Event Report; ‘Connecting national energy transitions with changes in urban energy systems’

Professor Aleh Cherp, Central European University (Hungary) and University of Lund (Sweden)  yesterday gave a  seminar titled ‘Connecting national energy transitions with changes in urban energy systems’,  at the University of Manchester.  This below is mostly rough notes, and I may have mangled, so please don’t take as gospel.  Mostly it’s an aide-memoire and ‘things to read after the thesis’ bookmarking exercise.
This seminar was divided into three sections – a “metatheoretical framework” (less painful than it sounds, an empirical illustration of said framework (Japan and Germany’s diverging energy profiles since 1990) and then (truncated) lessons for changes in urban energy systems.

Cherp started with a shout out to the POLET network, which looks fascinating, before diving into his empirical stuff first.

This talk is based on a  (very) recent paper which compares the experiences of Germany and Japan.  Both faced epic rebuilding challenges after WW2, are large democracies with consolidated market economies (though this was challenged a bit in the Q and A – see this stuff on Varieties of Capitalism.  Even if they both are cmes, the state structures differ, surely? But I digress).

They’re roughly the same size, with strong industries, and are major energy importers.  In 1990 they looked roughly similar, with Germany having 17 nuclear power plants providing 29% of its electricity (note, not energy, but electricity!) and Japan having 19 providing 27% of its.

By 2010 the picture was very different.  Germany was phasing out nuclear power, and was a world leader in renewables, while Japan was a nuclear power leader and had insignificant renewables (though Cherp conceded that post-2010 the solar picture had shifted).  The question is – why?

Cherp then looked at ‘popular’ answers to this – see Amory Lovins’ How Opposite Policies’, citing Jacobsson and Lauber 2006 The politics and policy of energy system transformation – explaining the German diffusion of renewable energy technology  points out that saying ‘policies differ’ doesn’t explain WHY the policies differ.

The popular arguments such as ‘Germany is pro-climate, pro-innovation, anti-nuclear’ imply that Japan is somehow anti-climate action, or anti-innovation.  The idea that the Japanese government is captured by ‘atomic zombies’ doesn’t really help.  Cherp said these arguments are “partly wrong, entirely wrong and not even wrong.”

He looked at three episodes, which I will gloss quickly
1. Nuclear growing in Japan but not in Germany (15 new nukes versus nowt in the 1990s)
Why?  In part simply because demand for electricity went up (see Convergence theory Global energy use: convergence or decoupling?)

This Cherp put down to the Japanese catching up to the Germany levels of per capita energy usage

See Jessica Jewell Ready for Nuclear Energy  An assessment of capacities and motivations for launching new national nuclear power programs ?

2. Wind Power kicking off in Germany but not in Japan in the 1990s  
Germany had failed to commercialise wind energy in the 1970s and 80s, but when the feed-in law kicked in in 1990, there was a huge surge, simply because the technology diffused from neighbouring Denmark, which had – with state help at crucial moments – developed a viable wind energy industry and technology base.

[Also apparently while there are stronger winds in Japan, they are erratic, and land availability is tricky]

3. Nuclear phase out in Germany but not in Japan in the 2000s

This was to do with the 2002 ‘red-green’ coalition, where there were strong coal interests (unions and companies), strong wind interests (greenie voters) and relatively weak nuclear interests, which got squeezed.


So, Cherp then went into his methatheoretical framework, which aims at synthesising/using theories, figuring out how they relate to each other, how to bring them together.

I can’t really do justice to this section, in part because I’d used up vital and limited brain space on the empirics (story of my life).

The explosion in a word factory slide, with its arrows and dotted lines was indicative of ‘the problem’ – the one that all social scientists face, of explaining and making suppositions about causation/correlation etc without over-simplifying.

Co-evolution is a thing, in nature, politics, technology, you name it.  You need to think about how tightly couple or autonomous, synchronous or asynchronous things are.

Rather excellent  Freeman and Louca 2001  [ As Time Goes By From the Industrial Revolutions to the Information Revolution] quote –

“it is essential to study both the relatively independent development of each stream of history and their interdependencies, their loss of integration and their re-integration.”

Nice to see ‘multiple streams’ approach getting a shout out in the politics section (this is my half-ish of my new way of thinking about my case study

The “implications for urban energy” section was rattled through.and I missed some of it.

  1. “nothing advances theory better than tackling practical problems by integrating different perspectives”  (PC Stern)
  1. Myths don’t help us understand what’s going on (invoking words like ‘climate’ or ‘culture’ or specific events (Fukushima, Chernobyl) – see also how this stuff is inevitably tussled over and social constructed – you can see my blog or the ‘tidied up/de-cynified’ one that appeared on the Sustainable Consumption Institute website.
  1. Scope and scale are crucial
  1. Coevolving systems


Cherp also encouraged us to use concepts such as

Nonlinearity –  feedback loops, path dependencies, increasing returns, lock-in

Diffusion – of policies, technologies, other practices

Tension between regime stability and niche learning and innovation. [I always like the Seyfang and Haxeltine  paper on this. Video here..]


A lively Q and A then ensued, which I can’t really do justice to.  There was a bit of ‘pushback’ on the (lack of?) spatial focus (inevitably this came from a geographer. Cherp suggested that nations are not only social constructs.  A question on ANT/flat ontologies was met with a ‘sort of, but MLP/some things actually are more important/consequential/causative than others.

And yes, must attempt to see combinations of factors mattering (social movements, technology, customers, suppliers etc etc.)

On “the future”-

At one point Cherp talked about, if we take seriously just how little power policy-makers have over the wider stream of events, then social scientists who would ‘advise’ them need to think differently about what is coming.  Cherp thinks that the energy future won’t be ‘business as usual’, so we won’t get 4-5 degrees of global warming, but that we also have missed the chance of two degrees. So, 3 degrees the – and then what? We somehow stop there?  [I am probably out of date, and basing my understanding on Mark Lynas’s ‘6 degrees’, but I was under the impression that it all starts to feed on itself and you get runaways.  And in any case, with China re-upping on coal a bit, and President Trump, I think we are locked in over the next few years to more fossil fuels. So it goes, so it went.


Verdict– a very well spent two hours (three if you count the write-up) of a PhD student’s life.


Random stuff that came up

Japanese government’s ‘buy fish for nuclear security’ – way of buying off local opposition to new nukes!

Energy ladder  The energy ladder: Theoretical myth or empirical truth? Results from a meta-analysis

Energy Transition Igor Bashmakov –same percentage of energy used.

Energy Policy “Comparing Electricity Transitions”

Planetary Economics Energy, climate change and the three domains of sustainable development by Michael Grubb

Energy, We need all hands on deck, PC Stern Nature


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