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Smart grids and institutional change: Emerging contestations between organisations over smart energy transitions

Smart grids are promoted as promising pathways for dealing with new grid challenges that have arisen by the introduction of renewable energies. In Germany, increasing shares of volatile renewables have led to a growing number of smart grid pilot projects and related regulatory and market developments. Even though, much has been done to develop the smart grid, significant difficulties remain, in particular, the re-negotiation of new roles and responsibilities of the organisational actors involved. From a sociological perspective, these shifts imply changes to current institutional arrangements within energy systems.

Drawing on new organisational institutionalism and a qualitative analysis of German smart grid developments, this paper sheds light on organisations’ differing practices aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions (i.e. institutional work). First, we show how organisations’ existing roles, rules, norms, and beliefs are being challenged (or not) through the rise of smart grid technologies and what contestations have arisen within the smart grid field. Second, we analyse how organisations attempt to influence institutional changes and identify five different forms of institutional work conducted by actors in the German smart grid field. The paper demonstrates how organisations within smart grid developments attempt to reconfigure institutional arrangements in diverging or even contradictory ways. The paper reveals how the re institutionalisation processes related to smart grids require fundamental changes in the common meaning system. Implementing these changes will remain a challenge if actors try to maintain existing institutional arrangements.