PhD Project Overview and Plan

Transitions in the Gas Network

6 Month Review

This short document gives a brief overview of the current problem being researched, progress made so far and then discusses the next stages of the project.

Why is a gas transition needed?

The UK is currently addicted to the use of gas for heating our homes and buildings. Almost half of all energy use in the UK is for heat generation and the majority of that heat use is in people’s homes using gas . In fact, the UK has one of the highest densities of gas use in the world coming in 2nd place after the Netherlands 1.

Each aspect of the so-called energy trilemma (carbon, security and cost) of UK energy policy applies to this gas use:

Firstly, gas use in its current form is not low-carbon and is therefore not compatible with the UK’s legally binding goals for reducing carbon emission. In fact the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) suggest that an almost full transition away from gas to other sources of heat may be required by 2050.

Secondly, the UK is becoming increasingly dependent on imported gas as supplies from the continental shelf are used up. Despite all of the current discussion around shale gas, it is widely anticipated that the volumes of gas produced from shale will be relatively small compared to the UK’s significant gas use and as such import dependency will continue to increase over the medium term. Figure 2 shows how import dependency and UK gas sources have changed over the recent years and how based on National Grid’s  slow progression scenario it may in the future. It is worth bearing in mind that all of their scenarios show increases in import dependency but that the slow progression scenario offers a more central outlook.

Figure 2. Annual supply pattern in slow progression (

Thirdly, with regards to cost it is widely expected that gas prices will increase. DECC data shows a gradual increase in prices up until 2020 and then a gradual flattening of price levels and this would lead on to increased domestic gas prices.

There are then a number of reasons why a transition in the way the UK produces heat is both required and is the subject of increasing numbers of Government policy interventions. Overall, because of these challenges the Government has produced a strategic roadmap for heat which sees a very limited enduring role for gas. The central arrow in figure 1. shows how DECC expects gas to be squeezed out for heating and replaced by other sources of heat.

Figure 1. Updated strategic framework for low-carbon heat in buildings over time

All existing research into this transition has been in the form of energy scenarios showing the potential change in technology required. The particular focus of this project is on the energy policy aspects of this transition.

Project Progress

As discussed previously, it is known roughly what the transition may look like from a technological perspective but it is not known how we may be able to get there. Energy policy in the area of heat is itself very new and has only really been considered by Government over the past 3 years. My research aims to fill part of this gap investigating policy/political issues focussing specifically on how power (not electricity) holds the current heat system in place and how power can help to enable a transition.

Having a good understanding of the context of the UK heat system and key players along with a good initial project abstract has meant that I have been able to focus on and decide my key areas of theory relatively quickly. I have primarily been reading around my key areas of interest over the last six months in order to develop my research questions, assist with methodological development and broaden my understanding of the literature.

The concept of the multi-level perspective (MLP) will be a central theme in my research. The MLP is a relatively new theoretical tool which considers change in large socio-technical systems.  It considers these systems as having three levels which all have different features and is shown in figure 3. The top level is the socio-technical landscape which is the ‘exogenous context’ of the transition and includes issues such as global politics, climate change and global commodity prices. The middle level is the socio-technical regime which can be considered as the existing regime formed of technology, consumers, industry, policy and culture. Finally the bottom level is the niche level which is the level at which innovations which could compete with the regime develop. The MLP model suggests that changes at the landscape level can destabilise the regime allowing niches to break-through to eventually become part of the regime.

Figure 3. Multi level perspective on transitions

This model has been applied to various transitions in the past and shown to be successful including when considering land transport, shipping and water sanitation . The MLP is however not a complete representation of all systems and in particular has been critiqued for its lack of focus on the role of political science and the agency of actors and institutions . ) have also urged caution at the use of the MLP and transition management approaches as they appear to often lack a political angle along with ‘little about how the `death’ of

undesirable systems might be engineered’ (p767) as well as because of lack of understanding of social practices in the transitions .

It is these critiques and my personal interests which have which have led me towards the concept of power and power relations as a central theme in my research, in particular in order to understand if and how power maintains the existing heat system at the landscape and regime level and also in order to understand power at the niche level and how these actors can be further empowered.

As a concept, power has been described as ‘essentially contested’ because of the various understandings and approaches to it and more recently as a ‘family resemblance’ concept because the concepts are all very different yet related. The topic itself is very large and a full literature review of power for my thesis would be impossible.

In the context of my research, by power, I mean the forces which have the ability to affect energy policy and regulation in a way which can maintain or change the existing heat system. This includes a number of concepts such as the role of lobbying, the role of institutions, system inertia (including technological) and the role of the wider ideological context in which energy policy is made.

I need to continue my reading in this area in order to gain a greater theoretical underpinning of power and in order to develop a framework to fully understand power in terms of the heat regime. There are however clearly areas in the heat system where power may be present and figure 4 shows my initial framework of where I consider that power may exist based on my wider literature review and industry knowledge. In figure 4 I have attempted to map where the various actors and power relations sit in relation to the previously discussed MLP. I intend to build on this as my project develops, to test the assumptions and to produce as an output of my research an accurate visualisation of how power and the MLP overlap in the heat arena.

Research Questions

The following research questions have developed alongside my reading and all demonstrate an original contribution to knowledge. In fact there has been very limited work combining concepts of power transitions and the MLP and no work looking at applying the MLP model to heat transitions at least in the UK context. The research questions aim to investigate power at each level of the MLP and also to investigate the international context.

  • What is power in the UK heat system?
  • How could the power of changes in ideas (and ideology) at a landscape  level accelerate a heat transition in the UK?
  • Does the power embedded within existing heat regime increase, reduce or have no effect on the likelihood or speed of a heat transition?
  • What is the political power of niches in the sustainable heat regime and is existing policy increasing this power?
  • Do international examples of similar regimes exhibit similar power issues?

Figure 4. Heat Transition Power Framework v1


The annexed Gantt chart shows my guide for the research timescales and I have a goal of completing the thesis within the three years.

The key research method will be semi-structured interviews in order to allow an in depth but flexible approach to the research questions. Data from the interviews will be triangulated in order to minimise bias (Kern, 2011) and also I believe that by approaching issues from different angles, key power relations may come to light.

A potential table of contents for the thesis is as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Understanding the need for a heat transition
  3. Theorising transitions to sustainability
  4. Adding the missing ingredient: power
  5. Methodological approaches
  6. Power at the regime level
  7. Power within niches
  8. Power at the landscape
  9. An international comparison
  10. Conclusions and implications for policy


DECC (2013a) Estimates of heat use in the United Kingdom in 2012. . (September), 73–80.

DECC (2013b) The Future of Heating : Meeting the challenge .

DECC (2013c) Updated energy and emissions projections 2013 .

Foxon, T.J., Gross, R., Chase, A., Howes, J., Arnall, A., Anderson, D. (2005) UK innovation systems for new and renewable energy technologies: drivers, barriers and systems failures. Energy Policy . 33(16), 2123–2137.

Geels, F.W. (2011) The multi-level perspective on sustainability transitions: Responses to seven criticisms. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions1(1), 24–40.

Haugaard, M. (2010) Power: A “family resemblance” concept. European Journal of Cultural Studies13(4), 419–438.

Haugaard, M. (2012) Power: A Reader. Manchester University Press.

Hay, C. (2002) Political Analysis. Palgrave, Hampshire.

Kemp, F., Loorbahk, D. (2006) Transition Management: A Reflexive Governance Approach. In R. Voß, J.-P., Bauknecht, D., Kemp, ed. Reflexive Governance for Sustainable Development . pp. 103–130.

Kern, F. (2011) Ideas, institutions, and interests: explaining policy divergence in fostering “system innovations” towards sustainability. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy . 29(6), 1117–1134.

Lukes, S. (1974) Power: A Radical View. The Macmillan Press, London.

Markard, J., Raven, R., Truffer, B. (2012) Sustainability transitions: An emerging field of research and its prospects. Research Policy41(6), 955–967.

Mills, S. (2003) Michael Foucault. Routledge, Oxon.

National Grid (2014) UK Future Energy Scenarios 2014 .

Raven, R. (2006) A practioner ’ s view on Strategic Niche Management Towards a future research outline. . (December).

Shove, E., Walker, G. (2007) CAUTION! Transitions ahead: politics, practice, and sustainable transition management. Environment and Planning A39(4), 763–770.

Shove, E., Walker, G. (2010) Governing transitions in the sustainability of everyday life. Research Policy39(4), 471–476.

Smith, A., Voß, J.-P., Grin, J. (2010) Innovation studies and sustainability transitions: The allure of the multi-level perspective and its challenges. Research Policy39(4), 435–448.

Unruh, G. (2000) Understanding carbon lock-in. Energy policy . 28, 817–830.

Annex – Gantt Chart showing expected project timeline

  Q1 2014 Q2 2014 Q3 2014 Q4 2014 Q1 2015 Q2 2015 Q3 2015 Q4 2015 Q1 2016 Q2 2016 Q3 2016 Q4 2016 Q1 2017
Key Dates 6 Month Review Draft literature review for review by supervisors Draft methodology for review andUpgrade Document  Journal article Begin handing in chapters 31/3/16 Hand in thesis final draft for supervisors 31/9/16 Hand in final thesis final version by 31/12/16
Reading Focus Transitions Power and Politics Power and politics and analysis Methodological Approaches Keeping abreast Keeping abreast Keeping abreast Keeping abreast Keeping abreast Keeping abreast Keeping abreast Keeping abreast
Writing Focus Blogs and reviews Blogs and reviews Begin pulling together literature review Upgrade document with strong literature review Methodology completed Transcription and initial write-up Transcription and initial write-up Transcription and initial write-up Thesis chapters Thesis chapters Thesis chapters Review chapters
Research Goals Firm up research questions Develop methodology Firm up  methodology Primary research Primary research Primary research Final write up Final write up Final write up Viva preparation
Theme Literature review and methodology development Primary Research Pulling thesis document together

1 This is based on my own research which looked at gas use and gas networks on a global networks and uses a metric of number of households connected to the gas network as a percentage of total households in that particular country. This is 97% for the Netherlands (highest) and 83% for the UK (2nd highest).

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