In the last century, markets, technical configurations, existing power relations, and prevailing ideologies in industrialised countries have co-evolved in ways that promote fossil-fuel-based systems. Relatedly, the literature on sustainability transitions (STs) has gained significance in the last twenty years, primarily because of increased interest by those who are concern with enabling shifts towards low-carbon sources of energy. This research examines the kinds of changes which take place in fossil fuel path-dependent systems in response to pressure imposed by the advent of greener alternatives. Understanding how fossil-fuelled path-dependent systems respond to such pressures enables us to identify counter-strategies, which may be helpful in accelerating sustainability transitions.
Using a combination of the multi-level perspective on socio-technical transitions and institutional theory, the thesis presents case studies centred on South Africa’s coal-fired electricity regime, which is entrenched in a system known as the minerals-energy complex. The case studies examine how the coal-fired electricity regime tried to maintain stability in the face of pressure to decarbonise by diversifying to include more renewables-based and gas-fired electricity generation, each of which is considered as a niche.
The findings from the case studies are organised into three articles. The first paper presents a case study on the establishment of the MEC and shows how it became a highly path-dependent system, posing a formidable obstacle and challenge for new entrants. The second paper investigates the contestation between the dominant regime incumbent, Eskom, versus the nascent renewable energy programme. This paper demonstrates an evolving strategy of regime resistance in response to several gains achieved by the renewables niche over time. The third paper examines the emergence of a gas-to-power niche against a backdrop of interactions between electricity and liquid fuel regimes. This paper shows the highly dynamic changes that take place in a regime as it tries to maintain stability.
The overall findings demonstrate that the electricity regime evolved from highly stable to having features of a fractured regime, or what could be understood to be a form of destabilisation. The thesis contributes to the ST field by suggesting several ways in which regime stability and change could be better understood. These include enhanced theorising of regime resistance through analysis of the regime’s multi-dimensional selection environment and mobilising endogenous institutional concepts through various institutional modes of change (drift, layering, conversion and displacement) into the theory. Policy recommendations suggests a fractured regime requires a temporally sensitive displacement policy mix. This is one in which varying stages of regime stability are recognised and potentially exploited by corresponding niche strategies.