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Beyond the disruption narrative: Varieties and ambiguities of energy system change

Winskel, M

Energy Research & Social Science   37 232-237


November 2017

For many observers we are entering an age of heightened disruption in energy systems – a ‘disruption narrative’ is now prominent and seemingly widely-shared. The energy disruption narrative often goes beyond the merely descriptive: it is also often used in a normative way, in that system disruption is seen as a necessary and welcome enabler of the shift to more sustainable and more rapidly decarbonised energy systems. While not denying that there are significant changes underway in the operation and governance of energy systems, I reflect here on the assumptions associated with the disruption narrative and its value as a guide to policy and research. I firstly review some theoretical and empirical research on disruptive innovation, consider some empirical evidence on historic energy system change, and then reflect on the value of a disruptive narrative in ‘energy futures’ research and policy. The disruption narrative is a contestable framing for researchers, across both ‘whole systems’ analysis and more specific technological and organisational level study, and is a problematic guide for policy. Researchers and policymakers should be sceptical of uniform narratives about change, and seek more balanced attention to both disruptive and continuity-based dynamics of energy system change and sustainable transitions.