Special Issue

People’s Power – Lessons from Discontinued Local Energy Initiatives.

What can we learn from discontinued (‘unsuccessful’) local energy initiatives regarding factors influencing their development? In contrast to conventional and previously conducted studies that deal with active initiatives according to ‘best-practice approaches’, Ole Heins investigated six initiatives that have discontinued their activities. The lessons and experiences of these discontinued local energy initiatives are now available in his master thesis.
In view of global climate change with far-reaching consequences, the Paris Agreement defines the goal of keeping the average global temperature rise well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. By ratifying the agreement, 187 countries have recognised this goal and committed themselves to making their contributions to achieving it, including Germany [1], [2]. To achieve this goal, a transition to an energy system based on renewable energy is inevitable, as the fossil-fuel bases system is responsible for the main part of global emissions of climate-damaging greenhouse gases [3].
This transition requires immediate and decisive action, jointly taken by policy-makers, business and civil society at local and global level [3]–[5]. International agreements such as the 1992 Agenda 21 and the 2015 Paris Agreement highlight the importance of civil society participation in the energy transition [1], [6]. At the national level, taking Germany as an example, the Federal Government highlights the contributions of civil society as indispensable for the national energy transition Energiewende and promotes these top-down through policies such as the Renewable Energy Act [7], [8]. Civic participation in the bottom-up implementation of the German energy transition is high and in 2017 the largest share of 32% of the total electricity from renewable energies was produced by private people [9], [10].

‘The demise of the stone age was caused not by a lack of stones, but by the better alternatives that presented themselves.’ Jeroen van der Veer, former CEO Shell Oil (cited in: Rotmans, 2017, p. 65)

Civil-Societal Contributions
But contributions of civil society actors go beyond the production of renewable energies and comprise socio-technical innovations ranging from the development of new sustainable products and services, through innovative configurations of existing technologies and adaptation to local needs, to novel local organising, value creation and empowerment or social acceptance for renewable energy projects [11], [12], cf. [13]–[18]. However, the numbers of energy initiatives are currently declining and the expansion of renewable energies is stagnating in Germany, which is associated with public acceptance, among other factors [19]–[21].
Conventional Related Research Perspectives
To understand which conditions and processes enable successful civil participation and mobilisation of embodied sustainability potentials, researchers explore factors that influence the development of energy initiatives [11], [16], [22]–[25]. A comprehensive understanding of such influencing factors (IFs) can assist practitioners and supporting actors in their strategy- and action-planning [22], [23], [25]. These factors can be grouped into six clusters (1) Intern: factors such as motivation, expertise or internal cooperation; (2) Project: financing, legal form of the initiative or project location; (3) Community Sector: community acceptance or cooperation with community actors; (4) State Sector: policies or cooperation with political actors; (5) Market sector: energy prices or cooperation with market actors; and (6) Third Sector: networks or cooperation with third sector actors.
It should be noted that thus far, research has almost exclusively focused on empirical data obtained from active, and therefore somewhat successful initiatives. This research gap raises questions regarding the comprehensiveness and robustness of the understanding of influencing factors [22], [25]–[27]. Reasons given for this bias in favour of research on continued (“successful”) initiatives range from descriptions of the practical difficulty of attracting discontinued (“unsuccessful”) initiatives for these studies, to best practice approaches aimed solely at scaling and replicating success cases [25], [27]–[30]
A New Research Perspective
This thesis focuses on discontinued local energy initiatives (LEIs), in order to address this research gap and contribute to successful mobilisation of LEIs’ sustainability potentials by enhancing the understanding of factors influencing their development. Thereby, the research has the twofold ambition of exploring the unknown and comparing the known. Firstly, to create a space for discontinued LEIs to share their lessons, to learn about factors critical for LEIs’ discontinuation and to explore possibly undiscovered influencing factors. Secondly, to compare results from research on discontinued LEIs with those of continued ones described in the literature, in order to enhance robustness and comprehensiveness of our understanding of influencing factors. The following research question and three sub-questions guide the thesis:
Research question:

  • What can we learn from discontinued local energy initiatives regarding factors influencing their development?


  • SQ I – Which factors stimulated or hampered the development of the discontinued LEIs?
  • SQ II – Which influencing factors led to the discontinuation of the LEIs?
  • SQ III – Do these empirical results expand the previous understanding of IFs derived from continued LEIs?

Research Design
In order to address the outlined research gap by answering the presented research questions, the thesis builds on an interpretive methodology and follows a qualitative case study approach [31]–[33]. The power of people through bottom-up innovations is the focus of two research fields which form the theoretical foundation of the study, namely user innovation (UI) research [34], [35] and grassroots innovation (GI) research [12], [23]. Combined, notions and knowledge of the two research fields illustrate the socio-technical innovation spectrum and are therefore suitable for the study of local energy initiatives with their diversity of innovations [17], [36]. The empirical data on six discontinued local energy initiatives are collected in 16 interviews, which follow narrative and semi-structured interview methods in order to create the desired explorative space as well as to ensure comparability of the data [37]–[39]. A qualitative content analysis approach provides the systematics for structuring and coding the interviews [40]–[42].
Results – a Teaser
Individual and cross-case analyses reveal that factors of internal motivation and commitment, financial factors, and above all, factors of interaction with political actors influence the development of local energy initiatives. These influences can be stimulating, but are also associated with the discontinuation of local energy initiatives. However, the discontinuation is not monocausal but triggered by a complex interplay of various factors. The influences of factors are thereby time- and case-specific. This means that the same factor can have both inhibitory and supportive influences depending on the case and time or even simultaneously. A comparing analysis shows that results of the present study on discontinued LEIs are largely consistent with those of continued LEIs studied and described in the literature thus far. However, some of the factors that are identified in this study as particularly influential and associated with the discontinuation of LEIs are hardly discussed in the literature.
For Those Interested in Reading More
The introductory Chapter 1 defines LEIs as an object of research and locates them within the literature and the energy transition. Chapter 2 elaborates the theoretical background before Chapter 3 introduces the research methodology. Chapter 4 presents three in-depth case analyses that give first empirical insights regarding the research questions. Chapter 5 answers the research questions by first (5.1) synthesising the results of all individual case analyses in a comprehensive cross-case analysis to answer the sub-questions I & II; and then (5.2) comparing these results with the results of studies on continued LEIs described in literature to answer sub-question III. Chapter 6 summarises the thesis and completes it with final conclusions to answer the research question.
Heins, O. (2019). People’s Power – Lessons on Influencing Factors from Discontinued Local Energy Initiatives. Hamburg University of Technology, Germany.
Read more
Read the complete master thesis here.

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January 6, 2020