New perspectives on urban energy governance

Last week I attended a fascinating two-day workshop organized by the Laboratoire Techniques, Territoires and Sociétés (LATTS) in Paris. The event focussed on urban energy governance in the global North and South, featuring a wide range of presentations from some of the most prominent researchers in the field. Its broad remit and interdisciplinary focus allowed the gathering to tackle some of the key ongoing debates at the nexus of inter alia, urban studies, energy policy and critical infrastructure theory.

The social vulnerabilities and practices associated with urban socio-technical transitions were one of the workshop’s key themes. Here, I would single out Hélène Subremon’s exploration of the everyday tactics and strategies adopted by French households dealing with energy poverty, as well as Idalina Baptista’s analogous work on the use of prepayment meters in Mozambique. It was in this session that I presented some of the recent work that we have been doing with Saska Petrova on the depoliticization of energy poverty at the transnational and urban scale within the EU.

Numerous papers explored the meanings, practices and policies associated with low carbon urban transitions across the world. Timothy Moss, Sören Becker and Matthias Naumann  critiqued the infrastructural and regulatory configurations emerging from the German energiewende, while Eric Vedeil explored these issues via a more fine-grained focus on the increased use of natural gas in cities such as Cairo and Istanbul. Harriet Bulkeley, Pauline McGuirk and Robyn Dowling’s paper highlighted the complex policical trajectories of Australia’s path towards decarbonization with the aid of, unusually, a Gramscian framework; this part of the conference also featured presentations by Jochen Mondstadt and Anika Wolff (on the ways in which urban energy ‘regimes’ in LA which contravene the general neoliberal logic of electricity restructuring in the US) and Jonathan Silver and Simon Marvin (on the urban inequalities associated with ongoing energy reconifigurations in Cape Town).

Many papers highlighted the crucial role that can be played by local authorities in effecting low carbon urban transformations. Janette Webb, Sylvy Jaglin/Alain Dubresson, and Catalina Duque Gomez powerfully demonstrated this via case studies based in, respectively, Aberdeen, Cape Town and Medellín. The broader systemic challenges associated with this process – particularly with respect to utility company engagement – were explored in presentations by Ronan Bolton and Matthew Hannon (who investigated the functioning of ESCOs in the UK), Laure Criqui and Marie-Hélène Zérah (in a mould-breaking paper on the strategies employed by power companies in Delhi) and Morgan Mouton (on electricity reform in the Philippines). Thomas Blanchet and Andrew Karvonen focused on civic and community participation via papers on, respectively, Berlin and the UK. Also of note were a group of contributions that scrutinized the broader material and political path-dependencies that influence the evolution of urban formations under conditions of socio-technical change: Philip Späth and Harald Rohracher’s work on Freiburg, Joanthan Silver’s paper on Accra, and Jonathan Rutherford’s Stockholm-based study.

Debates at the workshop highlighted the need for considering the broader purpose of energy reconfigurations at the urban scale, which emphasize the manner in which energy is always interwoven into wider socio-technical aspirations and uses. Other points of discussion included the multi-faceted nature of socio-technical transitions (especially the lack of a clear starting and ending point, and the multi-directional, messy and contingent nature of the process) as well as the need for a closer consideration of the extent to which cross-cutting themes in energy governance can be detected at a global scale.

Jonathan Rutherford's presentation. The workshop was held at the CNRS site in Gif-sur-Yvette.
Jonathan Rutherford presents his paper. The workshop was held at the CNRS site in Gif-sur-Yvette.

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