A tale of three transitions: a year in the life of electricity system transformation narratives in the Irish media

Research paper by Gerard Mullally, Edmond Byrne

Indexed on: 29 Jan '16Published on: 29 Jan '16Published in: Energy, Sustainability and Society


This paper focuses on discourses of transition in the electricity system in the Irish print media, with particular attention to both the framing and the scalar referents of the debate. We characterise some of the key contextual drivers for system transformation and suggest that too sharp a distinction between existing electricity infrastructure and systems of the future forecloses the possibility of social learning. Our central question research question is: What lessons can emergent techno-optimistic solutions to electricity system transitions learn from contemporary infrastructure controversies? Using a reconstruction based on print media coverage over a 12-month period in Ireland, we present three contrasting short stories to suggest that there are some commonalities that might provide cues and clues for promoting solutions for transitions to a low-carbon economy and society.We divide our methods section into a discussion of theory and methods. In the theory part, we explore the literatures on sustainable electricity transitions, critical infrastructures and social acceptability of energy solutions. In the methods part, we begin from the assertion that storylines help constitute reality allowing constellations of actors to coalesce around certain narratives. We outline the methodological approach to the reconstruction of mediated narratives based on three short stories of electricity system transformations in Ireland.The three short stories recounted here, the future is smart; blurred lines; and policy versus place, show how narratives of economic recovery and economic growth risk occlude sustainable electricity system transition narratives, generating conflict rather than consensus on the decarbonisation of the Irish economy and society.Although the public discourse on smart grid technologies is very much in its infancy in Ireland, its rhetorical framing is very similar to that in both the wind farm and infrastructure controversies. The lack of attention to issues of scale, ownership, rhetorical framing and the perceived distribution and fairness of costs and benefits in these controversies could become equally problematic in the roll of smart grid strategies. Smarter green transitions in regions and cities do not depend on technological innovation alone but require social and institutional innovation to ensure constructive public engagement in sustainable electricity system transitions.