Urban Energy Transitions: Why It Is Challenging To Govern Them And How They Govern Themselves 

Transforming urban energy systems is crucial for addressing climate change, as around the half of the world’s population lives in cities (Bulkeley, Broto and Maassen 2013: 29). Therefore, urban and regional administrations are encouraged to promote these processes. Often it is assumed that local policymakers and transition managers can steer these energy transitions processes. However, rather than being governed, urban energy transition processes govern themselves.

Urban energy transitions are socially complex processes. A vast array of actors engage in urban energy transitions: municipal administrations, research institutions, citizen initiatives, businesses, political parties etc. Their interplay is challenging as they come from diverse backgrounds and have diverging interests (Koehrsen 2017). As such, environmentally concerned citizens are likely to have a different grasp on the energy transition than traditional businesses.

Within the local business sector, there will also be different perspectives: some sectors may favor coal power, as it fits with their vested business interests while others regard wind or solar energy as a thriving opportunity. Bringing the various actors together and coordinating their activities towards a joint energy transition process can appear challenging or even futile.

Nevertheless, there are encompassing governance mechanisms in urban energy transitions. These do not necessarily rely on a governing authority that purposefully envisions goals and steers the local processes into the pursued direction. Instead, urban energy transitions are self-governing processes. The interplay of the diverse local actors leads to the emergence of self-governing social fields: urban energy transition fields.

Social fields generate a social order that follows its own logic. This logic evolves over time in the course of the interplay of local actors: the interplay leads to the evolution of particular social norms, predominant visions about energy as well as power structures. How the energy transition process unfolds depends on these norms, visions, and power structures.

A study about the energy transition in the German city Emden illustrates the evolution of a self-governing energy transition field (Koehrsen 2018). Based on sociological field theory (Fligstein and McAdam 2012), it analyses how Emden’s energy transition field has evolved over time.

Emden is a small harbor city in the North of Germany with approximately 50,000 inhabitants. In the past decades, the city has shown strong ambitions to transform its energy system and has, therefore, the reputation of being a pioneering city in the German energy transition. The evolution of Emden’s energy transition field starts at the beginning of the 1990s and takes places in four phases: (1) emergence, (2) expansion, (3) stabilization, and (4) crisis.

The field starts to emerge with some loose initiatives that seek to promote the production of wind energy in the region. Contrasting the fragmented engagement in the emergence phase, in the expansion phase more and more actors engage in manifold ways with transforming the urban energy system. Diverse actors such as a local university, schools, a newly-formed environmental center, shipping businesses, the local manufacturing industry etc. become interested in the topic and start projects. Attractive feed-in tariffs for renewables and a rising environmental interest facilitate this expansion. The rising number of activities are often networked.

Actors know each other and they are aware of what type of energy transition the most important players in the city promote. As they come from different backgrounds and have dissimilar interests in the process, the diverse actors have mixed visions about the appropriate design of the future energy system. Consequently, local actors struggle with each other to shape Emden’s urban energy transition based on their varying interests and visions. As an outcome of these power struggles, a dominant order evolves in the stabilization phase: collaborations lead to relatively stable networks, norms and predominant visions emerge, and some powerful, leading actors appear.

Affiliating with state-sponsored programs such as the European Energy Award and the Climate Alliance, the municipality fixes its long-term CO2 reduction objectives and thereby create precedents that consolidate the predominant carbon-reduction pathway. Massive artefacts acts write the commitment to this pathway into the physical space: vast wind farms in the outskirts, solar panels at the highway leading to the city, and an immense solar-bunker in the city’s center, render it evident for everyone coming to Emden that this place is strongly committed to an energy transition based on renewables. The evolving field structures orient the local activities towards a dominant energy transition pathway that places an emphasis on the expansion of renewables and, in particular, wind-energy.

However, in the year 2008, the field experienced a crisis: an external investor proposed plans to construct a coal power plant on the outskirts of Emden. Some powerful actors in Emden approved the idea of constructing the coal power plant and sought to change the pathway of Emden’s energy transition. However, the urban transition field reacted to this intervention according to its own logic. As the intervention challenged the established order (e.g. predominant visions of the future energy system, the fixed goals, and existing power structures), a mobilization from within the field took place that sought to counter the project of the investor and its local allies.

A newly formed citizen initiative for clean air — supported by powerful field actors — organized massive protests in the city. The investor withdrew from its plans.  Although it cannot be determined to what extent the protests eventually contributed to the investors’ retreat, the episode demonstrates how the field forces — in the form of leading actors, allies, rules, and dominant visions — endeavor to stabilize the predominant energy transition pathway.

The case of Emden illustrates that the evolving social order is crucial to the transition process. This order was not the outcome of strategic planning and management. It evolved over the course of the social interplay between local actors. As such, urban energy transition becomes over time self-governing social processes that that are challenging for local policymakers and transition managers to alter their course.

These findings are described in the article entitled Exogenous shocks, social skill, and power: Urban energy transitions as social fields, recently published in the journal Energy Policy. This work has been conducted by Jens Koehrsen from the University of Basel.


  1. Bulkeley, Harriet, Vanesa C. Broto, and Anne Maassen. 2013. “Governing Urban Low Carbon Transitions.” Pp. 29–41 in Routledge studies of human geography, vol. 35, Cities and low carbon transitions, edited by H. Bulkeley, V. Castán Broto, M. Hodson, and S. Marvin. London: Routledge.
  2. Fligstein, Neil, and Doug McAdam. 2012. A theory of fields. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Koehrsen, Jens. 2017. “Boundary Bridging Arrangements: A Boundary Work Approach to Local Energy Transitions.” Sustainability 9(424). doi:10.3390/su9030424.
  4. Koehrsen, Jens. 2018. “Exogenous shocks, social skill, and power: Urban energy transitions as social fields.” Energy Policy 117:307–15. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2018.03.035.