Tag Archives: socio-technical transitions

Oil (and) slick: Of corporate citizens and the great energy transition.

Whose ego needs are being met? That, imho, is the key question, in almost any gathering, whether it dresses itself up as academic (aka ‘intellectual’), activist, capitalist, whatever. If you ask that question (at least to yourself – it’s a CLM to say what you think, after all), then a whole lot probably becomes clearer. Whatever the organisers tell you the meeting is about (energy transitions, flower arranging, something equally will-pass-the-time-until-the-apocalypse), it is always about (at least) both that and ego needs. Hidden curriculum, hidden agenda, yadder yadder yadder… Oh, and organisations have ‘egos’ too (Dr Freud, meet Professor Schumpeter; Joe, Siggy…).

Tonight,  Manchester Business School, – so sorry, Alliance Manchester Business School – deployed some extra security because it was hosting Dr Brian Gilvary, the chief financial officer of BP no less (the company formerly, albeit briefly, known as Beyond Petroleum). And the topic? That great mystical and mythical beast, the “energy transition”. Or rather, the energy transition that is indeed unfolding (especially over the last 18 months) but seemingly cannot/will not be accelerated to get us within spitting or dying distance of “two degrees” above pre-industrial global average temperatures (yeah, because two degrees is sooo safe.). You know, that energy transition. The one over which ink is spilled and careers builded here, in this green and pleasant land. The new Jerusalem. That one.

So, back to the beginning: whose needs? The attendees, with a need to feel informed/send ‘I came to your lecture it was fab please gizzajob’ emails. Or to be a Known Quantity. Or to virtue (or cynicism) signal. And of course to do the whole money/legitimacy fungibility thing. Whatevs.

Just about now you’re thinking how much more of this is there? So here is the tl:dr Dr Gilvary was very very clear – and admirably keen to be clear. Despite the long list of technologies on which it is keeping a watching brief (see below), for the benefit of any pension-holders who may be worried, for the next 5 years (at least) 90% of what BP does will be oil and gas. What that says about the so-called two degree target? That’s ‘not for us to do.’ Habitable planet? Even thought they’re number one oil trader in the world, ditto… But of course, the dinosaurs will tap dance, if we show them there’s a buck in it. Of course they will.

Right, feel free to give up (on the blogpost, not the living – mortal sins/imagine Sisyphus happy blah blah) at any point. Onwards with it, mostly just a chronological drive [Easiest framing, if not the best]. Apols for any innacuracies, please check against transcript, video etc. [Digressions and editorialising will be in square brackets like this].

The audience- very diverse (not sarky) crowd from all corners of t’planet. Gender mix about 45% women. Some old farts (author’s age and older) but lots of young ‘uns (doing MBAs and so on).

Opening remarks from the head of MBS. Sorry, AMBS; strategic partnership, 100 million (pounds or dollars?) in collaborative project with five partners, range of global energy industries, benefit to industry and supply chains [shades of Matt Canavan and his self-perceived job?]

Gilvary, who did a maths PhD at Manchester, has been with BP since 1986 (41 years), started by observing how exciting the times are for energy transitions folks (practitioners and scholars) and argued that the next 10 years will see historical changes. The last 18 months along have had a huge impact. However, there is a heck of a lot of installed infrastructure, so how we will be transitioning using that is anyone’s guess re: the years 2050-2100. ([Ed: this is why the word palimpsest should be taught in kindergartens].

The speech was structured around a) Energy globally, 2) BP in that (since Lord Browne’s 1997 speech at Stanford) (31 years ago) , 3) BP’s strategy and 4) what you need to do [we didn’t actually get to that]

That presentation, bullet pointed

Energy as driver of economic growth [Hmm – chickens, eggs and practice theory and creating demand to make centralised plant profitable blah blah. Grok ‘Fossil Capital’ and the that ‘Energy, Work and Finance’ piece by the Cornerhouse folks. Whatevs. Nowt on the Great Acceleration (named, it turns out, for the Great Transformation. Who knew?]

Heading towards 9 billion people. Most energy growth will come from non-OECD countries, because we’re getting ‘efficient’ (Yom Kippur war, 55mph speed limit, unless you’re cannon-balling). But China, India, and especially Africa.
Some leapfrogging of dirty tech (i.e. renewables) will be done. Oil and coal will decline, gas will increase. It is, says Gilvary, a ‘transition fuel. [Oh for a Tyndaller to heckle…] Cleaner than wood, he says.
BP invested heavily in solar 40 years ago, got out out of it five years ago (a mistake). Invested 3.5bn and wrote it off. Solar will be a great source. Hydro will ‘tick along’. Meanwhile Germany is closing down nuclear post-Fukushima and importing US coal to plug the gap (oops). [Energiewende is not done…]
Gilray thinks “we’re going to see some pretty strange things”.
US India and China continuing to use coal (hmmm, we will indeed see).
Renewables solve OTHER problems – e.g. air quality in cities [a real problem if you’re a Chinese technocrat who can’t send the army in like they did in ’89 when the little emperors start dropping like asthmatic flies].
The renewables boom not driven by Paris Agreement [indeed, pre-dates it. Overcapacity in production of PV etc.]

Gilvary recounted that when he joined BP in 86 Peak Oil was being put at 1990, then pushed back and back. He reckons there is no shortage of mostly accessible oil [would be interesting to know what his EROI numbers are]and points out that the crucial factor will be ‘societal demand’ and that therefore policy matters.

BP Energy Outllok assumptions, ‘relatively conservative’ – decline in oil demand to 2035, (I think he meant/said per capita?) offset by population growth in China, India, the Middle East, where gas previously exported is being reserved for aircon).
Oil will come from usual places, not so much from Canada (I think he was saying). US is now an exporter of course, thanks to shale/fracking.

So, to BP – has modelled scenarios around what they think will happen, fast transition, even faster transition. Why? So they have a business model that can cope with whatever seems likely. Oh, and 1 in 7 quid in pensions is connected to BP [I think?]
[Hmm. Scenarios bless them and Shell. Meanwhile, Kodak moments do happen…]

Anyway, to be verbatim “it will be policies that will make a difference”. E.g. Britain and its 2040 “ban” on internal combustion engines.

Then again “technology will get us through the transition” [Not a contradiction, but possibly a tension though not one that anyone explored in the Q and A . Me?  I was too busy virtue signalling]

So, BP; Turning to gas, because, there is a ‘fun fact’ that if you replaced all coal with gas you’d apparently come in under two degrees. [I wonder if that includes all the leakage that so often doesn’t get counted….]

Renewables are a competitor for this, and there are interesting moves re: storage..
Impact of the tech will be transformational.
And here is a list of some of the 400 technological advances that will be ‘disruptors’ in a positive or negative way.
Advanced materials, biofuels, solar, unconventional oil and gas, quantum computing, fuel cells, autonomous vehicles, bioproducts, battery systems, enhanced oil recovery, hydrogen as vector, 3D printing, perpetual motion machines, electrofuels, transport efficiency, advanced nuclear, block chain, advance wind, non mechanical ?) drilling, artificial intelligence. [NB one of them is made up. Can you tell what it is yet?]

Accelerated by (global) government policy decisions. Investors will follow -e..g lead in paint and lead in petrol not going on anymore. Therefore, he says, we need carbon pricing.

Five areas BP particularly looking at. – renewables (but not solar), advanced mobility, bio and low carbon products, carbon management, digital transformation, , power and storage.

Then followed a rather unclear ‘energy quiz’, which probably needed some piloting.

And no time for the ‘what are we to do’?

Those Q and As, bullet pointed

So, how much are you investing in renewables compared to renewables?
Lots more in oil and gas….

Has BP modelled the 350ppm atmospheric concentration that James Hansen says is needed to keep below 2 degrees? If not why not?
How would you respond to the claim that fossil fuel incumbents are calling for a global carbon tax because they know it can’t be delivered?
What can we expect to see incumbents – not the nice and cuddly BP – do to protect their stranded assets as policymakers try to policymake us to the sunny uplands of technotopia?
These three were welcomed as “loaded” [because apparently when you ask if this ‘bridge to the future’ is actually a bridge to hell, that’s loaded. Go figure.]. Like those well-known radicals Friends of the Earth do at AGMs.
And the answers were [and these are paraphrases, NOT direct quotes] “not for BP to do. Not BP’s responsibility.” [Hmm. So, happy to appear a ‘responsible corporate citizen’, but as soon as it gets a bit hot, then retreating into ‘nothing to do with us old chum’. If only there were a TV show where the phrase ‘the Game’s the Game’ was standard. Not so much the new Jerusalem as the new Hamsterdam. So it goes.]
“Global tax? Well, there are twelve US states were there is a carbon tax.”
“Not a question for us.” [See question one. What incumbents will do to delay, defer, block the transition is THE question, no? But silence is an answer all of its own…]

What premium does BP place on customers who want green instead of standard projects?
Since 2000 carbon neutral offset thing, but don’t like to shout about it because would rather underpromise and overdeliver

What products are you producing that are attractive for energy transitions?
BP  bought an outfit called “Beyond Limits” which does AI stuff, like on that Mars probe [think Wall-E]
And BP got a data mining company to come in and do in 30 seconds what would have taken them three or four months to do with only in-house expertise, so it has 2000 wells now controlled from one spot.

How is BP going to grow in the transitional space?
Proprietary efforts and tech, but also ‘things that are good for the sector’.

So, now, we know BP as an oil and gas company. What will we know it as in 2040, and you’re not allowed to say “energy”.
Gilvary did well here, since his most obvious answer was verboten, and eventually, after touching on Deepwater Horizon, came out with some stuff about adaptability and relationships. Because, yes, if you want to be any good at this transitions thing, and getting people on board, and keeping them on board, you have to be good at relationships. If you aren’t, well, sooner or later, you will in fact be found out. So it goes.
Oh, and BP is the world’s number one oil-trader.

And then everyone left, presumably most or all of their ego needs met.  And we all lived happily ever after. Until we didn’t.


Other reading.  Oh, email me.  Meanwhile

Big Oil’s Grip on California.


So, in other news, went to a truly fantastic, far smaller messier and less slickly presented presentation just before this one. Incredibly fruitful, so much to chew on. Massive props to the presenter, the chair and everyone else.  Watch this space for a review imminently.

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

The politics of socio-technical transitions #03

Here’s the third post on this topic, ahead of a symposium on Monday. You can read the first one here and the second one here.

Mostly I’ll be extolling the virtues of;

Newell, P. and Paterson, M. (1998) A climate for business: global warming, the state and capital. Review of International Political Economy Vo.. 5 (4) 679-703.


Grazia Cecere, G., Corrocher, N., & Gossart, C. & Muge Ozman, M. (2014)Lock-in and path dependence: an evolutionary approach to eco-innovations Journal of Evolutionary Economics Vol 231: 1037-1065.

with a couple of digressions and notes-to-self.

This (Newell and Paterson) is my bread and butter, and though I’d read it yonks (about 6 months), I’d forgotten how good it is, both on the theory but also the rich series of anecdotes.

Here are some clippings.

These groups have adopted a number of arguments to defend their hostile position towards action on climate change.

They have emphasized remaining scientific uncertainties concerning global warming, in order to suggest that the scientific evidence is inadequate as a basis for limitations on CO2 emissions.

They have engaged in what most commentators regard as highly misleading campaigns in the mass media, suggesting that there is no evidence for global warming.

They have argued that the costs of emissions to industrialized economies of limiting emissions will be very high, and will significantly reduce GDP.

They have also argued that this will have other economic consequences, in terms of large job losses, with a high degree of regional concentration in areas involved in, for example, coal mining, oil extraction and processing, or car production.

They have also tried to construct transnational alliances with other states, particularly with OPEC states with which they have clearly consistent interests, but also with developing countries in general, trying to persuade them that the adoption of emissions limitations by industrialized countries would have severe economic impacts on them, primarily through increases in prices for energy and manufactures (Johnson, 1997).
(Newell and Paterson, 1998:683) (emphasis added


Oil companies are often also gas companies, and in the short term can cushion any impacts of limits on oil use with increased gas sales, in transition towards an economy based on renewables. (Shell, for example, anticipates in its internal models an entirely solar economy by the end of the twenty-first century.) Coal companies, by contrast, have no such cushion.
(Newell and Paterson, 1998:692-3)


US concern to protect its energy industries again surfaced at the third meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (INC) in Nairobi in September 1991, where the USA showed itself sensitive to the energy sector being singled out and proposed that agriculture be cited as well (ECO, 1991b: 3).15 Concern for these industries on the part of governments explicitly worked its way into the text of the Climate Convention. Article 4 (part 10) states that special consideration should be given to those countries whose economies are ‘highly dependent’ on producing or consuming fossil fuels, the very economies whose transition to a post-greenhouse economy is most urgently required (United Nations, 1992: articles 4.10 and 4.8). The World Coal Institute (WCI) and other groups were instrumental in the drafting of this proposal in collaboration with such states as Australia. The fact that the negotiations witnessed governments anxiously protecting the very industries that contribute on a large scale to the greenhouse effect bears testimony to the particular strength of the energy lobby and brings into focus the problem of expecting states to regulate sectors of industry with which they share key interests.
(Newell and Paterson, 1998:687)

I had less time, oddly, for Moore, M.-L., O. Tjornbo, E. Enfors, C. Knapp, J. Hodbod, J. A. Baggio, A. Norström, P. Olsson, and D. Biggs. 2014.Studying the complexity of change: toward an analytical framework for understanding deliberate social-ecological transformations. Ecology and Society 19(4): 54. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-06966-190454 I say oddly because I used to really like the Social-Ecological Systems way of looking at things.  But it seems too abstract, too biologically driven.  I could be wrong…

The Cecere et al. paper was interesting too, and good on the differences between eco-innovations and standard innovation, evolutionary economics (naturally, given the journal it appears in!) and the types of path-dependence.

The extent to which lock-in and path dependence generate costs and inefficiency to the economy has been more carefully discussed by Liebovitz and Margolis (1995), who distinguish among three forms of path dependence. The first-degree path dependence is a situation whereby the influence of some initial events on the final outcome does not create any inefficiency in the economy. The second-degree path dependence is characterized by the scarcity of information in the initial phases of decisional process, which leads to regrettable outcomes that are not remediable. Finally, the third-degree path dependence refers to situations in which an inefficient outcome could have been avoided because of the existing better alternatives.Witt (1997) also suggests that the (detrimental) effects of lock-in need to be considered in light of the existing conditions – e.g. effective availability of better alternatives. In particular, the original model of Arthur (1989) relies on the assumption that technological lock-in amounts to foregoing wealth increases.
Cecere et al. (2014:1042)

It’s good on “cost-related factors, technological niches and complexity” “role of stakeholders” etc
Overall, this seems to be a comprehensive (disclaimer – I am not as on top of this field as I one day hope to be) overview. The glossary of terms “Definitions of eco-innovation” at the end though, IS really helpful

So, what have I learnt/what would I add from the reading?

1) blocking coalitions are a Crucial Thing

2) Cobb and Ross “Agenda Denial”

agenda denial-page001

and the counter-rhetorics way of thinking.

Other things I defo should read –
“Business and the genesis of the European Community carbon tax proposal”
“The purpose of this paper is to examine the role of business in the regulatory process associated with the carbon tax proposal. The first part of the paper describes the Community’s climate change policy, noting first the essential features of Community environment policy-making, the role of consultation with industry and the significance of the ‘subsidiarity’ principle. This part of the paper moves on to examine the carbon tax proposal and its evolution since 1990. The second part of the paper addresses the specific role which business played in influencing the development of the carbon tax proposal. The general strategy of business was to block the proposal entirely. The paper identifies the potential impacts of the tax on business, implications for corporate strategies and the specific channels through which business influenced the tax proposal, by participating in public debates, through representations to different directorates of the European Commission or by making a case to national authorities. The final part of the paper attempts ta draw some lessons about: the business position in relation to large scale environmental problems such as climate change; business responses to economic instruments such as the carbon energy tax; and the wider relationship between public authorities and business in regulatory processes. The question of whether this relationship has entered a new phase or whether there is still ’business as usual’ is addressed.”
Ikwue, T. and Skea, J. (1994) ‘Business and the genesis of the European carbon tax proposal’, Business Strategy and the Environment, 3(2): 1–10.
How does that compare to Australian coal industry (and broader capitalist sectors) successful efforts  to scupper a carbon tax in the early 1990s?

What would I write about if I could (had the time) around the politics of socio-technical transitions

  • The failings of social movement organisations (and what – in theory- to do about it) as niche actors/regime co-creators
  • The collapse – generally – of responsive states. Policy-making has become ever-more-insulated, more neo-liberalised. States stripped of their capacity, their confidence, their legitimacy.  (In the Anglo-Saxon world).