Introduction The renewable and low carbon energy initiatives described in the policy documents of many European city authorities convey a sense of increasing ambition to move away from urban infrastructures reliant on intensive use of energy from fossil fuels to a future where ‘green’ cities take responsibility for sustainable energy production and consumption. This impression is reinforced by European national and supra-national energy and climate policies which position cities as having signifi cant responsibility for governing societal innovation, and by the transnational knowledge exchange networks of municipal authorities intended to support ‘smart’ sustainable cities,1 where depoliticised ‘route maps’ and ‘tool kits’ are presented as offering a standardised framework for rational problem solving. However, these ambitions to reshape urban energy systems have to be understood in relation to twenty-fi rst century globalising markets oriented to large-scale exploitation of fossil fuels, where transnational corporations control signifi cant assets. In the last century, as urbanisation intensifi ed and energy use accelerated, energy production in affl uent parts of Europe generally became more geographically remote from cities, was less likely to be governed directly by municipal enterprises and was frequently invisible to inhabitants. In addition, European crises over public fi nances, and the decreasing capacities and powers of many local governments, raise questions about the extent to which municipal authorities can and will respond strategically to the need to transform energy production and consumption for future sustainability.