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Atmospheric Sciences & Global Change
Research Highlights

February 2012

Driving Change in Technology

Public policy moves energy technology transformation

Industry Changes
Researchers found two dominant factors that steer an energy technology transformation. Enlarge Image

Results: To steer an energy technology change you must understand the factors that can drive such a change. Scientists from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland, working at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, found that domestic policy decisions and characteristics of the technology itself are the dominant factors in large-scale energy transitions. The researchers looked at past technology revolutions in biomass and nuclear energy systems in three countries. They found that public policies and regulations were powerful motivators to accelerate development and adoption of new technologies.

Why It Matters: Reducing greenhouse gases to limit climate change means societies must make tough decisions. So it makes sense to find the most effective ways to encourage those hard choices. How does a technology revolution happen? Why does one new technology "win" over another? Market influences may seem a clear and obvious choice. But decision-makers need to understand the forces of institutional, behavioral, and social factors as well. Knowledge of the influencing factors, viewed through the lens of history, will make the race to beat climate change easier.

"If we're going to get serious about solving climate change, we'll need a technology revolution. This study breaks new ground in understanding the forces that are most important to make the large-scale move to renewable energy technologies," said Dr. Elizabeth Malone, a research scientist at JGCRI.

Factor responses in the study show determinative rankings for all cases by their cumulative frequency. KEY, from the top down: MISC (miscellaneous); FIR (firm structure and organization); DEC (decision-making characteristics of the firm); REG (regulation); INT (international policy and foreign affairs); SEC (characteristics of the industry or sector); CC (corporate culture); TEC (characteristics of the technology); DOM (domestic politics, preferences, and policies). (Cumulative frequency = Σ respondents ranking this factor as "determinative." *There were no determinative rankings for regulation for Sweden Nuclear.)

Methods: Researchers looked to the last 50 years for examples of successful, large-scale transformations to low-carbon energy technologies. They identified two low-carbon energy sectors, biomass and nuclear energy, within three countries: Brazil, Sweden, and the United States. The research team first interviewed key players who had experience with these technology transformations and got their story. The team then addressed a ranking of influential change factors.

Examples of technology transformations stood out. In the U.S. and Sweden - but not in Brazil - post-WWII transformations took place in nuclear technology. In Brazil and the U.S., biofuels came to the forefront. In Sweden, communities shifted to biomass burning for district heating. In this comparative case study, the objective was to gain insight on whether any factors were influential across all technologies and whether any specific country situations may apply.

For the rankings, they identified nine influencing factor categories in large technological transformations from the research literature. After choosing representatives from each energy sector, they presented the participants with "factor" cards to sort into three categories, ranking the factor's influence.

Their results include narrative responses and the factor assessments. The results show a clear leading determinative factor: domestic policy. The research team also broke out each of the nine factors into sub-factors based on interview responses. In the U.S. after WWII, for example, large government subsidies in nuclear technology and strong regulations minimized the financial risks of construction and operation for private industry. In Brazil, to encourage use of biofuel, the government decreed that only ethanol stations would be open on weekends. These and other narrative histories supported the team's factor analysis by providing context to the study.

Major energy technology transformations depend on many non-economic factors. Understanding those factors, such as a strong national commitment to technology changes through domestic policy, can provide clear direction to reducing global emissions.

What's Next? Based on these results, researchers are investigating three new areas. First, they are analyzing the specific public policy actions government can take to promote domestic technology transformation. Second, they are assessing the effects of including alternative policy and technology specifications in the Global Change Assessment Model, a tool that models global human and natural Earth systems to understand global change. Third, they are investigating the degree to which newly promoted technologies resonate with national values.

Acknowledgments: This research was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and conducted by Dr. Nathan E. Hultman of the University of Maryland and the Joint Global Change Research Institute, Drs. Elizabeth Malone and Paul Runci of JGCRI, Mr. Gregory Carlock of the University of Maryland, and Ms. Kate L. Anderson of JGCRI. The Joint Global Change Research Institute is a partnership between Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland.

Reference: Hultman NE, EL Malone, P Runci, G Carlock, and K Anderson. 2012. "Factors in Low-Carbon Energy Transformations: Comparing Nuclear and Bioenergy in Brazil, Sweden, and the U.S." Energy Policy 40(2012):131-146. DOI:10.1016/j.enpol.2011.08.064.

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