Accepted Paper:

The politics of energy pilot projects  


Harald Rohracher (Linköping University)
Anna Wallsten (Technology and Social Change)
Thomas Berker (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Paper short abstract:

Pilot projects can be testbeds for learning about new infrastructure development but they can as well monopolize and impede learning. Based on case studies of smart grid and zero emission building pilot projects, we analyse this ambivalence.

Paper long abstract:

Pilot and demonstration projects are a common strategy in supporting infrastructural change, e.g. in energy, transport or the built environment. The main idea is to create small-scale models of larger infrastructure transformations which serve as a testbed for new technologies, products, services and practices and as a basis for learning about complex systemic interactions. These claims find their counterpart in different innovation studies approaches such as strategic niche management, transition studies, and open innovation.

In this paper we will present an empirical study of pilot projects aiming at the transformation of the electricity system and the built environment: the implementation of a 'smart grid' on the island of Gotland in Sweden and the construction of a series of landmark zero emissions buildings in Norway. Based on these case studies we will ask to which degree these projects actually comply with the discourses of openness, change, and learning they are embedded in, or whether they rather are caught in a demonstration logic and are mainly expected to create legitimacy for the ecological intentions of established actors in the energy and building sector and cement their dominant position, to confirm the doability of the envisaged changes and to guarantee further resource flows and political support for certain ideas in favor of others.

In consequence, the socio-material configurations enacted in these pilot projects may differ substantially from the discourses and imaginaries of more sustainable electricity systems or buildings that accompany them.

Panel T050
Conceptualizing transformational change in energy systems and the built environment