Energy systems, socio-spatial relations, and power: the contested adoption of district heating with combined heat and power in Sweden, 1945-2011

Aida Nciri, Byron Miller


District heating (DH) and combined heat and power (CHP) are often considered complementary green technologies (DH-CHP) that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They are, however, complex given their operation at the intersection of shifting socio-spatial relations and political power struggles. We investigate the political processes behind the diffusion (and blocked diffusion) of DH and CHP in Sweden from 1945 until 2011, considered through the lens of Jessop, Brenner and Jones’ (2008) Territory, Place, Scale and Networks (TPSN) framework. Foregrounding the socio-spatial constitution of policy decisions, we examine Sweden’s changing patterns of DH and CHP adoption. First, we present the TPSN framework that considers space as simultaneously a structuring principle, enabling and constraining action, as well as a field of operation in which agency is exercised. Second, we examine the socio-spatial structuration of energy systems. Third, we analyse how the changing socio-spatial constitution of each socio-technical system affects key actors’ interests and actions, including the spatial strategies they develop to advance their interests. District heating rapidly diffused across Swedish municipalities in large part because it was considered to be urban infrastructure aligned with the mission of municipalities and was not in direct competition with other actors supplying heat. CHP electricity generation, on the other hand, was initially seen as a benefit to municipal utilities, but was later considered a threat to the interests of large-scale utilities and blocked, only to gain favour again when changing sociospatial conditions made CHP an asset to large-scale utilities. Our analysis suggests that technological diffusion and blockage is far from a straightforward matter. It requires examination of the dynamics of multi-level governance and overlapping socio-technical systems. Socio-technical regimes are in constant evolution and actors struggle to adapt to new circumstances. Socio-technical systems are not merely material systems, but an expression of dynamic power relations and adaptation strategies.


energy transitions, socio-spatial relations, district heating, combined heat and power

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