Shaping the fuel cell transport network: an explorative analysis STEFANO POGUTz AND ANGELOANTONIO RUSSO
Introduction Over the past decade, the exploration of possible responses to climate change, resource scarcity and ecosystem degradation has prompted a search for innovative technologies in both the energy and transport sectors. Numerous scholars concur that these complex and pervasive problems urgently require major changes, including radical transformations of existing technological innovation systems (TISs) and new forms of governance in order to foster a transition towards a more environmentally sustainable society (Geels, 2010; Smith et al., 2010). The goal of this study is to explore the development and diffusion of fuel cell technologies in the transport sector, with specific regard to the formation of networks and the role of key players in the evolution of these technologies. Fuel cells are viewed as one of the most promising innovations for the efficient conversion of energy. Furthermore, when combined with hydrogen, they represent an attractive alternative to the carbon-based solutions that currently dominate the market. Moreover, as a carrier, hydrogen is effective at improving air quality and, when obtained from a renewable primary energy source, in helping to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). Hydrogen also offers energy security and independence from a reliance on oil and gas reserves concentrated in sensitive geographical areas (DOE, 2002; Edwards et al., 2008). For these reasons, fuel cells and hydrogen have captured the attention of governments and policy makers around the world. The United States, the European Union, Germany, the Scandinavian countries (including Iceland) and Japan have all implemented specific policies to advance and promote these innovations (Solomon and Banerjee, 2006). At the same time, a transition to a new and more sustainable TIS is a complex, uncertain process that is fraught with obstacles and barriers (Bergek et al., 2008). This is particularly true in the case of fuel cells and hydrogen, as significant technical breakthroughs and cost reductions are necessary to increase the technology’s competitiveness, and to support industrial and market development (Pogutz et al., 2009a). Moreover, the lock-in effects of prevailing technologies are particularly intense in the transport industry, where infrastructure and engines
are based on oil and oil-derived fuels, making the development of alternative solutions extremely complex. Hydrogen has been the subject of intense debate in recent years. This debate focuses on the opportunities and risks related to a transition towards this new energy system (Hammerschlag and Mazza, 2005). Despite this controversy, a huge number of firms from different sectors are involved in the development and diffusion of these new technologies, and a number of alliances and innovations are occurring in the socio-economic environment. One rich stream of literature on technological change and innovation systems focuses on the roles of alliances and networks. Inter-organizational alliances affect such firm outcomes as performance and innovation (Powell et al., 1996; Stuart, 2000; Zaheer and Bell, 2005). Moreover, the emergence of a structural pattern of cooperation among firms has often been identified as a prerequisite for the formation of a specific industry (Borgatti and Foster, 2003; Kogut, 2000). A TIS has been conceived of as: ‘A set or network of actors and institutions that jointly interact in a specific technological field and contribute to the generation, diffusion, and utilization of variants of a new technology and/or a new product’ (Markard and Truffer, 2008: 611). Therefore, networks – both formal and informal – are structural components of TISs. They contribute to knowledge formation and diffusion, thereby facilitating learning processes, and the establishment of political norms and beliefs (Bergek et al., 2008). In light of the above, this study adopts a network perspective based on a longitudinal analysis of alliances related to fuel cell transport technologies established from 1999 to 2009. The identification of a network of alliances aggregated around fuel cells is important for understanding the state and dynamics of this TIS. The formation of a network is a signal that there is a diffuse interest in the technology and its market potential (Nieuwenhuis and Wells, 2003). This leads to our first research question:
RQ1 Does a network of alliances exist for the fuel cell transport industry and how has it evolved over time?