Older industrial towns at the frontier of new energy economies
Transformation of energy systems in response to decarbonisation pressures is gathering pace. Moving from fossil-fuelled to renewable energy production involves shifts in energy production technologies, resource use and distribution systems, creating distinctive geographies of production.
This project seeks to generate new insights into emerging geographies of new energy economies with specific reference to the under-researched position of old industrial towns within energy transitions research. Although there is a growing literature on the economic geography of energy transitions, there remains a need for investigation of fragile, uncertain and uneven outcomes of emerging economic geographies of energy transition and to look ‘beyond the metropole’.
Older industrial towns are particularly relevant to debates on uneven development and energy transitions for various reasons. They have been more vulnerable to waves of economic restructuring over the last 50 years due to locational factors, increased tendency towards dependency on particular industries and/or small numbers of dominant firms, and weaker institutional networks, including connections to policy networks.
These places have also often been neglected in economic policy responses which have prioritised economies in cities and metropolitan regions. This vulnerability can take new dimensions in energy transitions: any continued industrial presence in such places can make them exposed to carbon regulation and rising energy costs, placing pressure on remaining production-based industries.
The research will involve qualitative case studies in five older industrial towns at the frontier of new energy economies in different ways, in England, Germany, Scotland, Spain and Sweden.
I am delighted to be embarking on this project, which has been in gestation for a number of years, and extremely grateful to the RSA for providing the grant to allow the project to happen. Besides being an important topic for study (or at least I think so!), it has personal resonance as someone whose childhood was spent living in an industrial town deeply impacted by a previous energy transition in the UK: the swift end to the UK’s coal industry during the 1980s and early 1990s. Through this work I want to understand better how the paths taken by industrial towns are shaped by, and shape, economic geographies of low and zero carbon energy transitions, looking at places that now find themselves in some way at the ‘frontier’ of new energy economies (for instance because they are the site of investment for new energy technologies, or disinvestment in high carbon activities). And I’m particularly interested in these places that on the surface are less well placed to react than core cities and regions. The grant will help me to further develop research agendas on this theme, connecting with others in the Regional Studies community interested in geographies of sustainability transitions, and feels like an important staging point in my career.