Thirty States of Renewability: Controversial energies and the politics of incumbent industry

Authors: Ingrid Behrsin*, University of California, Davis, Sarah Knuth, Durham University, Anthony Levenda, University of Oklahoma
Topics: Energy, Economic Geography
Keywords: renewable energy transitions, US Renewable Portfolio Standards, politics of classification, industrial political ecology
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 37
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Renewable energy advocates have positioned a wide array of technologically novel energy sources as fossil fuel alternatives. These efforts to usher in renewable energy transitions have long been shaped by definitional contestations. Political ecological scholarship tells us that such definitions matter: that labeling energy sources as renewable has become a power-laden act, which may empower innovation, yet simultaneously create openings for problematic classifications and unjust socio-ecological relations. Yet we still know too little about how such classification politics are taking shape within green industrial policy formation; particularly, how they encounter incumbent industries, industrial regions, and the thorny question of industrial disassembly. In this paper, we argue that these theoretical questions are crucial for an emerging industrial political ecology, and explore relevant recent developments in the US context. A country that has notoriously avoided open and coordinated national industrial policy, the United States has approached the renewable energy economy in a similarly geographically fragmented fashion. We highlight a central yet under-examined tool in US energy-industrial policy: the renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Mandated by thirty states, RPSs are the US’s central mechanism for renewable energy procurement—yet RPSs diverge substantially in what energy resources they classify and incentivize as renewable. We argue that state governments have capitalized upon RPSs’ malleability to support regionally significant sectors, including “dirty” industries and industrial wastes. These industries thereby, frequently controversially, position themselves for rebranding, new value capture, and prospective reassembly. We survey three recent (re)definitional battles, toward a broader analytical framework for evaluating such projects.

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