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Constructive technology assessment of the hydrogen transition in the U.S.

Sonnenberg, Anthon Henk (2006) Constructive technology assessment of the hydrogen transition in the U.S.

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Abstract:Hydrogen is seen as a very promising fuel for the future and is expected to substitute the current petroleum regime. In this report a Constructive Technology Assessment (CTA) is conducted on the infrastructure related to the hydrogen economy. In a CTA the impacts of a technology on society and the assessment of these impacts by involved actors will be analyzed and suggestions for further development and decision oriented options are given in order to avoid negative consequences of the technological development. As a conceptual model for this CTA the system innovations approach and its multi-level perspective (MLP) has been used. Based on the three levels of MLP – micro level of niches, meso level of regimes and macro-level of landscapes – the hydrogen developments, the actions and positions of actors and its impacts have been analyzed. The research question I have focused on is ‘How can we use the insights of a technology assessment of likely future hydrogen infrastructures for policy advice on current policies?’ For the CTA an extensive array of literature and empirical data has been used. Apart from scientific literature and written empirical data, I have interviewed 15 actors with different backgrounds regarding the hydrogen transition. These actors were from involved industries, the government, research institutes and universities, and hydrogen associations. In the U.S., and in most other developed countries, three important aspects that put pressure on the petroleum regime – the regime that plays a key role in the hydrogen transition and was the main focus of my research – can be seen today. These are environment, peak-oil, and geopolitics, with energy security as the main concern related to oil. These issues put pressure on the regime from both the landscape level, as from within the regime itself. These pressures create ‘windows of opportunities’ for new technologies. Hydrogen is not an energy source, but an energy carrier and therefore it needs to be produced by using other energy sources. Influenced by the developments at the regime and landscape level many different hydrogen production technologies were, and are, explored and developed. The expectations are that natural gas will be the dominant technology in the near-term, in the mid-term coal and nuclear hydrogen technologies will join natural gas and only in the very long term renewable hydrogen technologies are expected to become the dominant technology. Expectations and promises play an important role in the hydrogen transition. They create ‘prospective structures’; actions become coordinated through the prospect of a new technology and its functions while this emerging configuration is simultaneously shaping the technology to be. Prospective structures are actively created by actors involved in the hydrogen transition by means of articulation processes. These articulation processes therefore cause a significant pressure on the existing regime and are an important strategic move for new actors. Many different actors play a role in the hydrogen transition and try to influence the process. The big energy industries, especially the oil industry, but also coal and nuclear industries, are the most powerful and position themselves in such a way that they create a favorable (future) situation for their industry. Apart from there influence on the transition itself, they have a strong influence on the government. The oil companies have a strong incentive to control the transition process and even slow it down. Because of their size, capital strength and political influence they are more or less able to do that. Renewable industries are less influential, and got involved in the hydrogen transition mainly in order to protect their federal budgets. They do not particularly support a hydrogen transition. Other involved actors that have an influence on the hydrogen transition are environmental organizations, car manufacturers as users of hydrogen technologies, end-users, interest organizations, etc. The most likely production methods that will emerge as dominant paths in the U.S. are natural gas for the short term, coal and nuclear for the mid-term. These paths are not only the preferred paths of the big industries; the U.S. government strongly favors these paths as well. Because of their ‘scripts’ these production paths require centralized production systems. There are several important impacts that follow from this centralized fossil and nuclear hydrogen path, of which the most relevant from a CTA point of view are ‘environment and sustainability’, the related to this ‘non equal playing field’, and the, to centralized production related, impacts, ‘distribution network’, ‘oligopolistic regime structure’, and ‘freedom’ The assessments of the impacts by the actors vary considerably per actor (group). For most impacts there is a clear trade-off between economy on the one hand and the environment and society on the other. When it comes to environmental impacts, economic interests usually have the upper hand in actors’ actions and decisions. This applies for industries, the government, as well as the public. Hydrogen has the potential to change our present rigid centralized petroleum system in a decentralized fuel system. This has many technical, economical and social advantages. First, it can break down today’s oligopolistic petroleum regime and can avoid the creation of new ones. Second, it has the potential to increase our personal freedom and autonomy. From a moral point of view decentralized systems are therefore more desirable than centralized. Reality is different though, since effective freedom and not having concerns about where the energy comes from are in general valued over autonomy. The transition process is a very complex process and is difficult to steer. In order to avoid the negative impacts that come with the current transition path of fossil and nuclear hydrogen, current policies need to be changed. Measures can be taken at the different levels of the multi-level perspective. At the micro-level distributed renewable hydrogen production variations and niches need to be stimulated, especially hydrogen from wind and solar energy. The government should stimulate the developments of renewable variations by funding small innovative technology companies and larger technology companies that are not already major energy suppliers and universities. In addition to funding it is crucial that the selection environment in niches is influenced by, for example, subsidies, tax credits and technology-forcing regulations. Another way to put pressure on the existing petroleum regime is from the landscape level. The government plays an important role in changing the landscape level and with their regulations and policies they have a very powerful tool to increase pressure. The government, however, needs to be more influenced by other actors than just the big energy industries and pressure from below is required. Steering the developments thus requires a bottom-up approach. Small companies, universities, (left-wing) politicians and political parties, end-users, the public, etc. need to put pressure on the government and on the big industries in order to be able to steer the developments. Market-approaches seem favorable for the reduction of emissions, but in addition technology-forcing regulations are necessary to avoid that the ‘market solution’ goes toward centralized production systems again. It is important that a change in the public’s perspective and behavior regarding environmental issues, and issues related to (de)centralized production, are stimulated as well. This landscape change, together with the democratization of the technological developments can influence both the government and industries. The creation of technological nexuses, or the involvement of renewable industries in existing nexuses is important for the development of decentralized hydrogen production technologies as well. By not involving only them, but also increasing the active participation of the public and of environmental organizations in the discussion and development process, the hydrogen transition can be democratized and the pressure from the landscape level can be increased. Small companies, environmentalist, politicians, the public, etc. should more pro-actively pursue the creation of nexuses, but also the forming of alliances and partnerships. The use of the MLP as a basis for a CTA is very useful. However, I encountered some problems with it. First, a normative assessment does not really play a role in the MLP, but it does in a CTA. Second, in the hydrogen transition many different regimes are intertwined, but the MLP does not really take into account the influences from other regimes. Third, although in MLP literature it is often stated that individual regime shifts will not affect the landscape dramatically, the transition from petroleum to hydrogen definitely has the potential to affect the landscape dramatically.
Item Type:Essay (Master)
Faculty:BMS: Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences
Subject:08 philosophy
Programme:Philosophy of Science, Technology and Society MSc (60024)
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