, startups funded by a related government programme and other comparable cleantech startups. We find that ARPA-E awardees have a strong innovation advantage over all the comparison groups. However, while we find that ARPA-E awardees performed better than rejected applicants in terms of post-award business success, we do not detect significant differences compared to other cleantech startups. These findings suggest that ARPA-E was not able to fully address the ‘valley of death’ for cleantech startups within 10–15 yr after founding.

Written by Anna Goldstein, Claudia Doblinger, Erin Baker and Laura Díaz Anadón

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