Why matter matters: How technology characteristics shape the strategic framing of technologies

Previous work stresses that actors use strategic technology framing—i.e. purposeful language and rhetoric—to shape technology expectations, persuade stakeholders, and influence the evolution of technologies along their life-cycle. Currently, however, the literature predominantly describes strategic technology framing as a sociopolitical process, and provides only limited insights into how the framing itself is shaped by the material characteristics of the technologies being framed. To address this shortcoming, we conducted a comparative, longitudinal case study of two leading research organizations in the United States and Germany pursuing competing solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies to examine how technology characteristics shape the strategic framing of technologies. We show that to frame PV technologies in their own favor, executives made use of four framing dimensions (potential, prospect, performance, and progress) and three framing tactics (conclusion, conditioning, and concession). Moreover, we show that which framing dimensions and tactics actors selected depended on the maturity and evolution of the technology they pursued, respectively. By highlighting how technology characteristics shape strategic technology framing, we contribute to the literatures on social movements, institutional entrepreneurship, and impression management. Additionally, by providing a coherent framework of strategic technology framing, our study complements existing findings in the literature on the sociology of expectations and contributes to a better understanding of how technology hypes emerge.

Written by Joern Hoppmann, Laura Diaz Anadon and Venkatesh Narayanamurti

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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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A dynamic analysis of financing conditions for renewable energy technologies

Renewable energy technologies often face high upfront costs, making financing conditions highly relevant. Thus far, the dynamics of financing conditions are poorly understood. Here, we provide empirical data covering 133 representative utility-scale photovoltaic and onshore wind projects in Germany over the last 18 years. These data reveal that financing conditions have strongly improved. As drivers, we identify macroeconomic conditions (general interest rate) and experience effects within the renewable energy finance industry. For the latter, we estimate experience rates. These two effects contribute 5% (photovoltaic) and 24% (wind) to the observed reductions in levelized costs of electricity (LCOEs). Our results imply that extant studies may overestimate technological learning and that increases in the general interest rate may increase renewable energies’ LCOEs, casting doubt on the efficacy of plans to phase out policy support.

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

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Time to get ready: Conceptualizing the temporal and spatial dynamics of formative phases for energy technologies

Implementing the Paris agreement to prevent dangerous climate change requires energy system transformation and rapid diffusion of low-carbon innovations. In this paper we investigate both the temporal and spatial dynamics of formative phases by which energy technologies prepare for growth. Drawing on a review of diverse literatures, we offer a definition of the formative phase which clarifies its scope and duration, and identifies its main technological and economic determinants. We use parametric hazard models to assess the relative strengths of these determinants on formative phase durations for a sample of 15 energy technologies diffusing over time in their respective initial markets. We find that substitutability has stronger effects in accelerating the end of formative phases than installed capacity and prices. We extend our analysis using nonparametric models to analyze the spatial diffusion of formative phase durations from initial to follower markets. We find that formative phase durations are long outside initial markets as well, showing only signs of acceleration in latecomer regions. Our results imply risks for policies trying to accelerate the diffusion of large innovations without ready markets in both initial and follower markets.

Nuno Bento, Charlie Wilson and Laura Diaz Anadon

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INNOPATHS workshop on the ‘Dynamics of low-carbon energy finance’

On 21 September, Utrecht University School of Economics (U.S.E.) hosted the workshop “Dynamics of low-carbon energy finance” as part of the EU commission sponsored Horizon 2020 project INNOPATHS.

In three consecutive sessions, 18 participants from the financial sector, international organisations and academia discussed the financial implications of a low-carbon transition of the European Economy until 2050.

Future energy scenarios and corresponding technology mixes have differential implications for the sources of finance. Especially energy efficiency projects pose challenges to banks and other institutional investors. But also renewable power projects still face technology operation risks and political risks. In addition to debt-providers, the energy transition requires risk-bearing capacity. In this regard state investment banks that prove the investment case are crucial for financing innovative energy technologies.

Read the summary here


We must accelerate transitions for sustainability and climate change, experts say

We must move faster towards a low-carbon world if we are to limit global warming to 2oC this century, experts have warned.

Changes in electricity, heat, buildings, industry and transport are needed rapidly and must happen all together, according to research from our partners at the Universities of Sussex. The new study, published in the journal Science, was co-authored by INNOPATHS’ Benjamin K. Sovacool.

To provide a reasonable (66%) chance of limiting global temperature increases to below 2oC, the International Energy Agency and International Renewable Energy Agency suggest that global energy-related carbon emissions must peak by 2020 and fall by more than 70% in the next 35 years. This implies a tripling of the annual rate of energy efficiency improvement, retrofitting the entire building stock, generating 95% of electricity from low-carbon sources by 2050 and shifting almost entirely towards electric cars.

This elemental challenge necessitates “deep decarbonisation” of electricity, transport, heat, industrial, forestry and agricultural systems across the world.  But despite the recent rapid growth in renewable electricity generation, the rate of progress towards this wider goal remains slow.

Moreover, many energy and climate researchers remain wedded to disciplinary approaches that focus on a single piece of the low-carbon transition puzzle. A case in point is a recent Science Policy Forum proposing a ‘carbon law’ that will guarantee that zero-emissions are reached. This model-based prescription emphasizes a single policy instrument, but neglects the wider political, cultural, business, and social drivers of low carbon transitions.

A new, interdisciplinary study published in Science presents a ‘sociotechnical’ framework that explains how these different drivers can interlink and mutually reinforce one another and how the pace of the low carbon transition can be accelerated.

Professor Benjamin K. Sovacool from the University of Sussex, a co-author on the study, says:

“Current rates of change are simply not enough. We need to accelerate transitions, deepen their speed and broaden their reach. Otherwise there can be no hope of reaching a 2 degree target, let alone 1.5 degrees. This piece reveals that the acceleration of transitions across the sociotechnical systems of electricity, heat, buildings, manufacturing, and transport requires new conceptual approaches, analytical foci, and research methods.”

The Policy Forum provides four key lessons for how to accelerate sustainability transitions.

Lesson 1: Focus on socio-technical systems rather than individual elements

Rapid and deep decarbonization requires a transformation of ‘sociotechnical systems’ – the interlinked mix of technologies, infrastructures, organizations, markets, regulations and user practices that together deliver societal functions such as personal mobility.  Previous systems have developed over many decades, and the alignment and co-evolution of their elements makes them resistant to change.

Accelerated low-carbon transitions therefore depend on both techno-economic improvements, and social, political and cultural processes, including the development of positive or negative discourses. Professor Steve Sorrell from the University of Sussex, a coauthor of the study, states: “In this policy forum we describe how transformational changes in energy and transport systems occur, and how they may be accelerated. Traditional policy approaches emphasizing a single technology will not be enough.”

Lesson 2: Align multiple innovations and systems

Socio-technical transitions gain momentum when multiple innovations are linked together, improving the functionality of each and acting in combination to reconfigure systems.  The shale gas revolution, for instance, accelerated when seismic imaging, horizontal drilling, and hydraulic fracturing were combined.   Likewise, accelerated low-carbon transitions in electricity depend not only on the momentum of renewable energy innovations like wind, solar-PV and bio-energy, but also on complementary innovations including energy storage and demand response.  These need aligned and then linked so that innovations are harmonized.

Prof. EU INNOPATHS consortium researching low-carbon transitions for Europe, comments: “One of the great strengths of this study is the equal emphasis it accords to technological, social, business and policy innovation, in all of which governments as well as the private sector have a key role to play.

“European countries will become low-carbon societies not only when the required low-carbon technologies have been developed but when new business models and more sustainable consumer aspirations are driving their deployment at scale. Public policy has an enormous role to play at every step in the creation of these changed conditions.”

Lesson 3: Offer societal and business support

Public support is crucial for effective transition policies. Low-carbon transitions in mobility, agro-food, heat and buildings will also involve millions of citizens who need to modify their purchase decisions, user practices, beliefs, cultural conventions and skills. To motivate citizens, financial incentives and information about climate change threats need to be complemented by positive discourses about the economic, social and cultural benefits of low-carbon innovations.

Furthermore, business support is essential because the development and deployment of low-carbon innovations depends upon the technical skills, organizational capabilities and financial resources of the private sector. Green industries and supply chains can solidify political coalitions supporting ambitious climate policies and provide a counterweight to incumbents.  Technological progress can drive climate policy by providing solutions or altering economic interests. Shale gas and solar-PV developments, for instance, altered the US and Chinese positions in the international climate negotiations.

Lesson 4: Phase out existing systems

Socio-technical transitions can be accelerated by actively phasing out existing technologies, supply chains, and systems that lock-in emissions for decades. Professor Sovacool comments that: “All too often, analysists and even policymakers focus on new incentives, on the phasing in of low-carbon technologies. This study reminds us that phasing out existing systems can be just as important as stimulating novel innovations.”

For instance, the UK transition to smokeless solid fuels and gas was accelerated by the 1956 Clean Air Act, which allowed cities to create smokeless zones where coal use was banned. Another example is the 2009 European Commission decision to phase-out incandescent light bulbs, which accelerated the shift to compact fluorescents and LEDs. French and UK governments have announced plans to phase-out petrol and diesel cars by 2040. Moreover, the UK intends to phase out unabated coal-fired power generation by 2025 (if feasible alternatives are available).

Phasing out existing systems accelerates transitions by creating space for niche-innovations and removing barriers to their diffusion. The phase-out of carbon-intensive systems is also essential to prevent the bulk of fossil fuel reserves from being burned, which would obliterate the 2oC target. This phase-out will be challenging since it threatens the largest and most powerful global industries (e.g. oil, automobiles, electric utilities, agro-food, steel), which will fight to protect their vested economic and political interests.


Deep decarbonization requires complementing model-based analysis with socio-technical research. While the former analyzes technically feasible least-cost pathways, the latter addresses innovation processes, business strategies, social acceptance, cultural discourses and political struggles, which are difficult to model but crucial in real-world transitions. As Professor Geels notes, an enduring lesson is that “to accelerate low-carbon transitions, policymakers should not only stimulate techno-economic developments, but also build political coalitions, enhance business involvement, and engage civil society.”

Additionally, the research underscores the non-technical, or social, elements of transitions.  Dr. Tim Schwanen from the University of Oxford, a coauthor, states that “the approach described in this Policy Forum demonstrates the importance of heeding insights from across the social sciences in thinking about low-carbon transitions.”

While full integration of both approaches is not possible, productive bridging strategies may enable policy strategies that are both cost-effective and socio-politically feasible.

Further links

This article was originally posted on the University of Sussex website.

Click here to read the full paper in Science

Is the IEA still underestimating the potential of photovoltaics?

Photovoltaics (PV) has become the cheapest source of electricity in many countries. Is it likely that the impressive growth observed over the last decade – every two years, capacity roughly doubled – will be sustained, and is there a limit to the growth of PV? In a recently published article (Creutzig et al 2017), we tackle this question by first scrutinizing why past scenarios have consistently underestimated real-world PV deployment, analyzing future challenges to PV growth, and developing improved scenarios. We find that if stringent global climate policy is enacted and potential barriers to deployment are addressed, PV could cost-competitively supply 30-50% of global electricity by 2050.

A history of underestimation

Any energy researcher knows that projecting energy use and technology deployment is notoriously challenging, and the results are never right. Still, the consistent underestimation of PV deployment across the different publications by various research groups and NGOs is striking. As an example, real-world PV capacity in 2015 was a factor 10 higher than projected by the IEA just 9 years before (IEA, 2006).

A main reason for this underestimation is strong technological learning in combination with support policies. PV showed a remarkable learning curve over the last twenty years: On average, each

doubling of cumulative PV capacity lead to a system price decrease of roughly 20%. With substantial support policies such as feed-in-tariffs in many countries including Germany, Spain and China, or tax credits in the USA, the learning curve was realized much faster than expected, which in turn triggered larger deployments. These factors together have led to an average annual global PV growth rate of 48% between 2006 and 2016.

Can continued fast growth of PV be taken as a given? We think not. Two potential barriers could hinder continued growth along the lines seen over the last decade, if they are not addressed properly: integration challenges, and the cost of financing.

Integration challenge: Many options exist

Output from PV plants is variable, and thus different from the dispatchable output from gas or coal power plants. However, power systems have always had to deal with variability, as electricity demand is highly variable. Thus, a certain amount of additional variability can be added to a power system without requiring huge changes, as examples like Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Lithuania or New Zealand show: In these countries wind and solar power generates more than 20% of total electricity, while maintaining a high quality of power supply (IEA, 2017).

Under certain conditions wind and solar can even increase system stability. In fact, the size of the integration challenge largely depends on how well the generation pattern from renewable plants matches the load curve. Accordingly, in regions with high use of air conditioning such as Spain or the Middle East, adding PV can benefit the grid: On sunny summer afternoons when electricity demand from air conditioning is high, electricity generation from PV is also high.

As the share of solar and wind increases beyond 20-30%, the challenges increase. Still, there are many options for addressing these challenges, including institutional options like grid code reforms or changes to power market designs in order to remove barriers that limit the provision of flexibility, as well as technical options like transmission grid expansion or deployment of short-term  storage (IEA, 2014a). None of these options is a silver bullet, and each has a different relevance in different countries, but together they can enable high generation shares from photovoltaics and wind of 50% and beyond.

Financing costs: international cooperation needed

Many developing countries have a very good solar resource and would benefit strongly from using PV to produce the electricity needed for development. However, because of (perceived) political and exchange rate risks as well as uncertain financial and regulatory conditions, financing costs in most developing countries are above 10% p.a., sometimes even substantially higher.

Why does this high financing cost matter for PV deployment? One of the main differences between a PV plant and a gas power plant is the ratio of up-front investment costs to costs incurred during the lifetime, such as fuel costs or operation and maintenance costs. For a gas power plant, the up-front investment makes up less than 15% of the total (undiscounted) cost, while for a PV plant, it represents more than 70%. Thus, high financing costs are a much stronger barrier for PV – the IEA calculated that even at only 9% interest rate, half of the money for PV electricity is going into interest payments (IEA, 2014b)!

Clearly, reducing the financing costs is a major lever to enable PV growth in developing countries. Financial guarantees from international organizations such as the Green Climate Fund, the World Bank or the Asian Infrastructure Investment bank could unlock huge amounts of private capital at substantially lower interest rates.

Such action could help to leapfrog the coal-intensive development path seen, e.g., in the EU, US, China or India. Replacing coal with PV would alleviate air pollution, which is a major concern in many countries today – in India alone, outdoor air pollution causes more than 600,000 premature deaths per year (IEA, 2016a).

Substantial future PV growth possible if policies are set right

How will future PV deployment unfold if measures to overcome the potential barriers integration and financing are implemented? To answer this question, we use the energy-economy-climate model REMIND and feed it with up-to-date information on technology costs, integration challenges and technology policies. The scenarios show that under a stringent climate policy in line with the 2°C target, PV will become the main pillar of electricity generation in many countries.

energy-economy-climate model REMIND

We find a complete transformation of the power system: Depending on how long the technological learning curve observed over the past decades will continue in the future, the cost-competitive share of PV in 2050 global electricity production would be 30-50%! Our scenarios show that the IEA is still underestimating PV. The capacity we calculate for 2040 is a factor of 3-6 higher than the most optimistic scenario in the 2016 World Energy Outlook (IEA, 2016b).

We conclude that realizing such growth would require policy makers and business to overcome organizational and financial challenges, but would offer the most-affordable clean energy solution for many. As long as important actors underestimate the potential contribution of photovoltaics to climate change mitigation, investments will be misdirected and business opportunities missed. To achieve a stable power system with 20-30% solar electricity in 15 years, the right actions need to be initiated now.


Creutzig, F., Agoston, P., Goldschmidt, J.C., Luderer, G., Nemet, G., Pietzcker, R.C., 2017. The underestimated potential of solar energy to mitigate climate change. Nature Energy 2, nenergy2017140. doi:10.1038/nenergy.2017.140.

IEA, 2017. Getting  Wind  and  Sun  onto the Grid. OECD, Paris, France.

IEA, 2016a. World Energy Outlook Special Report 2016: Energy and Air Pollution. OECD, Paris, France.

IEA, 2016b. WEO – World Energy Outlook 2016. OECD/IEA, Paris, France.

IEA, 2014a. The Power of Transformation: Wind, Sun and the Economics of Flexible Power Systems. OECD, Paris, France.

IEA, 2014b. Technology Roadmap: Solar photovoltaic energy. OECD/IEA.

IEA, 2006. World Energy Outlook 2006. IEA/OECD, Paris, France.


By Dr. Robert Pietzcker,  Post-doctoral researcher, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)

Technological innovation “trumps” politics

Technological innovation, often induced by national and sub-national policies, is a key driver of global climate and energy policy ambition and action. Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement will hardly affect this trend.

US President Donald Trump recently decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement. Will this be the beginning of the end for an international agreement that took two decades to reach? To answer this question it is important to understand why the Paris Agreement was signed by 195 countries in the first place – only six years after the failure of the Copenhagen conference.

Many political analysts argue that – besides French diplomacy – the key driver of Paris was that emission reduction pledges are voluntary. While this might be valid, in a recent comment [1], we argue that another, often overlooked factor was decisive: technological innovation.

A paradigm shift in climate politics

In 2009, many low-carbon energy technologies were expensive and, even more importantly, analysists predicted rather slow cost declines [2]. Contrary to this prediction, innovation in renewable energies, battery technology, hydraulic fracturing, ICT based solution etc. massively decreased the cost of these technologies, so that today many low-carbon technologies are cost-competitive in many applications. Crucially, it was primarily national (and sub-national) policies that pushed these technologies down their learning curve and incentivized innovative activities.

These cost reductions have contributed to a paradigm shift in international climate politics, from an emissions to a technology focus, from minimizing the economic burden of climate change mitigation to seizing its economic opportunities (see figure). Politicians realize more and more that low-carbon technologies can cut costs while creating local industries and jobs. The core mechanism of international climate policy is no longer to negotiate national climate targets aimed at fair burden-sharing. The new core mechanism is to draft national policies that target low-carbon technological change.



The interplay of politics, policy, technological change and climate change. (Figure from [1])

The challenges ahead

In other words, technological innovation served as driver of climate policy ambition. This is good news indeed. However, challenges remain: Cost-effective policies supporting the NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) need to be tailored to and implemented across many countries (including fossil-fuel subsidy reform and carbon pricing). Financial and technical support needs to be channeled to lower income countries. Importantly, ambition needs to be further increased as the current pledges are not sufficient to reach the agreement’s target of limiting the global temperature rise to well below 2 °C.

So what to make of President Trump’s decision then? In short: Pulling out of the Paris Agreement will not stop the technological mega-trend towards low-carbon technologies. Even the US low-carbon technology industry is unlikely to suffer from his decision in the short run, in part because states like California, but also many cities, are stepping in.

There are, nevertheless, potentially negative consequences [3]. First, the US looks likely to stop its contribution to the Green Climate Fund, which helps lower-income countries in their climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Second, the announced budget cut for US-based research in low-carbon technology will have long-term negative effects on innovation. Third, some fear that the Trump decision might lead to a bandwagon effect with other countries also pulling out. Finally, implementing policies that incentivize a shift from fossil fuels (particularly coal) to low-carbon technologies will face local resistance in the US and other countries with strong fossil fuel industries. Local fossil fuel constituencies might try to capture politics, as we have seen in in the past with attempts to reform fossil fuel subsidies. They can now point to the US decision.

Overcoming resistance

To overcome local resistance, it is important to strengthen local low-carbon constituencies, i.e. both economic and political actors forming around low-carbon technologies. Creating local jobs in low-carbon technology production, assembly, installation and maintenance is a powerful lever. The cheaper these technologies get, the more likely this is going to happen. Therefore, innovation can also serve as a driver to overcome this type of resistance.

Just one day after Trump’s decision, China and India announced that they will exceed their Paris pledges (mostly driven by higher-than-expected renewable energy installations). This leads us to conclude that the Paris Agreement will prevail. Technological R&D, at ETH and elsewhere, is crucial if we are to strengthen the new technology paradigm further.


By Prof. Tobias Schmidt and Dr. Sebastian Sewerin, Energy Politics Group, ETH Zurich

This blog was originally posted on ETH Zurich’s Zukunftsblog.

Further information

[1] Schmidt, Tobias S., and Sebastian Sewerin. “Technology as a driver of climate and energy politics.” Nature Energy 2 (2017): 17084. Link: Free access (read only):

[2] See e.g., McKinsey’s Marginal Abatement Cost reports of 2007 and 2009

[3] On June 13, ETH Zurich’s Center for Security Studies (CSS) organized an event where these questions were debated by Dr. Tim Boersma (Columbia University), Dr. Severin Fischer (CSS) and Prof. Tobias Schmidt.