Latest INNOPATHS publications

Bias in energy system models with uniform cost of capital assumption

Several studies have recently evaluated the feasibility of 100% renewable energy-based energy systems in different world regions. In a recent article, Bogdanov et al.1 contribute to this literature, by using an energy system model that takes into account the unique conditions of 145 global subregions, including factors such as renewable energy (RE) resource conditions, structure and age of existing capacities, demand patterns, etc. Based on their results, they discuss transition pathways and calculate the 2050 levelized cost of electricity generation (LCOE) of 100% RE-based energy systems in those 145 subregions. While the paper provides a new high-resolution analysis of 100% RE systems, we believe that it falls short of adequately considering large differences in the cost of capital (CoC) when comparing the LCOE between countries. As a result, Fig. 2 in Bogdanov et al. shows the lowest LCOEs for solar photovoltaic (PV)-based systems in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sudan, which seems at odds with the high investment risks and very low installed capacity in both countries2. Accounting for CoC differences between countries changes the results dramatically, as we show in Fig. 1. We therefore argue that using uniform CoC can lead to distorted policy recommendations.

Written by Florian Egli, Bjarne Steffen and Tobias S. Schmidt

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Toxic transitions in the lifecycle externalities of a digital society: The complex afterlives of electronic waste in Ghana

This study examines the contours of electronic waste (“e-waste”) governance in Ghana, one of the top five importers of e-waste in the world, as well as the site of one of the most intensive e-waste scrapyards in the world, Agbogbloshie. At Agbogbloshie, despite the intentions of national Ghanaian regulations and hazardous waste laws, most e-waste is untreated or crudely processed via burning or acid baths. These practices release dioxins, furans, and heavy metals into the environment, invariably harming scrapyard workers, their families, and the greater urban community of Accra. However, the scrapyard also provides a critical source of livelihood for some of Ghana’s most poor, vulnerable, and unskilled migrants. The aim and objective of this study is to humanize the conundrums and challenges that e-waste invokes in places such as Ghana. Based on extensive and original field research—including expert interviews, community interviews with scrapyard workers and families, and naturalistic observation at waste sites and other parts of the e-waste supply chain—this study asks: What benefits has e-waste brought communities in Ghana? What risks has it created? And, critically, what policies need implemented to make e-waste more sustainable? It documents ten ostensible benefits of e-waste alongside ten very real and growing risks. Then, it identifies a concert of fifteen different policy recommendations as well as four research gaps. It concludes by emphasizing the duality of the e-waste phenomenon and e-waste policy, and by underscoring the political economy dynamics of e-waste activities and practices.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool

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Adverse effects of rising interest rates on sustainable energy transitions

Increasing the use of renewable energy (RE) is a key enabler of sustainable energy transitions. While the costs of RE have substantially declined in the past, here we show that rising interest rates (IRs) can reverse the trend of decreasing RE costs, particularly in Europe with its historically low IRs. In Germany, IRs recovering to pre-financial crisis levels in 5 years could add 11% and 25% to the levelized cost of electricity for solar photovoltaics and onshore wind, respectively, with financing costs accounting for about one-third of total levelized cost of electricity. As fossil-fuel-based electricity costs are much less and potentially even negatively affected by rising IRs, the viability of RE investments would be markedly deteriorated. On the basis of these findings, we argue that rising IRs could jeopardize the sustainable energy transition and we propose a self-adjusting thermostatic policy strategy to safeguard against rising IRs.

Written by Tobias S. Schmidt, Bjarne Steffen, Florian Egli, Michael Pahle, Oliver Tietjen & Ottmar Edenhofer

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Technological frames and the politics of automated electric Light Rail Rapid Transit in Poland and the United Kingdom

Light Rapid Transit (LRT) systems are often backed not only because they satisfy basic mobility functions, but because they can revitalize urban centers, affirm the legitimacy of state planners, support innovation and even cultivate an image of a city or region as progressive and modern. In this study, we argue that electrified, automated LRT systems can fulfill private functional frames, private symbolic frames, societal functional frames, and societal symbolic frames. In particular, we argue that light rail can fulfill private functional frames (making passengers feel safe, offering a cheap and efficient mode of transport), private symbolic frames (signifying political identity or exclusionary planning), societal functional frames (environmental stewardship), and societal symbolic frames (such as modernism or innovativeness, or the lack of it). Essentially, these frames encompass not only what light rail is and does, but what it means and represents, and even some of its failures and challenges. The article then identifies ten specific frames associated with two case studies of automated light rail systems, the established Docklands Light Rail (DLR) in the United Kingdom, and the emerging Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) in Poland. We find that the DLR is not only a vital part of meeting (functional) demand for mobility, it is innovative and exciting to ride, legitimation of a conservative approach to project development, a social injustice (to some), an environmentally friendly alternative to cars, and a perceived magnet for global investment into the greater Docklands area. Similarly, the PRT is not only a reliable and safe mode of transit, but also a technical marvel, a monopoly breaking symbol, a clean and sustainable form of mobility, and a reflection of either progressive Polish innovation and entrepreneurship, or enduring failure.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool and Asieh Haieri Yazdi

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Elite power in low-carbon transitions: A critical and interdisciplinary review

Modern energy systems have tended towards centralized control by states, and national and multinational energy companies. This implicates the power of elites in realizing low-carbon transitions. In particular, low-carbon transitions can create, perpetuate, challenge, or entrench the power of elites. Using a critical lens that draws from geography, political science, innovation studies, and social justice theory (among others), this article explores the ways in which transitions can exacerbate, reconfigure or be shaped by “elite power.” It does so by offering a navigational approach that surveys a broad collection of diverse literatures on power. It begins by conceptualizing power across a range of academic disciplines, envisioning power as involving both agents (corrective influence) and structures (pervasive influence). It then elaborates different types of power and the interrelationship between different sources of power, with a specific focus on elites, including conceptualizing elite power, resisting elite power, and power frameworks. The Review then examines scholarship relevant to elite power in low-carbon transitions—including the multi-level perspective, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Anthony Giddens, Karl Marx, and other contextual approaches—before offering future research directions. The Review concludes that the power relations inherent in low-carbon transitions are asymmetrical but promisingly unstable. By better grappling with power analytically, descriptively, and even normatively, socially just and sustainable energy futures become not only more desirable but also more possible.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool and Marie-Claire Brisbois

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Decarbonization and its discontents: a critical energy justice perspective on four low-carbon transitions

Low-carbon transitions are often assumed as positive phenomena, because they supposedly reduce carbon emissions, yet without vigilance, there is evidence that they can in fact create new injustices and vulnerabilities, while also failing to address pre-existing structural drivers of injustice in energy markets and the wider socio-economy. With this in mind, we examine four European low-carbon transitions from an unusual normative perspective: that of energy justice. Because a multitude of studies looks at the co-benefits of renewable energy, low-carbon mobility, or climate change mitigation, we instead ask in this paper what are the types of injustices associated with low-carbon transitions? Relatedly, in what ways do low-carbon transitions worsen social risks or vulnerabilities? Lastly, what policies might be deployed to make these transitions more just? We answer these questions by first elaborating an “energy justice” framework consisting of four distinct dimensions—distributive justice (costs and benefits), procedural justice (due process), cosmopolitan justice (global externalities), and recognition justice (vulnerable groups). We then examine four European low-carbon transitions—nuclear power in France, smart meters in Great Britain, electric vehicles in Norway, and solar energy in Germany—through this critical justice lens. In doing so, we draw from original data collected from 64 semi-structured interviews with expert participants as well as five public focus groups and the monitoring of twelve large internet forums. We document 120 distinct energy injustices across these four transitions, including 19 commonly recurring injustices. We aim to show how when low-carbon transitions unfold, deeper injustices related to equity, distribution, and fairness invariably arise.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool, Mari Martiskainen, Andrew Hook and Lucy Baker

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The whole systems energy injustice of four European low-carbon transitions

The need for multi-scalar analysis of energy and low-carbon systems is becoming more apparent as a way to assess the holistic socioeconomic and environmental impacts of energy transitions across a variety of scales and lifecycle stages. This paper conducts a whole systems energy justice analysis of four European low-carbon transitions—nuclear power in France, smart meters in Great Britain, electric vehicles in Norway, and solar photovoltaic panels in Germany. It asks: in what ways may each of these transitions result in injustices that extend beyond communities and countries, i.e., across the whole system? It utilizes a mixed-methods research design based on 64 semi-structured research interviews with experts across all four transitions, five public focus groups, and the collection of 58 comments from twelve public internet forums to answer this question. Drawing inductively from these data, the paper identifies and analyzes 44 injustices spread across three spatial scales. Micro scale injustices concern immediate local impacts on family livelihood, community health and the environment. Meso scale injustices include national-scale issues such as rising prices for electricity and gas or unequal access to low-carbon technology. Macro scale injustices include global issues such as the extraction of minerals and metals and the circulation of waste flows. The paper then discusses these collective injustices in terms of their spatiality and temporality, before offering conclusions for energy and climate research and policy.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool, Andrew Hook, Mari Martiskainen and Lucy Baker

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Climate policies and skill-biased employment dynamics: Evidence from EU countries

The political acceptability of climate policies is undermined by job-killing arguments, especially for the least-skilled workers. However, evidence of the distributional impacts for different workers remains scant. We examine the associations between climate policies, proxied by energy prices, and workforce skills for 14 European countries and 15 industrial sectors over the period 1995–2011. Using a shift-share instrumental variable estimator and controlling for the influence of automation and globalization, we find that climate policies have been skill biased against manual workers and have favoured technicians. The long-term change in energy prices accounted for between 9.2% and 17.5% (resp. 4.2% and 8.0%) of the increase (resp. decrease) in the share of technicians (resp. manual workers).

Written by Giovanni Marin and Francesco Vona

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The precarious political economy of cobalt: Balancing prosperity, poverty, and brutality in artisanal and industrial mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

This study examines the political economy of cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, a veritable mining boom for cobalt is underway, driven by rising global demand needed for batteries and other modern digital devices. Based on extensive and original field research—including expert interviews, community interviews with miners and traders, and naturalistic observation at 21 mines and 9 affiliated mining sites—this study asks: How is cobalt currently extracted? What benefits has cobalt mining brought communities? What risks has it created? And, critically, what policies need implemented to make mining there more equitable and sustainable? It documents six interrelated benefits to cobalt mining, including poverty reduction, community development, and regional stability, alongside six serious challenges, including accidents and occupational hazards, environmental pollution and degraded community health, and violent conflict and death. It then proposes seven policy recommendations for different stakeholder groups such as local and national government, industrial (and often foreign) mining companies, miners and their communities, and the manufacturers of electronic products using cobalt. The study primarily seeks to humanize the lived experiences of Congolese cobalt mining, and to reveal the tensions and tradeoffs associated with the recent mining boom.

Written by Benjamin K. Sovacool

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Climate-change induced uncertainties, risks and opportunities for the coal-based region of Silesia: Stakeholders’ perspectives

Transformation of coal-dependent regions in the European Union has received much lower research interest than industry decarbonisation. Moreover, even if territorial strategies are proposed, positive aspects are highlighted, while the risks are neglected or not addressed explicitly. In this context, we explore transition stakeholders’ beliefs and perception about political, economic, social, environmental and technological risks and opportunities for the coal-dependent region of Silesia (Poland) – the largest European coal region. A multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary assessment of risks and opportunities demonstrates that all stakeholders but NGOs consider the consequences of climate change-induced uncertainties unambiguously negative. The territorial analysis of Silesian counties based on the Prevalent Vulnerability Index scoring shows that virtually all counties with the ongoing coal mining activity are expected to face difficulties with adapting to changes.

Written by Tadeusz Skoczkowski, Sławomir Bielecki, Maksymilian Kochański and Katarzyna Korczak.

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