Legitimating power: Solar energy rollout, sustainability metrics and transition politics
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionEnvironment and Planning E: Nature and Space. 2021 10.1177/25148486211024903
Increasing recognition of the irrefutable urgency to address the global climate challenge is driving mitigation efforts to decarbonise. Countries are setting targets, technological innovation is making renewable energy sources competitive and fossil fuel actors are leveraging their incumbent privilege and political reach to modulate energy transitions. As techno-economic competitiveness is rapidly reconfigured in favour of sources such as solar energy, governance puzzles dominate the research frontier. Who makes key decisions about decarbonisation based on what metrics, and how are consequent benefits and burdens allocated? This article takes its point of departure in ambitious sustainability metrics for solar rollout that Portugal embraced in the late 2010s. This southwestern European country leads on hydro and wind power, and recently emerged from austerity politics after the 2008–2015 recession. Despite Europe’s best solar irradiation, its big solar push only kicked off in late 2018. In explaining how this arose and unfolded until mid-2020 and why, the article investigates what key issues ambitious rapid decarbonisation plans must address to enhance social equity. It combines attention to accountability and legitimacy to offer an analytical framework geared at generating actionable knowledge to advance an accountable energy transition. Drawing on empirical study of the contingencies that determine the implementation of sustainability metrics, the article traces how discrete acts legitimate specific trajectories of territorialisation by solar photovoltaics through discursive, bureaucratic, technocratic and financial practices. Combining empirics and perspectives from political ecology and energy geographies, it probes the politics of just energy transitions to more low-carbon and equitable societal futures.