The twin imperatives of global energy transitions

Globally, we are facing two different but simultaneous energy transformations. The imperatives driving these two changes are grounded in two different contexts. One is aimed towards a future global energy system that is carbon-free to deal with the climate change problem. The second, for areas without modern energy access primarily in rural parts of the developing world, involves the arrival of modern energy services. If we consider the types of geographies seeking change in energy systems and put them on a spectrum, we see a range of characteristics bounded by two extreme cases. At one end, we have a Western European town with at least a century old modern energy infrastructure. This infrastructure should continue to provide the same level of service, but must be transformed to have lower environmental footprint. At the other end is a remote village in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the expanding frontier of energy infrastructure (modern energy) is yet to reach. Here, the new infrastructure is meant to provide a new energy service to people who need to increase their useful energy consumption to improve their well-being.

Both these cases seek policy interventions, to move towards carbon free energy systems in one case, and to bring electricity access to households without it in the other. In geopolitical circles, the global development and environment related policy agenda often assumes convergence between the two projects. This assumption is readily challenged in practice. In that village in Sub-Saharan Africa, any significant change in the energy system has a profoundly different meaning than its Western European counterpart. A solar-based electricity system in such a place is not only paving way for a low carbon energy system (hence meeting the goals of sustainability transition), it is also facilitating a transition to modern life – by having electricity as a catalyst for improving socio-economic well-being. For the energy poor, this transition is transformative. Arrival of electricity, for example, changes the very meaning of energy and its utility. This is characteristically different from an energy transition that entails change in the source of energy in an existing infrastructure – for example, moving from a coal-based power grid to one dominated by renewable energy.

Another important dimension in transitions relates to the socio-political aspects. The decentralized nature of new technologies has been considered synonymous with the democratization of energy systems. This raises interesting questions on energy transitions and social contracts around energy services. However, even this does not apply to all geographies uniformly. Prior social contracts matter. With respect to provision of energy services, the roles and characters of different agents (government, markets and end-users) and their existing interrelationships determine the perceptions of and expectations from technological change.

When it comes to formulating policy to affect a particular change, it is important to understand the drivers and impacts of that change. Theories on technological change have tried to explain transitions and drivers behind them. However, most prominent theories of transitions are grounded in a developed country’s context (typically in advanced nations of Europe). The contextual peculiarities of household energy transitions in energy poor regions are under-emphasized. We ought to assess the possible divergence between the phenomenon (practice) of energy access and the theories of transitions. Technologies, depending on the context, have a transformative-ness associated with them. Transition theories should be exposed to a broad spectrum of quantitative and qualitative areas of energy research. From the discourses on political ecology to research on household end-use behavior. From sophisticated energy system models to emerging concepts of energy justice. Inviting insights on energy experiences can align transition theories better with the realities of geographies that are yet to see ‘light’.