Tool Guideline

A Guide on the Transformative Power of Social Innovations in Energy

Uploaded by RRI Tools on 11 November 2021

SONNET project

  • Authors: Tessa de Geus, Flor Avelino, Lara Hendrikx, Vaishali Joshi, Naomi Schrandt and Derk Loorbach (DRIFT), Marta Strumińska-Kutra (Kozminski University)
  • Reviewers and contributors: Karoline Rogge and Linda Widdel (Fraunhofer ISI), Magdalena Pitzer and Wouter Mulders (DRIFT), Chris Vrettos (Electra Energy Cooperative), Niklas Mischkowski and Adrienne Kotler (ICLEI Europe), Agata Stasik (Kozminski University), Timo Maas (PBL), Giorgos Koukoufikis (JRC), Marco Costa (AESS)

Foreword (excerpt) by Flor Avelino 

The energy transition seems to be everywhere around us. Whether it be front-page headlines on what CO2 reduction targets world leaders will bring to the next climate conference, volatile electricity and fuel prices leaving our national news cycles in a constant wobble of love/hate for renewable energy solutions, the increasing number of court-cases around climate and energy, or the mounting swell of background pieces on local cooperatives, initiatives and innovations – we are talking about energy.

But even among all these conversations, there is one gigantic elephant in the room that we’re hardly mentioning: Power.

Over the past 17 years, I have been doing research on the troubled relation between power and change, together with many other researcher colleagues. It has been a red thread throughout, as I travelled across related fields of research, education and practice – from sustainability transitions to social innovation, and from mobility and energy to urban initiatives.

While many researchers and practitioners agree that power and politics play a crucial role in energy transitions, it is often deemed an uncomfortable and taboo topic, and a heavily contested notion. So it is mostly left unpacked.

This power guide was co-created with many colleagues and other participants of the SONNET project and its Transformative Power Lab sessions. We fervently hope that this guide can provoke meaningful conversations about power among citizens, entrepreneurs, activists, policy-makers and researchers wanting to contribute to energy transitions. 

Placing power at the heart of social innovation in energy

This guidebook is for people who want to build up their skills to change energy systems. It is for groups or individuals who want to gain insights and experience in how power can be seen, challenged, or increased in energy systems, in order to seize energy transition momentum and contribute to a shift away from fossil fuels.

While new renewable energy technologies may be necessary, technologies alone are insufficient to herald in transitions towards more just and sustainable energy systems. Therefore, this guide focuses on people working on social innovations meaning new sets of ideas, objects and activities that involve a change in social relations. Particularly, we take on the issue of how people in these social innovations can strategically deal with power.

Examples of social innovations in energy are

Social innovations can provide answers to how energy systems can be changed. However, in
order to have a transformative impact, they also need to challenge, alter or replace existing
dominant power relations and structures. Currently, many of these relations and structures2 in energy are problematic and unbalanced: certain actors in fossil fuel energy systems and largescale renewable energy lobbies exert unchecked power at the expense of other actors, putting their own interests first. A switch to renewable energies does not automatically denote a switch in power relations. If unchallenged, inequalities and ecological extraction will continue to persist in energy transitions.

Therefore, the crucial question is: How can social innovations challenge, alter and replace existing power relations in energy? This guide tries to gives answers to this question

Through research, workshops, and collaborative learning, SONNET has put together a unique and practical guide with evidence-based exercises to help you put power at the centre of your work, in order to unlock the full potential of social innovations to support and push forward energy transitions.

With seven ‘building blocks’, seven exercises, and a series of succinct and practical videos, this SONNET Power Guide is an invaluable tool for social innovation practitioners [here you can access the playlist of accompanying videos].



1. Placing power at the heart of social innovation in energy

2. What we know about power and social innovation

  • Building block 1. Question power as inherent part of future energy directions
  • Building block 2. Anticipate power dynamics in social innovation in energy
  • Building block 3. Develop a language to talk about power
  • Building block 4. Gain a sense of power
  • Building block 5. Take a multi-dimensional perspective on power
  • Building block 6. Understand the ingredients of transformative power
  • Building Block 7. Connect globally: Translocal Power

3. Power exercises: Putting power insights to use

  • Exercise 1. Developing a power language through images
  • Exercise 2. Seeing different roles: the multi-actor perspective
  • Exercise 3. Understanding ‘power to’, ‘power over’, and ‘power with’ in your social
  • innovation field
  • Exercise 4. Unpacking power tensions
  • Exercise 5. Strategising with ‘Critical Power Moments’
  • Exercise 6. Strengthening your transformative power
  • Exercise 7. Expanding translocal power


5. Acknowledgements


  • Annex 1.1 City-level competitions
  • Annex 1.2 Framings against fossil fuel energy
  • Annex 1.3 Innovative financing
  • Annex 1.4 Local electricity exchange
  • Annex 1.5 Participatory incubation and experimentation
  • Annex 1.6 Renewable energy cooperatives

ANNEX 2 Graphic harvest of the Translocal Power Lab

ANNEX 3 Hand-out of the multi-actor perspective exercise

ANNEX 4 Resources and references







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