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date: 25 September 2017

Energy Policy

Summary and Keywords

Energy policy comprises rules concerning energy sources; energy efficiency; energy prices; energy from abroad; energy infrastructure; and climate and environmental aspects of energy production, utilization, and transit. The main theme in energy policy concerns the trade-offs between affordable, secure, and clean energy. Energy policy is a cross-sectoral—or boundary-spanning—policy area, which means that energy policy has implications for or is affected by decisions taken in adjacent policy areas such as those addressing agriculture, climate, development, economy, environment, external relations, and public health. The cross-sectoral character of energy policy is reflected in how it is proposed, adopted, implemented, and evaluated. Putting an energy policy issue on the political agenda can be attained easily, while the diversity of interests of the actor groups that are potentially affected by the proposal can complicate the policy process. The implementation depends on whether the energy policy measure in question is of a local, national, or international nature; and to what extent the implementation entails joint efforts by state and non-state actors. As with policy instruments adopted in any other policy area, the evaluation of an energy policy’s success is likely to vary across the different actor groups involved.

The analytical perspectives on energy policy depend on the energy source of interest. Research concentrating on fossil energy sources (i.e., coal, oil, and natural gas) has traditionally adopted the analytical lens of international relations and international political economy. A similar research interest can be observed for studies of unconventional fossil energy sources (i.e., oil shale, oil sands, and shale gas) and nuclear power, although the centrality of risk and uncertainty in the analytical frameworks adopted help to connect these topics more directly with the public policy literature. The energy policy issue that has been on the research agendas of all political science subfields—including comparative politics—is renewable energy. Questions concerning the supply and management of energy infrastructure have received attention from public administration scholars.

Keywords: climate change, conventional energy sources, energy dependency, energy efficiency, energy infrastructure, energy innovation, energy security, fossil fuels, international trade, renewable energy, transit, unconventional energy sources


In the postwar period, the energy consumption and production patterns of industrial states demonstrated a striking similarity, characterized by energy production and consumption requiring a constantly increasing energy supply, government policy that was predominantly protected by interests of energy producers, and the existence of obstacles for setting up alternative policy and institutional arrangements. Lindberg (1977, 1978) referred to these similar patterns as “energy syndrome.” National energy policies became more diverse in the aftermath of the “oil crisis” that occurred in fall 1973 when the members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) proclaimed an oil embargo, which led to a sharp increase in oil prices and yielded several effects on the global economy and international politics. This event has shown the pivotal role of energy in the operations of modern economies, thus ushering the development of energy policy into a complex policy domain.

Roughly speaking, energy policy concerns the production, utilization, transport, and supply of primary and secondary energy. Primary energy is found in nature and becomes available by means of extraction or capturing from the environment without being subjected to any conversion or transformation process. Primary energy includes fossil and mineral fuels such as coal, natural gas, natural uranium, and oil, as well as energy produced from biomass, sunlight, water, wind, and geothermal heat—commonly referred to as renewable energy. Secondary energy is converted or transformed from primary energy carriers; the most common form of second energy is electricity (Demirel, 2012, pp. 28–31). Energy policy measures targeting primary energy are different from those targeting secondary energy. Along with primary energy, policy-makers must deal with questions regarding the extraction of energy sources, the individual components of the energy mix, transit, and international trade. Secondary energy is usually what is consumed by individuals and the industry; and thus policy measures must address issues such as the distribution of energy, the reliability and costs of supply, and the development and maintenance of grids and other infrastructure.

Figure 1 gives an overview of the OECD and non-OECD countries’ primary energy supply in 1973 and 2014 broken down by fuel type to illustrate the energy transition experienced, that is, the changes in the composition of the primary energy supply (Smil, 2010, p. vii). It shows that in the last four decades, the importance of oil has decreased in both OECD and non-OECD countries. At the same time, natural gas has become a more crucial primary energy source for both industrialized and industrializing countries, but also the use of nuclear power and biofuels have increased around the world. However, the importance of coal has increased in the non-OECD countries, where it decreased in the OECD world.

Energy PolicyClick to view larger

Figure 1: World’s total primary energy supply in 1971 and 2013 by fuel (in megatons of oil equivalent).

Energy policy is a cross-sectoral—or boundary-spanning—policy area, which means that energy policy has implications for or is affected by decisions taken in adjacent policy areas such as those addressing agriculture, climate, development, economy, environment, external relations, and public health (see, e.g., Prontera, 2009; Maltby, 2013; Woertz, 2013). Energy policy has recently gained increased political attention since the consumption of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, contributes significantly to climate change (Holden, 2008; Hughes & Lipscy, 2013, p. 450; Ekins, Bradshaw, & Watson, 2015; Karapin, 2016). The cross-sectoral character of energy policy is indeed reflected in energy politics. For example, the agriculture sector plays a critical role in the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy since it manages the key resources (e.g., biomass) necessary for the transition process (Sutherland, Peter, & Zagata, 2015). Consequently, the transition to renewable energy entails increased interactions between the actors belonging to the energy policy domain and those of the agriculture policy domain, which can either facilitate or complicate the policy process (see Peters, 2015). Sometimes, however, the relationship between energy policy and another policy area is less straightforward and only becomes apparent upon closer inspection.

Another characteristic of energy policy is that it takes place in different policy-making arenas: at the local, national, and international levels. Each policy arena comprises specific institutions and actor groups that influence the policy-making process. This characteristic also explains why energy issues have received interest in different subfields of political science, including comparative politics, European integration, international relations, international political economy, comparative politics, public administration, public policy, and regional studies. The multidisciplinary interest in energy issues has helped to produce a wide range of insights in the production, transformation, trade, and consumption of energy. In light of the close relationship between energy issues and climate change, an integrated research perspective on global governance of the climate–energy nexus has emerged (e.g., Bazilian, Nakhooda, & Van de Graaf, 2014; Dubash & Florini, 2011; Ekins et al., 2015; Falkner, 2014; Hughes & Lipscy, 2013; Karapin, 2016; Kuzemko, 2013). Acknowledging these characteristics of energy policy, this article poses the following research questions:

  • What are the goals of energy policy?

  • How does the cross-sectoral nature of energy policy affect how policy measures are proposed, adopted, implemented, and evaluated?

  • Which energy topics are predominantly analyzed from the local perspective? Which topics are analyzed from the national or international perspective?

To address these questions, the article is organized as follows. Similar to any other policy area, energy policy consists of a set of goals that are discussed in the next section. Then, we turn to the politics of the three main fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. This is followed by the analysis of the policy process when unconventional fossil fuels and nuclear power are concerned. In a next step, we shift our attention to the politics of renewable energy, before we continue investigating the dominant research perspective on electricity. The separation between fossil fuels and renewable fuels is motivated by a debate that has been around since the 1970s and which can be traced back to the work of Lovins (1979), who differentiated between “hard” and “soft” paths for energy production. The hard path relies on large-scale centralized fossil fuel and nuclear facilities to meet energy demand, whereas the soft path relies on decentralized energy production in small entities from renewable forces. As we will see, these paths are reflected in energy politics. The final section summarizes the key findings, answers the research questions, and suggests avenues for future research.1

Goals of Energy Policy

National governments differ in the types of policy measures they decide to adopt for governing energy issues, but yet all states have in place some form of energy policy as energy is a critical factor in both economic and societal operations (for an overview, see Prontera, 2009). The main difference in national energy policies concerns the degree to which the state controls energy issues: In some systems states exert (almost) perfect control of the energy sector (e.g., Russia), while in others, state and non-state actors cooperate (e.g., India), or the energy sector is governed by private companies and the market (e.g., Australia) (Hancock & Vivoda, 2014). Of course, the role of the state in governing energy is also affected by changes. As we will discuss later, the electricity sector has been subjected to privatization, which naturally goes hand in hand with a less prominent role of the state.

Broadly speaking and following the International Energy Agency (IEA),2 there exist three sets of goals that any energy policy will pursue, albeit by giving priority to different aspects and choosing different concrete policy measures for attaining them:

  • Security of energy supply.

  • Stable and affordable energy.

  • Mitigation of the climate, environmental, and human health and safety impacts of energy production and utilization.

The first goal about security of energy supply is associated with considerations about resource availability, international energy trade and interdependencies, and diversification of energy sources (Cherp & Jewell, 2014; but see Fischhendler & Katz, 2013; Fischhendler & Nathan, 2014). The second goal is about the effectiveness and efficiency of energy production and supply systems as well as the decision about whether and how to regulate energy prices as opposed to leaving it to the market to determine prices. The third goal concerns the negative externalities of energy production and consumption. Depending on the energy source, either considerations about climate, environment, or human health and security guide policy-making. All in all, energy policy is often associated with the “trilemma” of the three goals: affordable, secure, and clean energy (Skea, 2015, p. 9).

Which goals policy-makers prioritize is determined by the interests of the actors participating in the policy arenas, but also by path dependency in energy policy goals (see, e.g., Jordan & Matt, 2014)—this is one of the explanations given for the slow pace of transition to renewable energy (e.g., Negro, Alkemade, & Hekkert, 2012). Whether and to what extent the different actor groups’ interests can influence energy policy goals and instruments depends on the political opportunity structures. Following Kitschelt (1986), four factors determine permissive political opportunity structures. First, a larger number of political parties increases the chances of citizens’ demands being taken up. Second, public demands have a greater chance of being taken up if the legislatures develop and control policies independently of the executive. Third, pluralist systems of interest representation help citizens to influence public policy. Fourth, public demand is likely to affect public policy if there is a mechanism for aggregating such demands.

Furthermore, research on transnational policy diffusion has highlighted the importance of both the international community and international organizations for shaping public policy (see, e.g., Biesenbender & Tosun, 2014; Jordan & Huitema, 2014; Massey, Biesbroek, Huitema, & Jordan, 2014). Indian energy policy, for example, has been influenced by international political pressure through the G8/G20 process to account for the climate effects of energy production and utilization (Dubash, 2011, p. 72). The most important international organizations in the field of energy are IEA, IRENA, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and OPEC, but also generic international organizations such as OECD, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization (Hancock & Vivode, 2014). These organizations affect energy policy in many ways, ranging from the promotion energy innovations (e.g., feed-in tariffs) to instituting restrictions on national energy strategies (e.g., the use of atomic energy for military purposes). Major producers and consumers also have an impact on energy policy. Major producers such as Russia are influential because they can affect states that depend on their resources (e.g., Belyi, 2015; Kropatcheva, 2014; Kuzemko, 2013; Tosun, 2011, 2012). On the other hand, major consumers of energy like China and India are also important because their energy demand can affect the availability of energy and therefore energy prices (Hancock & Vivode, 2014; Holden, 2008).

In most states, energy policy will be determined by both the national and the international context. Domestic political concerns are more relevant for some aspects of energy policy, while international concerns play a greater role in shaping decisions in other areas. According to Putnam (1988), there is a reciprocal influence between national and international factors, which particularly holds true for energy policy as some countries are dependent on energy supplies from abroad and others rely on the revenues from exporting energy fuels. Therefore, both national and international determinants need to be taken into account when investigating the factors shaping energy policy (Prontera, 2009).

Fossil Fuels: Distribution of Resources and Power

The three major types of input for the hard path to energy production—as Lovins (1979) would put it—are coal, oil, and natural gas. This path is cost inefficient, less reliable, and less democratic (Sovacool, 2011a, p. 1177; see also Logan & Nelkin, 1980). All three fossil fuels were the backbone of economic growth in today’s leading industry nations, and are valued by the emerging economies as critical input for their development. As fossil fuels are limited in availability and reserves are geographically concentrated, questions about the distribution of these sources and the political power of the major suppliers have been of predominant interest to research efforts.

Politics of Coal

Coal has been the dominant primary energy source in the world (see Figure 1). One of the reasons for the popularity of coal is that many states have domestic supplies, which makes them less vulnerable to international trade and geopolitics (Bradshaw, Froggatt, McGlade, & Speirs, 2015, p. 251). This, however, does not mean that coal is not traded at all—in fact, there is international trade in coal (Riker, 2012)—but there are less tensions in coal trading than in the cases of oil and natural gas.

Coal production and imports are closely related with industrialization and economic growth, and therefore many recent studies focus on emerging economies when examining the politics of coal (e.g., Dubash, 2011; Shen, Gao, & Cheng, 2012). To indicate the importance of coal for economic development, the Turkish government, for example, declared the year 2012 as the “year of coal” (Acar & Yeldan, 2016, p. 2). However, not only emerging economies support coal-based economic development, but also developed states. A case in point is Poland, which mostly relies on coal-fired power plants for electricity generation (see, e.g., Marcinkiewicz & Tosun, 2015).

Two topics have received great attention in the literature with regard to the politics of coal. The first topic relates to the use of subsidies (e.g., through direct cash transfers or indirect mechanisms, such as tax exemptions) to keep prices for producers above market levels. While the public debate these days often focuses on emerging economies, it should be noted that advanced economies with a “green” profile still allocate subsidies to coal production. A prominent case is Germany, which has economically benefited for decades from its hard-coal mines. With the extraction of domestic hard coal becoming too costly, but having ten thousands of jobs connected to the mining sector, electoral incentives have induced German policy-makers to subsidize coal. The Social Democratic Party, which has traditionally entertained close links with the coal industry and its unions (Jänicke, 2011, p. 134), has often been torn between supporting this industry and pursuing more ambitious climate policy. This ambiguity has become particularly virulent when the party formed a coalition government with the Green Party (see Däubler & Debus, 2009).

This brings us to the second major topic discussed in the context of coal-based energy production and utilization: the direct contribution of coal combustion to climate change through emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). Since coal consumption is a major source of CO2 emissions and other air pollutants, policy considerations with regard to this fuel type are strongly affected by climate and environmental considerations (Riker, 2012). As a result, one of the policy instruments currently discussed to reduce the consumption of coal is the imposition of a carbon tax. While carbon taxes are regarded as a potentially cost-effective instrument for lowering GHG emissions, states in which electricity generation rests on coal-fired power plants tend to resist this instrument, as they fear a decline in economic competitiveness (e.g., Marcinkiewicz & Tosun, 2015).

Already in the early 1990s, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark launched carbon taxes to curb CO2 emissions (Andersen, 2010, p. 2). Not only European countries, but also states in other world regions have introduced carbon taxes (see Andersson & Karpestam, 2012, p. 293). A case in point is Japan, where a carbon tax was introduced in 2012 (Liu, Wang, Niu, Suk, & Bao, 2015, p. 393). The adoption of this measure can be attributed to two factors: First, at the time the tax was adopted, the left-wing party ruled in favor of ambitious climate policies; second, Japan is one of the most energy efficient countries in the world and the cost incurring from the carbon tax should be relatively low for the industry (see Rudolph & Schneider, 2013, p. 231).

With the increasing attention paid to climate change, research and development efforts have been intensified to explore avenues for “decarbonizing” fossil fuel; coal as the most polluting fossil fuel is at the center of these efforts. One option for reducing GHG emissions is to lower the consumption of coal and other fossil fuels (see, e.g., Hildén, 2011). Another option increasingly pursued is the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, which covers a broad range of technologies that allow CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use to be transported to geological storage, such as in depleted oil and gas fields or deep saline aquifers instead of being emitted to the atmosphere (Gibbins & Chalmers, 2008). CCS has recently moved up on the political agenda as it may enable the continued use of fossil fuels despite the need to decarbonize energy systems. While appearing to offer a critical technology for the continued use of fossil fuels, the deployment of CCS has been impeded by uncertainty in geologic storage capacities and sustainable injection rates (Szulczewski, MacMinn, Herzog, & Juanes, 2012). Another impediment is that the CCS technology is still being developed and demonstrated, albeit some countries have already made significant progress. In Europe, for instance, the most advanced countries are Norway and the United Kingdom (Boasson & Wettestad, 2013; Fuchs, 2015; Watson & Jones, 2015). The British government has contracted two CCS projects with explicit timelines for realization (Inderberg & Wettestad, 2015). Also Canada and the United States have supported the development of CCS. As Watson and Jones (2015, p. 239) explain, in the Canadian case this was stimulated by the international pressure to contribute to climate change mitigation. In the United States, the economic importance of coal has driven the development of CCS projects. Concerning the United Kingdom, Inderberg and Wettestad (2015) emphasize the British oil industry’s expertise in developing and implementing such projects as well as favorable structural capacities, including offshore storage capacity. Since CCS is a controversial technology due to uncertainty about the risks it may entail, the existence of offshore storage capacity seems particularly important (see, e.g., Boasson & Wettestad, 2013; Krause, Carley, Warren, Rupp, & Graham, 2014; Terwel & Daamen, 2012; Wallquist, Visschers, Dohle, & Siegrist, 2012).

Szulczewski and colleagues (2012) refer to the critical role of government policy in developing the large-scale deployment of CCS, since investments in this new technology will depend on the safety and monitoring requirements defined. Therefore, the authors call for a comprehensive policy to foster the deployment of CCS, while acknowledging that government policy is impeded by uncertainty in estimating the time over which CCS will be deployed to identify storage targets or deployment rates that comply with geologic constraints. Against this background, it must be seen as rather unusual that the EU has adopted Directive 2009/31/EC of on the geological storage of carbon dioxide, entered into force in 2009. While the EU member states have largely complied with the specifications of the directive, there is low public and consequently political support for onshore in many of them (Shogenova et al., 2014). Combined with the need for significant investment, this makes the prospects of large-scale use of CCS in Europe rather bleak.

Politics of Oil and Natural Gas

Oil is crucial to many industries and the cornerstone of modern societies. Oil needs to be explored, extracted, refined, and transported before it can be retailed as petroleum products. Oil also serves as a raw material for the production of numerous chemical products. The multiple uses of oil and petroleum products and the concentration of global oil supplies in a few countries make this energy source strategically important. There is a dual risk for countries replying on oil imports: First, there is an economic risk, as the price of oil is volatile and reacts swiftly to changes in the market; second, there is a risk concerning the security of supply, since some of the countries that produce oil suffer from political instability, which poses a threat to stable energy supply (Bang, 2010; see also Löschel, Moslener, & Rübbelke, 2010). The same risks apply to natural gas, which is also produced by a few states. Table 1 gives an overview of the major producers of oil and gas. Two observations are noteworthy: First, these 10 countries account for 67% and 68%, respectively, of the world supply in these two energy sources; second, some countries are top producers of both fossil fuels, giving them significant economic and political power.

Table 1. Top-ten oil and natural gas producers, 2015


Natural gas



% of world supply


% of world supply


Saudi Arabia


United States



United States






























United Arab Emirates


Saudi Arabia












Notes: Own elaboration based on International Energy Agency (2016, pp. 11–13).

The study of these two energy sources has traditionally adopted the perspective of international relations and international political economy. There exists a rich body of research that emphasizes the strategic importance of natural gas to Russia, which has been found to be critical for its foreign policy power (see, e.g., Belyi, 2015; Brutschin, 2015; Goldthau, 2012; Kropatcheva, 2014; Kuzemko, 2013; Tosun, 2012). Scholarly attention has also focused on energy trade on global market, albeit it should be noted that international trade in gas is less developed—but expanding rapidly—and therefore this literature has mostly examined international trade in oil (Skea, 2015, pp. 20–24). According to Hancock and Vivoda (2014), the following topics have received considerable attention in the literature: the role of institutions in ameliorating or avoiding the “resource curse,” the relationship between governments and energy companies, and decision making within the OPEC.

The literature on the so-called resource curse investigates the observation that resource-abundant countries seem to lag behind countries in terms of economic development and democracy, and have a higher propensity for civil wars (see, e.g., Kennedy & Tiede, 2013). An explanation for why resource abundance may reduce economic growth is offered by the model of the “Dutch disease.” According to this model, the abundance of natural resources like fossil fuel leads to a boom in that sector and a massive inflow of foreign currency, which then lead to a real exchange rate appreciation. The result is deterioration in growth of non-resource tradables due to higher prices. The loss in international competitiveness in non-resource tradables then leads to a specialization in natural resources, leaving the economy more vulnerable to resource-specific shocks (Krugman, 1987).

Another explanation that is more compatible with the perspective of political science is that resource abundance leads to a deterioration of institutional quality, which, in turn, lowers economic growth (Mehlum, Moene, & Torvik, 2006, p. 3). This perspective suggests that institutions matter for how natural resources affect economic growth and policy-making (see Acemoglu, Robinson, & Verdier, 2004). Luong and Weinthal (2010) further contributed to the literature by showing that resource-rich states are not cursed by their wealth but, rather, by the ownership structure they establish for managing their resources.

Another strand of research has concentrated on the political power of state-controlled energy companies such as Gazprom in Russia, Saudi Aramco, or Petroleos de Venezuela inside and outside their countries (see, e.g., Kropatcheva, 2014). For example, in 2003 the relationship between Latvia and Russia became strained when the supply of Russian oil to the Latvian port of Ventspils stopped as Transneft—a pipeline company owned by the Russian state—objected to the pipeline-transit and port-loading fees charged by the port (Tosun, 2011). In fact, the global oil and gas production is dominated by state-owned companies (Vecchiato, 2012, p. 440), a fact having numerous implications for energy policy. In this context, Guriev, Kolotilin, and Sonin (2011), for instance, show that governments are more likely to nationalize the oil industry when oil prices are high and when domestic political institutions are weak. Nationalization means direct state control of these key industries. Yet nationalized energy companies are still affected by internationalization, which can equally have energy policy implications. Luong and Sierra (2015) show that the cross-national variation in the degree of internationalization is explained by whether the national energy company emerged through a consensual or conflictual nationalization process, and whether managers’ and the government’s interests regarding internationalization converged. A related line of research addresses the relationship between host governments and international oil companies over the division of rents and changes in the balance of power between host states and the state-owned energy companies (Hancock & Vivoda, 2014). More broadly, Belyi and Talus (2015, p. 1) address the multifaceted interaction between the state and the market in the hydrocarbon sectors and argue that these two institutional arenas are not linked in a linear fashion to each other, which makes their relationship an intriguing case for in-depth analysis.

Finally, the coordination of interests and actions among oil-producing countries in OPEC has been studied. Most studies have focused on whether the member states have managed to coordinate their interests to be able to exert effective control of the international oil market (for an overview, see Hancock & Vivoda, 2014). However, what makes OPEC an interesting case from the perspective of political science is its interaction with policy decisions taking by national governments: As Hochman and Zilberman (2015, p. 203) explain, OPEC only sets production quotas, while the individual countries set domestic fuel policies. Likewise, national governments have approached OPEC in the past to induce the member states to make decisions in a view to influence oil prices.

The dependence on oil and natural gas has also produced research that adopts a public policy perspective, but this body of research is smaller compared to that in international relations and international political economy. There exists a rich body of research concentrating on the variation in national energy policy measures, including regulatory instruments, market-based instruments (e.g., taxes), and foreign policy. While it, of course, matters to what extent a country depends on oil and natural gas imports and exports, it is also important to take into account the structure of energy markets. Furthermore, there are different national preferences for certain types of energy policy (Hughes & Lipscy, 2013, p. 455): France, for example, adopted an approach of increased state control through the promotion of nuclear energy and nationalization of energy companies to adjust to oil price volatility, whereas the United States regarded a policy of price liberalization a more appropriate measure (see also Belyi & Talus, 2015). These decisions taken in the past constrain future decisions in energy policy. A central subject matter with regard to energy policy in energy-dependent countries is how to lower the dependency on energy imports. A popular strategy has been to increase the security of supply by diversifying energy sources (see, e.g., Löschel et al., 2010). Another option refers to policy measures promoting energy conservation and the efficient use of energy (see, e.g., Hildén, 2011; Ward & Cao, 2012).

The literature has acknowledged that in the future there will be increased competition over oil and natural resources between industrialized states and emerging economies. This prospect of limited access to fossil fuels is expected to trigger changes in energy policy (see, e.g., Bang, 2010). The policy response can be such that renewable energy will be promoted, but it can also lead to an increased exploration and exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels, or changes in foreign and security policy. In the past, concerns over the security of energy supply have led to the development of emergency oil stocks (see Tosun, 2011, 2012). Confronted with the dual challenge of energy security and decarbonization, the future shape of energy policy in most countries will most likely assign an important role to renewable energy (but see van den Bergh, Folke, Polasky, Scheffer, & Steffen, 2015).

Unconventional Fossil Fuels: Balancing Perils and Promises

As the demand for energy supply is increasing with the economic development of an ever-growing number of countries, policy-makers have become willing to explore the possibility of using unconventional energy sources. The term “unconventional” refers to the fact that with previous existing technologies these energy sources could not be extracted. This clarification also suggests that unconventional fossil fuels could not be used if there was no technological advancement making this possible. Given the novelty of the technology used for the production of unconventional fossil fuels, policy-making must acknowledge the comparatively high degree of risk and uncertainty involved (see, e.g., Tosun & Lang, 2016). The dominant research perspective on unconventional fossil fuels concerns the technological, social, and political challenges associated with the new technologies as well as questions about their commercial viability and future levels of energy production.

Three main types of unconventional fossil fuels are at the center of attention: oil shale, oil sands, and shale gas. Oil shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock containing kerogen, from which liquid shale oil can be produced. While shale oil is a substitute for conventional crude oil, the economic costs and the environmental impact of the extraction of shale oil are significantly higher than the production of conventional crude oil. Given these drawbacks, oil shales are exploited in only few countries such as Brazil, China, and Estonia, but a couple of countries (e.g., Australia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, and the United States) are exploring or even preparing the use of oil shale resources (Bradshaw, Dutton,& Bridge, 2015). Yet policy-makers seem to be aware of the drastic environmental impacts associated with the extraction of shale oil. In the U.S. state of Colorado, , for example, the water use for oil shale production and its impacts on water resources of the Colorado River Basin would be significant (Mangmeechai, Jaramillo, Griffin, & Matthews, 2014). Therefore, it is unlikely that policy-makers in Colorado will pursue this option for energy production if environmentally less significant and commercially more viable technologies are available.

The second type of unconventional fossil fuels refers to oil sands, which are also known as tar or bitumen sands. When processed by adequate technology, crude bitumen can be extracted from oil sands. While oil sand deposits exist globally, the largest quantities are located in the Canadian province of Alberta where crude bitumen is already extracted from oil sands (Bradshaw, Dutton, & Bridge, 2015, pp. 274–275). Despite the economic boom brought to Alberta by the oil sands mining process, the public is concerned about the associated environmental and health impacts of oil sands development. Therefore, NGOs and scientists are acting as “watchdogs” to ensure that the oil companies comply with their legal obligations (see also Thynne & Peters, 2015). Scientists have, for instance, developed the vegetation-based Index of Biotic Integrity, which provides an ecological assessment tool that helps to assess the ecological health of natural, degraded, or reclaimed wetlands (Raab & Bayley, 2012). Naturally, many environmental groups like Greenpeace oppose this practice and ask the government to stop the development of oil sands. These groups lobby the government directly, while also taking less direct action by working with the impacted communities and entering in a dialogue with the oil companies.3

The “shale gas revolution” in the United States brought about by the use of hydraulic fracturing has led to burgeoning political, public, and academic interest in this energy production technology (Weible, Heikkila, Ingold, & Fischer, 2016). Hydraulic fracturing is about releasing natural gas inside rock formations by drilling and injecting a mix of chemicals, sand, and water into the ground at a high pressure (Davis, 2012). Despite the recent attention toward shale gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, it is worth noting that it is an established and tested technology that has been used for three decades in several European countries (European Parliament, 2012, p. 15). The more novel component of this technology refers to horizontal drilling, which has helped significantly to make the extraction commercially viable (McGowan, 2014, p. 44).

The United States and Canada are the major producers of shale gas (Bradshaw, Dutton, & Bridge 2015; Johnson & Boersma, 2013). However, the commercial potential of shale gas has not gone unnoticed in other world regions, and therefore there have been political initiatives to explore the potential for the extraction of shale gas. Still, fierce public opposition to shale gas extraction in some European states—most notably France—has resulted in the institution of bans (see, e.g., Bomberg, 2014; McGowan, 2014; Tosun, 2015; Weible et al., 2016). To be sure, hydraulic fracturing is associated with large amounts of water extraction and the contamination of groundwater supplies with chemicals (Davis, 2012, p. 180). Other potential environmental and health hazards concern fugitive methane emissions, anthropogenic seismicity, noise pollution, and landscape changes (Johnson & Boersma, 2013, pp. 391–393).

Political science research has concentrated on the trade-offs between the scientific uncertainty over the adverse effects of hydraulic fracturing and the economic promises of shale gas extraction. In this context, research has concentrated on when policy change—either conceived as a tightening of the existing regulatory regime or a loosening of it—occurs (Weible et al., 2016). Concentrating on the U.S. state of Colorado, Heikkila and colleagues (2014) investigate the beliefs and framing strategies of actor groups advocating a specific policy on hydraulic fracturing. The authors explain that the government policy in Colorado could be changed so that chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing must now be disclosed because of the critical role of policy entrepreneurs supporting this change.

A complementary perspective is offered by Tosun and Lang (2016), who show that changes in the regulation of hydraulic fracturing in Germany resulted from changes in which political parties formed the government. The pro-industry government coalition consisting of the Free Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union considered liberalizing hydraulic fracturing. After the elections that resulted in the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union forming a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party, hydraulic fracturing entered the political agenda again, but this time government adopted a law that would virtually ban this activity. In other words, the German example shows that party politics matters in explaining the regulation of hydraulic fracturing. From this, it follows that the outcome of energy politics, even if it concerns an unconventional technology, can be explained by conventional theories.

All three unconventional fossil fuels—oil shales, oil sands, and shale gas—have in common that their extraction requires technologies that are perceived to bring dangers to humans and the environment (Bradshaw, Dutton, & Bridge, 2015). Therefore, these corresponding extraction technologies are contested. Analytically interesting is the question about how proponents and opponents of these technologies seek to influence policy-making, whether policy change occurs, and the direction and degree of the policy change.

Nuclear Power Generation and the Organization of Social Cleavages

The longest standing controversy in energy politics, without question, concerns the use of nuclear reactors to generate electricity (see, e.g., Prontera, 2009; Sovacool, 2011b). Proponents of nuclear energy argue that it represents a low-carbon, low-polluting, affordable, and reliable energy source, which increases the security of domestic energy supply. Opponents of this technology point to the various types of safety risks posed by nuclear power, including nuclear weapons proliferation, meltdowns, and the release of radioactive particles due to accidents or sabotage, and the unsolved problem of radioactive nuclear waste (see, e.g., Srinivasan & Rethinaraj, 2013).

Nuclear power used to be a well-accepted technology in the 1960s and 1970s. The oil price crisis of 1973 in particular promised an expansion of nuclear power production in an attempt to diversify energy sources and to become less dependent on energy supplies from OPEC countries. Some observers claim that by the end of the 1970s, nuclear overcapacities even existed in some countries (Thurner, Mittermeier, & Küchenhoff, 2014, p. 164). However, public skepticism toward nuclear power rose during the 1970s. On March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial meltdown and therefore represented the most significant accident in the United States. This accident also drastically changed the U.S. media discourse on nuclear power via changes in the use of “media packages.” According to Gamson and Modigliani (1989), until the Three Mile Island accident, the dominant media package on nuclear power emphasized the merits of technological and societal progress. After the Three Mile Island accident, this media package became contested by others that emphasized the dangers of nuclear power, the lack of public accountability in relation to the nuclear power industry, and stressed that simple cost–benefit analysis would not account for the risks of nuclear power.

The accident that occurred on April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine had a massive impact on society and politics all over Europe. It led to the formation of the nationalist movement in Ukraine, which eventually resulted in the country’s independence from the Soviet Union (Dawson, 1995). In Western Europe, the Chernobyl accident had a profound impact on the organization of societal cleavages and culminated to the formation or strengthening of green parties (Jahn, 1993; Joppke, 1993; Müller-Rommel & Poguntke, 2002; Nohrstedt, 2010; Touraine, 1983; Wüstenhagen & Bilharz, 2006), which then had repercussions on politics more broadly, including political parties but also other societal actors like trade unions. The political changes in Western Europe resulted in the formation of the subfield of green politics and eventually of energy politics (see Jahn, 1993; Jahn & Korolczuk, 2012) as well as the emergence of a new social paradigm (Milbrath, 1989; Milbrath & Fisher, 1984).

Somewhat surprisingly, however, the 1990s then were marked by a greater political support for nuclear power at the global level. With the rise of climate change on the political agenda and concerns about energy security in the wake of major political transformation processes unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the benefits of nuclear power dominated political considerations (Lehtonen & Martiskainen, 2015, p. 307). This perception of nuclear power came to a sudden end when on March 11, 2011, the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan occurred: The event induced several countries to halt or scale down their nuclear programs, and in some countries even led to the phase-out of nuclear power.

According to prominent theories of policy change, exogenous shocks—and the partial reactor meltdown in Fukushima certainly merits this label—provide an opportunity for policy change, as they change the perception of issues and power balances (for an overview, see Sabatier & Weible, 2014). In contrast to this theoretical prediction, in Japan the exogenous shock did not materialize in a fundamental policy change. Subsequent to the accident, protests took place to express public frustrations over the poor management of the accident by the Japanese government. The three agencies responsible for nuclear power management had difficulties coordinating themselves and producing consistent responses, a problem that obviously fueled public discontentment (Srinivasan & Rethinaraj, 2013, p. 733). Despite the protests, however, the Japanese government restarted two nuclear reactors in the summer of 2012. According to Rudolph and Schneider (2013), no major policy change happened, since the public protests did not lead to the creation of a new political party that would have promoted the issue of phasing out nuclear power. This view is supported by Rinscheid (2015), who shows that only low pressure was exerted on Japanese policy-makers to alter the policy on nuclear power.

Nevertheless, the accident did entail some changes to the existing nuclear policy. According to Srinivasan and Rethinaraj (2013, p. 733), just one year before the Fukushima accident, the Japanese government presented plans to raise “the share of nuclear power in electricity generation to about 40% by 2020 and eventually to 50% for meeting an ambitious carbon emissions reduction target of 25% below its 1990 levels.” In the government’s plan for electricity generation presented in June 2015, the share of nuclear power was indicated by 20–22% of the overall energy mix.4 Thus, the accident did help to lower the current prioritization of nuclear power to the Japanese government.

In other places, the Fukushima nuclear accident has resulted in major policy change (see, e.g., Hindmarsh & Priestley, 2016). Perhaps the best-known example is Germany, which in response to the accident announced that it would close all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. This decision was taken by a government, which, just until a couple of months before the accident, pursued an entirely different approach. In 2000, the German government consisting of the Social Democrats and the Greens announced its intention to gradually phase out the production of nuclear energy. It is important to note that the German Green Party originated from the 1970s anti-nuclear movement and so this party has been committed to replacing nuclear power by renewable energy since its creation (Wüstenhagen & Bilharz, 2006, p. 1682). When in 2009 the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government, the phase-out policy was put back on the political agenda, and the government announced that it would give 8-year extensions for nuclear reactors built before 1980. Also, it foresaw operation extensions of about 14 years for newer nuclear power plants than envisaged in 2002 (Jahn & Korolczuk, 2012, p. 161). In the wake of the Fukushima accident and elections in three German states in which the Greens benefited from substantive electoral gains, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a moratorium on nuclear power during which the nuclear power plants would undergo systematic checks (Jahn & Korolczuk, 2012, p. 161). The result was a permanent shut down of eight of 17 nuclear reactors and the announcement that the remaining nuclear reactors would be phased out within 10 years and a transition of renewable energy would be pursued (Inderberg & Wettestad, 2015, p. 1020).

For explaining the different degrees of policy change in Japan and Germany, a plausible explanation refers to the differences in the political party landscape. In Germany, there exists an electorally successful Green Party, which has its roots in the anti-nuclear movement and therefore benefited from “owning” this issue, having repercussions on party competition (Jahn, 1993; Jahn & Korolczuk, 2012).

However, it is not only partisan differences that explain national variations in using nuclear power in Germany and Japan. For example, Cherp et al. (2017) et al. argue that the presence of coal and renewable energy as substitutes for nuclear power facilitated the energy transition in Germany, which, in turn, are available because of policy decisions taken in the past. The policy decision taken in the 1990s in Japan was one to expand nuclear energy in response to high energy insecurity, which is the main reason for why alternative energy sources are almost absent there.

Even if the Fukushima accident did not culminate in policy change at the global scale (see Hindmarsh & Priestley, 2016), it certainly had an impact on public opinions on nuclear power. As Welsch and Biermann (2014) argue, for instance, the extensive media coverage of the nuclear accident at Fukushima is likely to have affected the subjective assessment regarding the probability of and damages from nuclear accidents in Europe. Altogether, the public opinion seems to have been affected negatively by the accident, suggesting that nuclear power is likely to become less and less attractive. In fact, even France, a country with the strongest political and public support of nuclear power, has decided to cut down nuclear power in favor of renewable energies.5 More generally, the acceptance of nuclear powers seems to be a “reluctant” one; as Corner and colleagues (2011) show, most people express only conditional support for this technology as a means for addressing climate change and energy security.

However, countries wishing to phase out nuclear power must find alternatives for electricity generation, and many emerging economies are not willing to look for such alternatives. This is reflected in the number of emerging economies and developing countries pursuing the building of nuclear power plants. Climate change is the major argument in favor of nuclear power, followed by an optimistic assessment of technological developments that would reduce the safety issues associated with nuclear power, and considerations about increasing the security of supply (Lehtonen & Martiskainen, 2015, pp. 314–319). Therefore, the climate change debate is in part responsible for why a growing number of developing states has signaled interest in this technology. In this context, Jewell (2011) draws attention to the state capacity needed for launching nuclear power programs and suggests that developing states that may wish to develop nuclear power could fail to do so due to insufficient capacities (see also Thurner et al., 2014).

Renewable Energy: The Challenges of Developing Innovation Systems

As the previous sections have shown, both conventional and unconventional fossil fuels are finite and there is competition over them, which is likely to become even fiercer in the future (see Skea, 2015, pp. 15–18). One popular policy response to this situation has been the diversification of energy sources; another one is to adopt policies that encourage the efficient use of energy and energy conservation (see, e.g., Hildén, 2011).6 Again another approach is to replace fossil fuels by renewable energy, that is, energy generates from renewable sources such as biomass, geothermal heat, sunlight, water, and wind.

Energy production from renewable sources corresponds to Lovins’s (1979) notion of a soft path. Renewable energy comes with several advantages;7 one of them is that the energy sources are geographically widely distributed and therefore could, in principle, be produced in almost any country. Furthermore, renewables gained currency in the last few decades as a means to increase energy security (see, e.g., Löschel et al., 2010), mitigate climate change (see, e.g., Edenhofer et al., 2011), lower the environmental impact of energy production (see, e.g., Geißler, Köppel, & Gunther, 2013), and bring economic benefits (see, e.g., Lambert & Silva, 2012). Finally, Lovins (1979) claims the soft path is more democratic, flexible, and appropriate than the hard path to energy production (Sovacool, 2011a, p. 1178).

Despite the numerous advantages of renewable energy vis-à-vis fossil fuels, renewable energy technologies have diffused only slowly. Negro et al. (2012) associate this diffusion pattern with several causes: First, there has been a high volatility in the policies promoting renewable energy; second, the characteristics of energy markets (e.g., the paradigm of large-scale centralized power generation) hamper the diffusion of renewable energy technologies; third, social acceptance has been low; fourth, there has been a lack of capabilities, such as the lack of technological knowledge of policy-makers and engineers, as well as the lack of policy entrepreneurship (on the last point, see, e.g., Heikkila et al., 2014; Herweg, 2015; Jacobs, 2015; Maltby, 2013).

The first and fourth points identified by Negro et al. (2012) are directly related to the behavior of policy-makers. A related point is made by Dumas, Rising, and Urpelainen (2016) who show that party competition matters for the promotion of renewable energy, which also ties in with the argument advanced by Jahn and Korolczuk (2012). Farla, Markard, Raven, and Coenen (2012) adopt a broader perspective and examine the role of different types of actors. The authors find that changes in sociotechnical systems can be traced back to strategic interventions by players with some kind of a vision, which is in line with the notion of policy entrepreneurs.

The second and third points are less directly affected by policy-making. Renewable energy technology would diffuse more quickly if the economy regarded renewable energy a reliable and cheap production factor. As explained above, renewable energy can, and actually is, produced locally, which, however, sometimes leads to protests of local communities, known as the “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) phenomenon (see, e.g., Burningham et al., 2015; Daamen, 2012; Krause et al., 2014; Terwel & Petrova, 2013).

Both issues lacking economic attractiveness and the NIMBY problem could be solved by promoting innovations in renewable energy, that is, “research, development, demonstration, and deployment efforts driven by collective learning processes” (Gallagher, Grübler, Kuhl, Nemet, & Wilson, 2012, p. 137). Innovations in renewable energy technology can help to increase the reliability and lower the costs of this energy source, thereby creating more demand for it from both private and corporate consumers. Moreover, innovations can help to better integrate the electricity generated from renewable sources into the transmission systems. In this way, electricity could be produced in areas where residents have a more positive attitude toward renewable energy production and then transmitted to other places, thus circumventing the NIMBY problem. However, innovations crucially depend on the incentive structures offered by government and therefore are also a subject of policy-making (see, e.g., Hildén, 2011). In this context, Cheon and Urpelainen (2012) have shown that increasing oil prices induce policy-makers and private entrepreneurs alike to invest in the development of renewable energy technologies.

Policy-makers can also promote renewable energy by additional policy measures (see, e.g., Maor, Tosun, & Jordan, 2017). A case in point is the instrument of feed-in tariffs, which are characterized by three features (Jacobs, 2015). First, the policy obliges grid operators to buy all electricity produced from renewable sources regardless of the electricity demand level. Second, the producers of electricity from renewable sources are guaranteed a certain amount of money per unit of electricity produced. Third, this payment is guaranteed over a sufficiently long period of time in a view to reduce the investment risks. Feed-in tariffs have been adopted by a growing number of states (see, e.g., Falkner, 2014, p. 193; Schaffer & Bernauer, 2014). In the European Union, for instance, Germany has been active in promoting this instrument that itself had adopted as early as 1990 (see, e.g., Cox & Dekanozishvili, 2015). Another policy instrument for encouraging a switch to renewable energy is taxes on energy produced from fossil fuels (Falkner, 2014, p. 192; see also Andersen, 2010). However, an effective policy must also adopt the perspective of the consumer, who despite positive attitudes toward renewable energy tend to purchase low shares of green electricity in most countries. Policy responses that seek to change this need to lower the price for purchasing green electricity, but also provide information to increase the perceived benefit of buying green electricity as well as targeted communication (Litvine & Wüstenhagen, 2011).

While pioneering countries that invent and adopt a policy innovation are certainly important for triggering cross-national diffusion (see, e.g., Andersen & Liefferink, 1999), international organizations also matter for stimulating such diffusion processes (see, e.g., Henisz, Zelner, & Guillén, 2005). In this context, IRENA might support the global diffusion of policies that help to promote renewable energy (see, e.g., Van de Graaf, 2013). More generally, there is a global governance architecture emerging for the climate–energy nexus, and the development of policy solutions for a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will play an important role in it (see Dubash & Florini, 2011; Falkner, 2014; Massey et al., 2014; Skea, 2015). Within the energy transition debate, a new encompassing perspective of long-term and systemic change is being adopted (see, e.g., Farla, Markard, & Coenen, 2012; Markard, Raven, & Truffer, 2012), which is likely to have implications for how we theorize energy transition and related concepts such as the decarbonization of energy systems (see Oberthür & Dupont, 2015).

Electricity Systems: Alternating Phases of State and Private Governance

Now we turn to the electricity systems, which can be categorized in three types (Mitchell, 2015, pp. 478–479). The first type is characterized by the vertical integration of the generation, distribution, transmission, and retail of energy, where all assets are owned by one private or public entity. The second type is characterized by the different segments (generation, distribution, transmission, and retail) that are separated or unbundled. Finally, the third type is also based on unbundling, but in addition places greater emphasis on electricity markets.

There is agreement that liberalizing the energy system—that is, moving from the first type to the third type—improves technical and operational efficiency. At the same time, however, the reforms require significant expenditures and efforts in the reforming countries. Yet, it should be noted that the market-oriented reforms were strongly encouraged by the World Bank and other international financial institutions. The World Bank even altered its lending policy for power-sector development in such way to ask the borrowing countries to adopt market-based reform models. The promotion of this model by the World Bank explains why many developing and transition countries adopted liberalization measures (Nepal & Jamasb, 2015, p. 20).

Since the 1990s, there has been a global trend toward liberalizing electricity systems. The first country to implement market-oriented reforms in its electricity sector was Chile: as early as 1986, the Chilean government “privatized a majority of its state-owned electric utility, formally separated regulatory authority from the executive branch, depoliticized the regulatory authority in actuality, and liberalized its electricity industry” (Henisz et al., 2005, p. 874; see also Belyi & Talus, 2015; Jordana & Levi-Faur, 2005). The United Kingdom was also among the first movers in liberalizing the electricity sector and is widely considered a point of reference. The liberalization of the electricity market involved the restructuring of the sector to promote competition, the end of monopolized supply, the separation of network maintenance from generation and the separation of supply from the generation of electricity, the introduction of incentives for competitiveness, and the privatization of previous state monopoly incumbents (Humphreys & Padgett, 2006). In parallel, the reorganization of this and other utilities entailed the transnational diffusion of autonomous regulatory agencies, which has a more general impact on governance structures in countries (see, e.g., Jordana & Levi-Faur, 2005; Levi-Faur & Jordana, 2006). The regulatory agencies created in the context of the privatization and liberalization waves have been studied extensively from the perspective of public administration.

Countries, such as France, that had a fully developed electricity system of the first type in place faced difficulties moving away from it, but they had to accept the challenge as the European Union asked its member states to implement reforms in line with the British model (Bauby & Varone, 2007; see also Ciambra & Solorio, 2015; Herweg, 2015). The same problems can be observed for Greece, for instance, in which the state pursues the conflicting goals of liberalizing the electricity market while trying to preserve state ownership in important parts of the economy (Danias, Swales, & McGregor, 2013). The liberalization of the electricity sector was particularly challenging in the post-Soviet states (see, e.g., Nepal & Jamasb, 2015). Between 2005 and 2008 the Russian federal government sold off most of the majority stakes in power plants in an attempt to create a large number of new private electricity companies to trigger competition, but effectively only 20 new private companies were created, which did not help to stimulate economic competition (Wengle, 2012, p. 82). Yet, it is not only the state’s reluctance to give up control of the electricity utilities, but also reforms in this area have been found to be affected by the influence of interest groups. Henisz and Zelner (2006) show that veto points in formal policy-making generally structure political actors’ sensitivity to interest group demands, and thus have an impact on policy outcomes. Furthermore, Ibarra-Yunez (2015) illustrates how the power producers are critical players in unbundling electricity systems, as they can restrain supply or face regulatory risk that reduces market commitment if the recently enacted laws show loopholes and gray areas. Along the same lines, the operators in the fields of electricity transmission and distribution could underinvest to create a shortage in supply and high prices.

Conclusions and the Way Forward

What are the goals of energy policy? How does the cross-sectoral nature of energy policy affect how policy measures are proposed, adopted, implemented, and evaluated? Which energy topics are predominantly analyzed from the local perspective? Which topics are analyzed from the national or international perspective? These research questions guided the presentation of energy policy in this article, and now we can address them by drawing the main findings together.

Energy policy—like any other policy area—is characterized by competing and even conflicting goals that in this specific case refer to providing affordable, secure, and clean energy (Prontera, 2009). Governments give different priorities to these three goals, and the importance given to each individual goal is also likely to change over time (see, e.g., Kivimaa & Mickwitz, 2011). What is observable at a global scale, however, is the growing concern regarding climate change and how energy production and utilization contributes to it (Skea, 2015, pp. 25–27).

The cross-sectoral character of energy policy is not directly discussed in the literature, but we can still draw some insights from the rich literature. The different aspects and implications of energy for economy and society, and the corresponding possibility to frame energy in many different ways can be regarded as helpful for bringing energy issues on the political agenda (see, e.g., Tosun, Biesender, & Schulze, 2015). What seems more demanding is to agree on the design of energy policy measures and to reach a consensus so that the policy proposed can be adopted (see, e.g., Bang, 2010; Heikkila et al., 2014; and more generally, Peters, 2015). Political parties that support energy innovations were found to matter for the success of the policy process (see, e.g., Jahn, 1993; Jahn & Korolczuk, 2012; Rudolph & Schneider, 2013; Tosun & Lang, 2016). At any rate, the different consequences of energy policy decisions for different actor groups do seem to complicate the policy process.

The implementation of energy policies—especially those characterized by uncertainty and risks—can be much more contested than one would expect (see, e.g., Inderberg & Wettestad, 2015), but here the cross-sectoral nature does not seem to add much to the usual challenges faced by implementers. With regard to the evaluation of energy policy measures, the involvement of different actor groups is likely to lead to differentiated assessments, whether or not the measure concerned was effective. This insight can mostly be derived from the studies on the privatization of electricity systems that emphasize the different evaluation outcomes of such measures (see, e.g., Nepal & Jamasb, 2015).

It lies in the nature of the many different aspects of energy issues, that they are studied from various perspectives. Naturally, the NIMBY phenomenon has been mostly studied at the local level (see, e.g., Burningham et al., 2015; Krause et al., 2014; Petrova, 2013; Terwel & Daamen, 2012). Then there exist numerous studies adopting a national perspective (see, e.g., Dubash, 2011; Hildén, 2011; Kivimaa & Mickwitz, 2011; Rudolph & Schneider, 2013) or a comparative perspective (see, e.g., Cirone & Urpelainen, 2013; Henisz & Zelner, 2006; Inderberg & Wettestad, 2015). However, the greatest share of literature addresses issues related to international relations and international security (for an overview see, e.g., Hancock & Vivoda, 2014).

The wide range of social science disciplines investigating energy politics is reflected in the diversity of methods used. The insights provided draw on the most different types of research designs, ranging from single case studies to comparative case studies and macroquantitative comparative work. Of course, the research questions vary depending on the methodology chosen. Particularly rich is the literature on biofuels that has been addressed from all three perspectives. Schut, Slingerland, and Locke (2010), for instance, investigate the policy objectives of the government of Mozambique for promoting biofuels production (single case study). Franco and colleagues (2010) then compare the promotion of biofuel production in Mozambique with the experiences of Brazil and Germany with a view to understand this policy implemented and to project its impacts. Tosun and Schulze (2015) investigate the adoption of policies promoting the use of biofuels in Eastern Europe to learn about whether countries with strong lobby groups are more likely to adopt such a policy. By combining the insights provided by these three methodologically different studies, we gain a better insight into the causes that drive the adoption of biofuels policies and their likely impacts. The use of a wider range of theories and research methods clearly connects energy politics to other areas in comparative politics.

Despite the insights provided, there exist several avenues for future research. First, in light of the absence of global energy governance, the domestic energy policy responses represent an important subject of analysis. From this, it follows that the ideological underpinning of energy policy preferences deserves more scholarly attention. While in the case of ecological parties and the issue of renewable energy promotion the relationship is straightforward, there are several other areas in which it is difficult to formulate expectations. In this regard, it seems particularly promising to analyze how different political parties interpret and strategically use the term “energy security”—a direction of future research inspired by the work of Fischhendler and Katz (2013) and Fischhendler and Nathan (2014).

Second, the role of domestic institutions with the propensity for adopting innovative energy policies and technologies that originate from other countries or international organizations appears promising. There exist several insightful studies highlighting how energy policy innovations diffuse internationally (see, e.g., Massey et al., 2014; Schaffer & Bernauer, 2014). These also take into account whether countries are democracies or autocracies—a perspective that merits to be taken up more systematically in the future (see Tosun & Croissant, 2016). Yet the mediating role of political regime characteristics seems to deserve more systematic theorizing in order to further our understanding of how exactly institutions matter for diffusion processes.

Third, the role of citizens for energy politics remains an area that merits more scholarly attention by future research. Of course, state intervention and the adoption of legally binding policies dominate energy issues and, considering the transboundary character of energy production and consumption and the strategic importance of this sector, this makes perfect sense. Nonetheless, there are several initiatives at the local level where citizens coordinate themselves and come up with innovative institutional arrangements for producing and consuming energy. For example, there exist renewable energy projects that are funded and controlled by farmers and local wind cooperatives. Research shows that public attitudes toward wind farms are more positive where local communities have a direct involvement in such projects (Warren & McFadyen, 2010). A feeling of ownership may help to reduce the NIMBY problem sketched above. How can local policy-makers induce people to get involved in renewable energy cooperatives? This is one question that could be taken up by future research.

Fourth, research on the public acceptance of nuclear power has shown that there is a reluctant acceptance of this technology (see, e.g., Corner et al., 2011). In this context, it would be interesting to know whether the association of a controversial energy source with climate change also helps to increase the degree to which this source becomes accepted. For example, biofuels have been criticized on environmental, social, and ethical grounds (see, e.g., Ponte & Daugbjerg, 2015). Despite the criticism, both policy-makers and the public in many countries still accept biofuels (see, e.g., Tosun & Schulze, 2015), and it is conceivable that this also stems from a framing of biofuels as a means to increase energy security and mitigate climate change (see, e.g., Delshad & Raymond, 2013).

Altogether, there are many important questions with regard to energy politics, which are only beginning to be addressed. Therefore, there are several opportunities to improve our understanding of the mechanisms underlying energy politics, namely, by going beyond theoretical boundaries of the individual social science disciplines and integrating a wider range of conceptual and empirical approaches.

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(1.) This article is based on research insights obtained in the research project “Agenda Setting in European Energy Policy: Actors, Preferences and Strategies,” funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation (Grant Number: and discussions at various workshops funded by the European Cooperation in Science and Technology [INOGOV – Innovations in Climate Governance (IS1309)]. Moreover, the author acknowledges valuable research assistance by Felix Scholl and language editing by Hannah Schachter. The article also benefited from comments by an anonymous reviewer.

(2.) This information was taken from the following website: In this context, it should be noted that the IEA—despite its name—comprises 29 member states only and that in order to become a member of the IEA—in addition to other criteria—a country must be a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Despite the exclusivity of membership, according to Van de Graaf (2013, p. 15), “the IEA is the closest we have to a World Energy Organization.” This is different in the case of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA): Membership is open to those states that are members of the United Nations and to regional intergovernmental economic integration organizations. Of the 175 states eligible for membership, IRENA has 144 members, and 31 states have started the formal process of becoming members. For further details consult the following website:

(3.) This information was taken from the following website: Greenpeace.

(4.) This information was taken from the following website: Nuclear Power in Japan.

(5.) This information was taken from the following website: France tilting toward nuclear phase-out.

(6.) There exists a literature on the “rebound effect,” which addresses the phenomenon that measures adopted in a view to achieve energy conservation may give rise to unintended, additional energy uses, thereby reducing the net effect of energy savings (see, e.g., Azevedo, 2014; Dimitropoulos, 2007).

(7.) It should be noted that renewable energy production has also been associated with negative environmental impacts, which is investigated in the literature on environmental problem shifting (see, e.g., van den Bergh et al., 2015).