Energy Infrastructures, Governance, and Transitions

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In thinking about energy, it is important to think about energy infrastructure, governance, but also transitions to different sources of energy. Different outlooks exist on what shape energy transition(s) should take and they do vary based on the energy sector (Sheller, 2014). For some, energy transitions should focus on military power, for other it should focus on energy efficiency, and for others, yet, energy transitions should focus on renewables (Frondel et al., 2015; Mikulka, 2019; Sheller, 2014). Energy transitions can also be thought of in terms of local governments, as well as shifts in local and international production and industry markets (Adams, 2019; Healy et al., 2019). This section provides an overview of the different conceptualizations of energy infrastructures, governance, and transitions as related to more recent literature or preliminary studies.

 In conceptualizing energy infrastructures, Matthew Huber thinks of fossil fuels as shaping the socioecologies of neoliberal capitalist regimes and their relations to consumptions of fossil fuels (Sheller, 2014). Fossil-fuel based transportation organizes everyday lived space and shapes privatized comfort (Sheller, 2014). Energy transitions can both be conceptualized in terms of networks of power and burdens as particularly related to consumers of energy (Frondel et al., 2015; Sheller, 2014). In a sense, fossil fuels govern the very basis of social structure and, thus, energy transitions should be thought of in terms of how much burden is placed on the populations witnessing these changes (Frondel et al., 2015). These networks of power and related burdens all play a role in energy transitions occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic or that will occur following the pandemic. Related to the foregoing, energy transitions cannot be achieved without taking into account spectrums of energy consumptions and demands (Sheller, 2014).  These demands can take both the form of net energy requested by consumers as well as the type of energy source that is demanded, for example the current reduced request for crude oil and its price drops at the extension of current stay-at-home measures taken globally (Puliti, 2020). But what effects do energy transitions have on societies?

According to recent literature, energy transitions can also be thought of in terms of shifting industrialization processes (Healy et al., 2019). More specifically, one can think of multi-level factors playing into the industrialization of low- and middle-income countries and the de-industrialization of high-income countries, as has been experienced in many cities across the US, particularly the Mid-West and North-East, and what these shifts in economies mean in terms of shifts in energy (Healy et al., 2019). One of the ways in which these transitions could affect countries is in terms of their energy governance, i.e. their energy policies. For example, expanding energy transitions in Germany has been reflected in increased energy prices for German households (Frondel et al., 2015). More specifically speaking, Germany’s energy transition has focused on energy renewables but these transitions have translated into Germany the highest energy prices in Europe in 2014 (Frondel et al., 2015). The foregoing is where energy transitions intersect with energy governance, particularly where the German government instituted eco-taxes to fund renewables and expand the renewable energy systems from 7% to 25% of energy production in the country (Frondel et al., 2015). Crucial to keep in mind is how these capacities will continue to impact consumers in the form of added costs (Frandel et al., 2015).

As briefly mentioned above, rising extraction costs seem to be pushing the energy market towards renewables more out of an economic standpoint rather than a sustainability goal (Mikulka, 2019). That said, debates surrounding the speed and effectiveness of energy transitions are still debated in the literature and among local and international energy agencies, like the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the International Energy Agency, even as shifts to solar and wind powers become more prominent (Mikulka, 2019). On a more localized outlook, natural calamities have pushed for energy transitions in the Austin, TX areas (Adams, 2019). As with international discussions, Austin’s energy transitions have raised concerns about the short and long-term impacts of or problems these energy shifts may yield. Additionally, energy transitions in Austin also seemed to be threatened by privatizations from local governments at the onset of financial burdens (Adams, 2019).

As later sections will discuss, it is of vital importance to address and consider difficulties that are born out of rapid energy transitions occurring in response to climate change (Adams, 2019). Lastly, energy scholars always consider the fact energy transitions will inevitably require back-up energy technologies, grid expansions, and capacity mechanisms (Frondel et al., 2015). Some questions to consider as particularly related to this field of energy are: What is the best way to address burdens of energy transitions and expenditures for energy systems and households? How has COVID-19’s impact on different energy systems influenced the way future economies are being imagined and planned? What laws and policies have sought to address COVID-19’s impacts on energy production, distribution, and consumption?How have public initiatives taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 (i.e. shelter-in-place) shifted energy consumption patterns? How has this increased or alleviated stress on extant energy infrastructures?

The following sections of this essay superficially present areas of the energy field as presented in the introductory segment above. Concepts to keep in mind are: the materials and sources used in energy transitions and how they will affect climate, sustainability, and energy justice; the role of consumption and industrialization in energy pollution, demand, and conservation practices; the drivers of energy transitions and governance. To the latter,  energy governance is also present in discussions of energy emissions and accounting for injustices (Healy et al., 2019), which will be discussed in the “Energy Access & Justice” section of this essay.

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May 20, 2020 - 12:57pm

Critical Commentary

This text discusses the literature at the intersection of energy infrastructures, geovernance, and energy transitions and the COVID-19 pandemic.