Many of the changes required to transform the energy system start with modifying existing configurations of technologies, services, or practices for use at a smaller scale [1
]. Some of these innovations are developed by people and organizations located at the bottom of a system’s pyramid, such as users, community groups, voluntary associations, and cooperatives. These bottom-up innovators create grassroots solutions for sustainable development that respond to the local situation and the interests and values of the communities involved [2
], usually as matters of necessity and in response to challenges that are not addressed adequately by actors with more power [4
The focus of this paper is on grassroots technological innovation by local energy initiatives that want to transition further towards a more sustainable energy system. Previous well-known examples of such grassroots innovations in the energy sector include the Austrian solar collectors and the Danish turbines developed by do-it-yourself builders and local craftsmen. Studies of these cases [1
] and of other user-designed and managed energy systems [7
] demonstrate how energy consumers can take up new roles going far beyond passive consumption, and can be initiators, managers, developers, and co-developers of new technological solutions that are better adjusted to local values, needs, and desires, and that have a widespread impact on energy provision.
Some Dutch energy initiatives have also produced innovative technological solutions. Examples include an experimental church heating and ventilation system that increased energy efficiency as well as comfort, and a hydroelectric power station that has been integrated into a sluice gate [13
]. These cases show that local energy initiatives tinker with technologies and methods for their implementation, leading to innovative arrangements of localities, actors, and technologies. De Vries et al. conceptualize these outcomes as “configurational user innovations
”, which they define as “user designed arrangements of loosely related sets of components
] (p.51). Innovation can thus be understood as the alignment of technical components, people, organizations, policies, business cases, physical characteristics of the site, skills, and local goals and values in a network.
Portraying innovations as networks of social, material, and discursive elements enables us to study how local energy initiatives connect these diverse elements into innovative configurations [3
]. These networking processes are particularly interesting to study, because energy initiatives, which are often voluntary organizations, have limited resources and have few existing structures to guide their innovative endeavors. They need to find a way to develop from idea to implementation without a pre-existing innovation management structure as would be the case in many commercial environments, i.e., a systematic process from strategy building to implementation [14
]. In addition, innovating requires experimentation and creates uncertainty, which exerts pressure on the relationships that need to be formed and maintained for a working configuration.
Accordingly, local energy initiatives have to build the structure to facilitate innovation almost from scratch and under challenging conditions. We therefore expect that the innovation process largely depends on how the energy initiatives engage in networking and we consider the following questions: how do local energy initiatives create a network that enables the development and implementation of innovative technological configurations? What conditions facilitate, and what conditions hinder, network building?
With a focus on network dynamics, we aim to contribute to a deeper understanding of how grassroots energy innovations emerge and gain robustness. A wide array of scholars use the multi-level perspective (MLP) and strategic niche management (SNM) to analyze grassroots innovations as niche dynamics [2
]. Quite often these studies address how grassroots innovation niches can be strengthened by, e.g., sharing information and facilitating learning processes through intermediaries [9
In these studies, local energy initiatives are depicted as a niche, opposing and challenging the powerful actors in the prevailing energy regime. However, until now only limited attention is given to how innovations emerge from within local energy niches [20
]. For addressing this question, the MLP and SNM framework are less suitable as they primarily focus on meso and macro level dynamics, whereas this paper aims to contribute insight into the local micro level network dynamics through which an innovative technological configuration is being shaped. Therefore, this paper takes a novel approach and uses actor network theory (ANT) as the theoretical lens. As we will argue in the next section, a micro level ANT analysis can add new insights to existing work on grassroots innovation dynamics.
2. Theoretical Lens
This paper analyses network construction from an ANT perspective to obtain a better understanding of how energy initiatives can align various elements into a network that enables the realization of an innovative technological configuration [20
]. The ANT framework permits the interpretation of power and influence in networks at a micro level. It does not dichotomize structures and agents, nor humans and non-humans, but includes people, institutions, and the non-human realm as the scope for analysis [24
]. Especially, because of the socio-technical nature of local energy projects, it is valuable to not only focus on human interaction, but also take into account the technical and other material aspects in the innovation process.
More specifically, we will use Callon’s sociology of translation [21
] as this framework provides us with concepts to study how energy initiatives can develop innovative energy configurations by building a network. A core concept is “translation,” which Callon defines as the interactional process of connecting during which the actors’ identity and their margins of manoeuvre are negotiated and delimited [21
]. Callon has conceptualized this interactional process of connecting as phased (see Section 2.2
) and these phases are particularly useful to understand various stages of network development within an innovation process. In this section, we will further introduce our theoretical lens.
2.1. ANT and Energy Initiatives
ANT follows actors during the development of a network [20
]. As energy initiatives are the focus of our research project, we used their interactions as a starting point. Furthermore, ANT regards all elements in the socio-technical network as actants that possess agency. Possessing agency here means making or stimulating change in another entity or network [25
]. The agency in a socio-technical network is shaped by the connections that constitute the network, and the durability and stability of these connections.
Agency can be exerted by human and other actants. In the case of a community energy project, human actants can, for instance, be the owners of a potential site for renewable energy (RE), and municipalities that can issue or deny building permits to energy initiatives or change land zoning plans. The category of non-human actants is diverse, including nature, technical, and material structures and texts (such as scientific accounts and laws) [25
]. For example, a protected bat species living at the site of a proposed RE installation exerts agency through environmental protection laws and mechanisms for environmental impact assessment built into permit procedures, as well as through environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) representing its interests. The qualities of a site, such as its dimensions, soil type, and location relative to other infrastructure, impact the design options. For example, having a grid connection with enough capacity available at the site saves costs and makes it easier to achieve a viable business model. As these examples show, non-human actants possess agency and influence the success of a community energy project. They need to be taken into account as actants to be followed during network construction, just like human actants.
2.2. Analysing Network Development
In following network development, ANT is not primarily concerned with mapping only the interactions between actors, but rather with mapping “the way in which they define and distribute roles, and mobilize or invent others to play these roles
] (p. 285). ANT characterizes this process of actors struggling over inclusion within particular networks as translation. Translation is the process of making connections between a multitude of elements involved in a system and their meanings, such that they can be related in a socio-technical network [23
]. It is therefore about relating things that were previously unconnected. Consequently, the identities of the actants involved and the meanings that they attach to various aspects of the project are fluid and can be intentionally influenced by actors in the translation processes. Callon [21
] argues that such translation dynamics occur in four phases: problematization, interessement, enrolment, and mobilization. We will elaborate on these terms below, using examples from the community energy context.
The first phase of network building is the problematization phase. As the initial network builder, the energy initiative needs to problematize the situation and make itself indispensable to other actants by creating an obligatory passage point. This obligatory passage point can be established by firstly defining a problem with a certain urgency and importance, and then convincing the desired partners that this problem can only be resolved by cooperating with the energy initiative. An important means through which energy cooperatives can do this is by defining themselves as a necessary partner to meet sustainability targets.
After creating a shared problem definition, an energy initiative needs to create interessement, which is a series of processes by which the energy initiative can lock actants into the roles that it proposes. In this phase, the interest of the actant is defined, and potentially also redefined if the actant succeeds in negotiating inclusion in the network on different terms than the energy initiative proposed.
Interessement is realized by the initiative through interposition, which means putting itself or a third party between two actants, often to intervene in their activities and bend their actions to another cause. This is realized with the help of so-called interessement devices, which can be technologies but also policies, laws, or resources such as money. These devices are used to stabilize the connection between the energy initiative and the actant that it wants to engage, and weaken possible links between the actant and entities which may threaten the alliance. The interessement device is of particular importance to the energy initiative with respect to actants for whom the energy initiative cannot truly be an obligatory passage point.
Subsequently, if interessement is successful, the energy initiative has to enrol actants in the network by interconnecting the various roles into a productive network. Interessement devices are powerful tools for structuring the relationships in a socio-technical network. An example of an interessement device is a grant, which connects the government that allocates it, the recipient energy initiative, and the actants, such as a project developer or a consultancy firm conducting feasibility studies that the energy initiative pays for using the grant money.
refers to making “entities mobile, which were not so beforehand” [21
] (p. 14). For actants that first need to be detached from other actants, this phase also refers to this displacement and necessary changes in alliances. However, the connections made in a socio-technical network can be contested at any moment, making the mobilized state a potentially volatile one [21
Using a case study design, we empirically studied the translation dynamics of two local energy initiatives that were in the process of developing an innovative energy configuration in their municipality. From beneficial and unbeneficial moments of translation along the project development process, we can learn how and under what conditions energy initiatives can engage with potential facilitators, align them with their innovation projects, and keep themselves dissociated from actants that obstruct their progress.
3.1. Conceptualization of Core Concepts
This paper focuses on the development of innovative technological configurations in which local energy initiatives play a key role. It is therefore important to elaborate on how we will conceptualize the two core concepts.
We use the conceptualization provided by Boon to define local energy initiatives
, and characterize them as initiatives “initiated and managed by actors from civil society, that aim to educate or facilitate people on energy use and efficiency, to enable the collective procurement of renewable energy or technologies, to provide, generate, treat or distribute renewable energy derived from various renewable resources for consumption by inhabitants, participants or members who live in the vicinity of the renewable resource or where the renewable energy is generated” [26
] (p. 10).
Based on the work of Peine and Fleck, we define innovative technological configurations
in this research as new and productive alignments between local actors, RE technologies, and localities made under prevailing socioeconomic, spatial-physical, and institutional circumstances [27
]. In line with Fleck, we use the notion of technological configurations
instead of technologies
to emphasize that local energy projects do not focus on purchasing RE technology and using it off the shelf; instead, we center on the setup or configuration shaped by the energy initiative to serve the local context [27
]. Therefore, the identity of a technology gets shape during the configuration process, and evolves during project development as a result of learning processes. Other parts of the configuration, such as the actors executing project development and the site where the configuration is implemented, also evolve [28
We consider a technological configuration innovative
when it yields any kind of value (social, economic, or environmental) “in the form of new or improved functionality or quality, reduced cost, better or more widespread availability (i.e., bringing a new tool or capability to a location where it had not been available before), … [price], or some combination of any or all of these” [14
] (p. 12).
3.2. Case Study Method
To analyze how energy initiatives create a network with the agency for the implementation of an innovative technological configuration, we looked closely at two projects through a case study design. The case study design allowed us to research the project-level network construction processes during project development, and to identify beneficial and less beneficial translation attempts: the events in which connections are made and lost. The cases illustrate how energy initiatives can organize agency by defining and distributing roles and making other parties play these roles, to build a technologically innovative energy configuration.
We increased the external validity of our findings by selecting energy initiatives that had to start their innovative projects from scratch (neither finance nor location were provided upfront, which is the starting point for most local energy initiatives). By doing so, we gained insight into the whole process of network construction and translation and captured a set of common steps that virtually all technologically innovative energy projects need to go through: invention, testing the technological configuration, securing a location, finding investors and other partners, and obtaining the necessary permits and grants.
As a first exploratory step, an expert in the field of community energy was interviewed to identify potential cases. After a round of initial conversations with representatives from several of the suggested energy initiatives who were contacted by email, two projects were then selected for the richness of their networks and their interactions in these networks: the BrummenEnergie
solar park, which is under development at the paper landfill site in its eponymous municipality, and the planned floating solar park of Stichting Betuwe Energie
. These two cases represent two different ways that a new technological configuration can be realized: one case shows how improving an existing technology can start within a community initiative, and the second case shows how an innovative configuration can be achieved by collaborating with the developer of an innovative technology in a pilot study (these ideas are introduced further in Section 3.2.1
and Section 3.2.2
While neither of these two projects have reached the implementation phase, both have been through almost the entire project development process and are now at the point where they only need to secure their feed-in tariff Stimulation regulation Sustainable Energy production+ (in Dutch: Stimuleringsregeling Duurzame Energieproductie+, SDE+), which is allocated twice a year. Our analysis of the translation dynamics therefore focuses on the initiating and developmental phase of the two innovative technological configurations and leaves out the implementation phase. However, the most important alignments have to be made before implementation. Once the subsidy is allocated, the energy initiatives can activate the actants needed for implementation relatively easily, as the project has then truly proven its economic viability.
3.2.1. BrummenEnergie: A Solar Park on a Local Landfill Site
is working on a solar park to provide energy for approximately 1200–1400 households. It occupies 12 ha situated at a paper landfill site in Eerbeek, a settlement in the municipality of Brummen. Developing a solar park on a landfill site poses legal challenges as this complementary land use initially conflicted with the Landfill and Soil Protection Decree 1993 (Stortbesluit bodembescherming
), but besides the legal dimension, the technical dimension of this project is also complex. Instability of the ground due to subsidence of the paper waste meant that regular solar PV panels and a lighter and more experimental solar film were both considered from an early stage. The first option was a 15,000 panel and roughly 4.5 MW PV installation with a stabilizing foundation. The alternative was an experimental solar film generating about 100 kWh/m2
/year, consisting of lightweight and flexible thin-film silicon solar cells on long foil substrates. This film is very flexible, making the technology applicable for covering rooftops and facades, for instance, and potentially also a landfill site. The amorphous nanocrystalline silicon tandem cells yield product efficiencies exceeding 10% (commercial solar panels yield from 9% to 21% [29
]). Although the yield would not be very high, thin-film is less expensive per m2
and could cover a greater surface than solar panels, which would partly make up for the efficiency difference with the panels. The difference in the potential yields would also be nullified because of a grid limitation. The socio-technical network developed while working on this project was therefore strongly focused on finding the combination of an appropriate technology and a viable business model that could fit within the regulations for managing the landfill.
3.2.2. Stichting Betuwe Energie, a Floating Solar Park in a Sand Excavation Lake
Stichting Betuwe Energie is in the process of developing a 1.4 ha floating solar installation consisting of 10,800 panels on lake Eisenhower in Elst, a settlement in the municipality Overbetuwe. Its calculated capacity is 1.9 MW and the electricity will be supplied to local industries. The project was started by a retired bank manager, who cooperated closely with the municipality for years as a sustainability consultant, advising residents on solar panels for their homes through his solar collective Overbetuwe foundation. The technology for this floating solar field was developed by an acquaintance of his, a retired engineer, who developed the concept of floating solar PV by adding an innovative mechanism permitting the installation to follow the sun, to increase its yield by about 35%. The installation normally turns 180 degrees (with a maximum of 270 degrees) in twelve hours, while also continuously adjusting the angle of the panels to obtain perpendicular irradiation during the daytime.
While the bank manager worked towards the establishment of a cooperative to develop the project, the engineer continued improving the technology and established a start-up company. The floating solar project is therefore dependent on the development of two partly interwoven socio-technical networks: one around the implementation of the project and one concerned with the development and marketization of the solar tracking technology.
3.3. Data Collection and Analysis
The empirical data was retrieved from three types of sources: local energy initiative websites (e.g., various online news updates), internal documents provided on request by the local energy initiatives, and semi-structured interviews. As displayed in Table A1
in Appendix A
, a total of thirteen semi-structured interviews were conducted with actors involved in the development of the two projects (either by phone or face-to-face). The role of non-human actants has been analyzed from the perspective of the various human stakeholders in the project.
The interviews explored the various moments of translation during project development. They were structured to answer the following questions regarding the translation processes within the cases and also informed the structure of the results section:
Problematization: (i) which problem definition underlies the project and (ii) how has it been formulated?
Interessement: (i) what roles were identified by the local energy initiative, (ii) what are the resources associated with these roles, (iii) at which stage did these roles need to be fulfilled, (iv) which interessement devices were used by the local energy initiative and other actors, and (v) how were the actors persuaded by the various interessement devices to play the roles proposed to them?
Enrolment: (i) how were alignments achieved between the human and non-human members of the network to further the innovation process, and (ii) how did interessement devices help to interrelate parts of the network?
Mobilization: (i) which actants were mobilized, (ii) how durable was the mobilization, and (iii) are there any future threats to this mobilization?
All of the data were analyzed thematically using the translation phases as guiding concepts. Where possible, the data were triangulated by using various sources to collect specific information (interviews, websites, and documents) and by repeating the same semi-structured interview with multiple interviewees. Moreover, the interpretation of the data was checked with the interviewees.
5. Discussion and Conclusions
In this final section of this paper, we draw conclusions and core lessons for successful socio-technical network development by technologically innovative energy initiatives from the empirical results.
From the development of the actor networks in the case studies, we can conclude that local energy initiatives initially develop innovative technological configurations on an ad hoc and step-wise learning as we go basis, in a process that becomes more structured as the projects progress. The research supports our hypotheses that innovation increases the difficulty of project development, and that the outcomes of the innovation processes are very dependent on the networking capabilities of the energy initiatives. We will explore this in more detail in this section. We present and discuss our five main conclusions on how local energy initiatives can create actor networks in which the alignments between actants build up to functional innovative technical configurations. While the explanatory power of the two cases is certainly limited, we researched the literature on grassroots innovation to see whether our conclusions fit with what has previously been found.
5.1. Innovating by Linking to the Local
Local energy initiatives develop RE projects through seizing “local opportunities for synergies and trade-offs with local actors, such as entrepreneurs, public bodies or citizens,” and by linking to the systemic functions of the “local landscape such as agriculture, water treatment, social care, housing and leisure” [34
] (p. 175). The energy initiatives studied also started from an awareness of the local circumstances and sought to develop their project to fit with these circumstances and to create synergies by aligning their goals with those of other local actants where possible. At various points in the translation process, this encouraged other actants to support the planned innovation. Furthermore, while we do not want to imply that this is by any means a necessary result of grassroots innovation, in both cases, the resistance of users of the area to the project played no role (and is therefore absent from the results). Other works have also found a positive effect of local involvement on RE attitudes [35
5.2. Unknowns Require Increased Scrutiny
Rigorous feasibility assessments that can convincingly demonstrate the potential to create successful alignments and functioning innovation are required within projects in which an innovative technological configuration is developed. Tangible products, such as studies performed by students or a feasibility report prepared by a recognized specialist, can function as strong interessement devices to get other actors with additional resources, such as knowledge, further networks, and capital, on board.
Strategic niche management literature has already shown that resourceful networks are key to the development of energy innovations [15
]. In the case of the energy initiatives studied, such resourceful actors primarily come from existing professional and personal networks in the early phases of the innovation process. In the later stages, they come from a wider network in which contacts from the partnering actors’ networks and unfamiliar actors are also engaged. In addition to landowners, investors, and experts of various kinds, local government [37
] and intermediaries [16
] are especially valuable partners in helping to build necessary ties between the members of the actor network that are hard to align.
5.3. Making Alignments Visible Is Key
When experimental technologies or set-ups are used, assessing their feasibility through calculations and drawings alone is often insufficient, meaning that a proof of concept is needed to prevent invisible or hidden misalignments from emerging after full-scale implementation. As alignment is formed in an interactional process with incomplete information, an actor might think that certain parts of the innovation network are aligned, whereas in reality, they are not. In the case of the paper landfill site, the connection between the solar thin-film and the physical conditions at the landfill was such an invisible misalignment. The film did not react well to the weather conditions and soon started deteriorating.
However, when discussing alignment, it should be noted that alignment does not exist a priori, but is made, optimized, weakened, or found to be unrealizable in the interactional translation process between both human and non-human actants. Alignment is made tangible in documents such as a feasibility study, a change in the land zoning plan, or an environment permit.
5.4. More of a Beneficial than an Obligatory Passage Point
An energy initiative does not have much leverage over other parties when it starts its innovation project because, as a new and developing organization, it generally does not have much power or resources. This dependence is often one-sided, and the initiative can therefore be used instrumentally by others in the actor network. When better opportunities occur, interest in the local energy project may fade, as happened with the solar project at the landfill site when the thin-film developer encountered better opportunities abroad and the pilot test results were disappointing.
In general, it appears to be challenging for local energy initiatives to make themselves indispensable to the entities that they need to develop and implement their technological innovation, i.e., to be an obligatory passage point that others in the network need to cross to achieve their goals. It is often not possible for initiatives to present themselves as an obligatory point of passage to, for instance, the owner of a potential project site or a bank. Commitment to the socio-technical network then needs to be established by being more of a beneficial point of passage than an obligatory one, which makes the interessement devices even more important.
5.5. Place-Based Versus Up-Scalable Innovative Technological Configurations
The case studies show that it is more feasible for a cooperative to create a local innovative technological configuration than to bring a technology that is developed as part of or for such a configuration to the market. It is very challenging and probably not even desirable for an energy initiative to professionalize and to create a suitable actor network with the required time, knowledge, and capital that could bear the risk of developing a technology and bringing it to the market.
However, partnering can be interesting for energy initiatives that do not find a proven technology that fits their project. For technological developers, it can be equally attractive to partner with an energy initiative in order to work with a party that will actively consider the specifications required for their innovations and implementation to succeed, and which has local networks, knows which locations are likely acceptable for projects, and invests the necessary time and effort into a pilot project. In addition, it can be interesting for technology developers to seek out a local energy initiative as a launch customer. Some innovation grants require working with a civil society organization, as was the case for the innovation grant that the solar project consortium for the landfill site was granted.
5.6. Reflections on the Value of ANT for Understanding the Dynamics of Grassroots Technological Innovations
The ANT conceptual lens allowed for a rich and detailed analysis of local network dynamics. Following the actants is useful for analyzing local grassroots innovations, as each local context and each particular technology implies a specific constellation of networked actants. The translation dynamics highlight the changing roles and identities of these actants during network-building. The new technological configuration is understood as an outcome of translation dynamics shaped in the local process of alignment, and stabilization and destabilization of networks.
More concretely, ANT enabled us to follow energy initiatives and the waxing and waning of the actor networks that they established to engage actants who could fulfil roles such as site, energy generator, inventor, connector (e.g., intermediary), advocate, authority, or provider of various other resources. Many actants were intentionally engaged by the initiatives, but others created a role for themselves, desired or undesired. Sometimes this concerned human actants, such as the RWS, who invited the floating solar start-up to run a pilot project, and other times these were non-human actants such as the lake wildlife, archaeological remains, and the weather conditions that damaged the energy generation technology. Moreover, it is typical of translation processes that actants are changed. For instance, both sites changed their identity from useless wasteland to RE generation sites and symbols of local sustainability, and the Landfill and Soil Protection Decree was translated by the efforts of the grassroots innovators and finally the Province from being an inhibiting actant to an enabling one.
Furthermore, using ANT, we were able to consider the roles of material and human actants equally in the network building processes of adjustment, molding, trying to connect, and misalignment. The success or failure of local innovative configurations, and thereby their potential to contribute to local and supra-local energy transitions, is shaped through these processes. When a project or technology development is started by advocates for energy transition, and has a heightened sensitivity to the identity and agency of other material and social actants, innovative technological configurations of various kinds are more likely to have high potential for developing synergies with their implementation context. Because they are included in the local context, energy initiatives are well-positioned to contribute to the creation of such synergies.
5.7. Suggestions for Further Research
Our study has analyzed how local technological innovations are shaped through micro level socio-technical network dynamics. We specifically aimed to enrich the literature on the project-level processes of building networks that give rise to and stabilize new innovative configurations. Here we want to raise three topics that, in our opinion, are worthwhile for further study.
The first topic is to compare our cases with other cases of local technological innovation, preferably in other countries. This would contribute to a larger evidence base of grassroots technological innovation dynamics, but would also allow for more insight into the location–innovation relation. Due to the large role of local actants and local conditions in the innovation process, literature on frugal innovation could offer useful concepts for such research [38
]. Grassroots innovation too starts off resource-constrained and asks for smart solutions to make the most of what is available.
Second, as we focused on the emergence of innovations, transfer and diffusion of grassroots technological innovation was not within our scope. Mainstreaming grassroots innovation often involves input from, and hybridization with, more conventional research, development, and investment in institutions for science, technology, and marketing [2
]. Accordingly, recontextualization and up-scaling of local innovations may very well imply broadening networks. The triple and quadruple helix model of innovation could offer conceptual guidance in understanding relationships that are formed between civil society actors such as energy initiatives, businesses, governments, and knowledge institutions [40
Third, the institutional conditions appeared to be crucial for configuring the studied innovations. A few studies have explored the fit between the activities of local energy initiatives, and national and regional policies and governance [42
]. It would be interesting to see more research into policies that are specifically developed to enable more types of experimentation with novel local energy configurations [45