Space travel : constructing and contesting a solar photovoltaic (PV) niche in the UK (1970-2012)

A. Smith, F. Kern, R.P.J.M. Raven, B. Verhees

Research output: Contribution to conferenceOtherAcademic


Whilst the research, development and use of PV can be traced back to space satellite programmes in the 1950s, explorations for its terrestrial potential began after the energy crises of the 1970s. In this paper we provide a history of its development in the UK, where, after a further four decades of fitful innovation, and various twists and turns along the way, PV has recently undergone a rapid boom. However, it is a contested boom, with complaints about cost leading to policy revisions that once more threaten PV prospects. Based on 14 in-depth interviews and documentary analysis, we explain the tenacity of this ‘hopeful monstrosity’ along its journey. Even now, like many ‘sustainable innovations’, PV remains at a competitive disadvantage in existing markets; and relies upon policy to express the environmental and social values PV claims to embody. Whilst policy dependence emphasises development focused within the nation state, the PV journey in the UK includes detours through European research programmes, into space satellites, periods in African villages, as well as help from German industrial policy. A concept central to strategic niche management, and key to technological innovation systems, is the provision of spaces favourable to sustainable innovation. Yet their construction is rarely interrogated and their influence on directions of travel is obscure. Our analysis suggests prospective and retrospective narratives about PV resonating with broader discourses and interests explain how protective spaces emerge, stabalize and decline over time; and how the characteristics of those spaces shaped the journey PV has taken.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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