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The potential of geothermal energy for energy transition is increasingly recognized by governments around the world. Whether geothermal energy is a sustainable source of heat and/or electricity depends on how it is deployed in specific contexts. Therefore, it is striking that there is only limited attention to geothermal energy from a social science and humanities (SSH) perspective. Geothermal energy is largely conceptualized as a technological and/or geological issue in both science and practice. This perspective article aims to go beyond such conceptualizations by positioning social science research as an important lens to explore the promises and pitfalls of geothermal energy. We first provide an overview of the current state of geothermal energy as a decarbonization strategy. Second, we move on to review the existing literature. This review shows that studies that do address geothermal energy from an SSH perspective tend to be of a descriptive nature and lack analytical diversity. Third, we discuss three complementary theoretical approaches that are used in the social sciences to observe and address other forms of energy and energy transition. We believe that socio-technical assemblages, systems, and imaginaries can provide fruitful analytical lenses to study the promises, pitfalls and spatialization of geothermal energy. We conclude the paper with a research agenda and call for further engagement with this topic in SSH research, with attention to specificities of global South and North contexts.
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Energy Research & Social Science 92 (2022) 102801
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Out of steam? A social science and humanities research agenda for
geothermal energy
Rozanne C. Spijkerboer
, Ethemcan Turhan
, Andreas Roos
, Marco Billi
Soa Vargas-Payera
, Jose Opazo
, Marco Armiero
Department of Spatial Planning & Environment, University of Groningen, Landleven 1, 9747, AD, Groningen, the Netherlands
Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Teknikringen 74D, 114 28 Stockholm, Sweden
Department of Rural Management & Innovation, Universidad de Chile, Sta. Rosa 11315, La Pintana, Chile
Center for Climate and Resilience Research (CR)2, Blanco Encalada 2002, Santiago, Chile
Energy Poverty Network, Universidad de Chile, Av. Diagonal Paraguay 265, Santiago, Chile
Centro de Excelencia en Geotermia de Los Andes (CEGA), Universidad de Chile, Pl. Ercilla 803, Santiago, Chile
Transdisciplinarity Lab, Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zürich, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland
Business School, Universidad Adolfo Ib´
nez, Diagonal las Torres, 2640 Pe˜
en, Chile
CNR, ISMed Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean, Naples, 80134, Italy
Socio-technical systems
The potential of geothermal energy for energy transition is increasingly recognized by governments around the
world. Whether geothermal energy is a sustainable source of heat and/or electricity depends on how it is
deployed in specic contexts. Therefore, it is striking that there is only limited attention to geothermal energy
from a social science and humanities (SSH) perspective. Geothermal energy is largely conceptualized as a
technological and/or geological issue in both science and practice. This perspective article aims to go beyond
such conceptualizations by positioning social science research as an important lens to explore the promises and
pitfalls of geothermal energy. We rst provide an overview of the current state of geothermal energy as a
decarbonization strategy. Second, we move on to review the existing literature. This review shows that studies
that do address geothermal energy from an SSH perspective tend to be of a descriptive nature and lack analytical
diversity. Third, we discuss three complementary theoretical approaches that are used in the social sciences to
observe and address other forms of energy and energy transition. We believe that socio-technical assemblages,
systems, and imaginaries can provide fruitful analytical lenses to study the promises, pitfalls and spatialization of
geothermal energy. We conclude the paper with a research agenda and call for further engagement with this
topic in SSH research, with attention to specicities of global South and North contexts.
1. Harnessing the heat below our feet: the need for social
science of geothermal energy
The heat from the core of the Earth can offer an almost limitless
supply of renewable energy if it is accessed in a feasible, efcient, and
sustainable manner. Geothermal energy is broadly dened as the
thermal energy stored underground, including any contained uid,
which is available for extraction and conversion into energy products
(p.1 [1]). It is a renewable source of energy which is not affected by
weather and seasonal variations
and, therefore, it can produce a stable
base-load capacity. Geothermal energy can be used in a exible manner
to assist variable renewable energy sources such as solar and wind
power [14]. It offers much potential for ongoing energy transitions in
many countries. This potential is recognized in practice by many gov-
ernments and private sector actors, who show a (renewed) interest in
geothermal energy as part of their decarbonization strategy [2,5]. After
the invasion of Ukraine, the European imperative to reduce and even-
tually phase out Russian natural gas gave further impetus to the heating
question with increased attention to geothermal energy [6].
Geothermal energy is not necessarily sustainable or effective in
* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: (R.C. Spijkerboer).
In the case of shallow geothermal heat pumps that use horizontal loops (also called ground source heat pumps) there can be inuence of seasonal variations.
Below 1520 m depth the temperature remains constant throughout the year [167].
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Received 27 June 2022; Received in revised form 24 August 2022; Accepted 27 August 2022
Energy Research & Social Science 92 (2022) 102801
meeting the imperative of decarbonizing energy systems [7]. This mir-
rors the increasingly recognized issues of unevenly distributed social
and environmental problems related to the expansion of renewable
energy systems (e.g. [8]). Sustainable use of geothermal energy requires
a balance between the consumption and generation rate to avoid
extensive cooling of the original aquifer and mitigation of various im-
pacts on the environment [1,2,912]. Moreover, the social sustainabil-
of geothermal energy is largely overlooked in existing studies
despite a growing body of literature focusing on social acceptance (see e.
g., [13]). Engagement with existing debates in energy transition litera-
ture related to energy justice and energy democracy (e.g., [1416]) has
been very incipient within geothermal studies. In sum, geothermal en-
ergy has received surprisingly little attention in social science studies,
and is mainly perceived and dealt with as a technological and/or
geological problem [1,17,18].
Social science approaches are uniquely suited for providing critical
perspectives on the burdens and benets of the production and con-
sumption of electricity and heat from geothermal systems. These in-
sights are also necessary for the more normative goal of developing
energy policy and decision-making procedures surrounding geothermal
energy that are equitable and fair towards communities, and the envi-
ronments they live in [19]. Such insights are key to understanding and
operationalizing geothermal energy as a decarbonization strategy. If we
truly want to live in a socially just and ecologically sustainable future,
social science perspectives on geothermal systems are fundamentally
Aiming at tackling this gap in the literature, our perspective article
responds to and extends the call for more social science and humanities
(SSH) research into geothermal energy as a decarbonization strategy
[1,13,20]. In Section 2, we focus on the promise of geothermal energy,
followed by a general review of social science literature on geothermal
energy in Section 3. Building on the three complementary theoretical
approaches of socio-technical assemblages, systems, and imaginaries in
Section 4, we discuss a social science research agenda on geothermal
energy in Section 5. Section 6 provides some concluding remarks and
calls for further engagement with this topic.
2. The promise of geothermal energy as a decarbonization
Geothermal energy can be used directly for heating or indirectly for
electricity generation. A distinction is usually made between technolo-
gies that use the thermal stability of the underground (shallow) and
those that make use of temperatures above the annual mean air tem-
perature (deep geothermal) [1]. However, the threshold between
shallow and deep geothermal is not unanimously dened: for instance,
while some authors, such as H¨
ahnlein, et al. [21], set 400 m depth as the
threshold, others such as Limberger et al. [22] move it to 100 m beneath
the ground. In this paper, we will generally focus on deeper geothermal
systems rather than on shallow ones, while staying aware of the blur-
riness of the distinction. Indirect use of geothermal energy for electricity
generation usually requires temperatures of over 100 C to be protable
and effective [1], but technological developments might reduce this
limitation [12]. Lower temperature reserves can also be used for other
(direct) purposes including industrial processes, aqua- and horticulture,
recreational uses, and residential heating [2].
The global capacity of geothermal electric power was almost 16 GW
in 2020 [23,24]. This is minor compared to other renewable sources (e.
g. the installed capacity of both solar PV and wind power surpassed 700
GW in 2020 [24]). A recent IRENA report [2] states that the estimated
technical potential for geothermal electricity is up to 200 GW. The
economic potential of current technologies for exploiting these re-
sources is projected at 70 GW [2]. However, being a dispatchable source
of renewable electricity generation, geothermal energy can provide
crucial services in balancing energy from variable sources such as solar
PV and wind power [2,25]. It is important to notice that some of the
sources used in the geothermal industry and IRENA report seem to be
outdated. This is also indicative of the fact that information on
geothermal energy is scattered and different countries and market
players use various indicators to report their use of geothermal re-
sources, thereby making it difcult to compare these numbers across
contexts [12].
According to IEA [26], global geothermal expansion is not on track
with the 2050 Net Zero Emissions scenario, which requires 13% annual
increase in generation over 2021-2030, corresponding to average
annual capacity expansions of approximately 3.6 GW. There are bio-
physical and spatial limits to this expansion since geological conditions
determine how much heat is available in certain places. The existing
clusters of geothermal power generation are predominantly located in
areas with high tectonic and seismic activity. Fig. 1 shows that in 2020,
over 90 % of power generation capacity from geothermal energy came
from only 10 countries, which are distributed among various continents
located both in the global South and North [12,23]. However there are
territories with signicant potential that have not been signicantly
exploited (e.g., Chile [13]).
The economic side of exploiting geothermal energy also requires
attention. The costs related to the exploration of geothermal energy are
high, making geothermal technology a capital-intensive investment
with signicant perceived risks [1,12]. These risks vary depending on
the geology of the region, the quality of the geothermal resource,
existing infrastructure and the social acceptance of different geothermal
technologies [1]. Once past this stage, the operational costs of
geothermal energy are relatively low [2]. The economic feasibility of
geothermal energy systems can be further boosted through alternative
revenue streams. For example, there are opportunities for cascade
schemes in operating geothermal plants, where heat with decreasing
temperature is shifted to other purposes such as horticulture or (exist-
ing) district heating systems [2]. Geothermal energy systems are
considered a good option for reducing the costs of off-the-grid energy
systems [27]. Another opportunity that is currently being studied is the
potential for mineral recovery, particularly lithium, from geothermal
brines [28].
The benets of geothermal energy are widely recognized and
emphasized, for example by the World Bank which renewed its ESMAP
Geothermal Electricity Development Program in 2020 [5]. Nonetheless,
IRENA [2] suggests that global geothermal expansion requires increased
awareness and collaboration among stakeholders, sound legal frame-
works and risk-sharing mechanisms aimed towards the particularities of
geothermal energy. This is what initiatives such as World Bank's Global
Geothermal Development Plan (GGDP) and EBRD's Early-Stage Private
Sector Geothermal Development Framework (PLUTO) seek to address
[29,30]. Geothermal plants are claimed to enhance regional economic
development and are sometimes presented as opportunities for com-
munity investments. A well-known example is the Maori-owned Nga
AWA Purua power plant in New Zealand [1,2,31]. Other authors discuss
the potential environmental and socio-economic impacts of geothermal
energy systems for remote and rural communities in British Columbia
[9] and for indigenous communities in Kenya [32].
A growing number of studies also point at the drawbacks of
geothermal energy, including runaway emissions, water pollution,
seismic activity, and potentially low net energy returns [4,7,9,12,33]. It
is therefore timely to note that the geothermal sector [12], IRENA [2],
the World Bank [5,30] and the European Bank for Reconstruction and
Development (EBRD) [29] differ in how they portray the promises and
According to the UN global compact website Social sustainability is about
identifying and managing business impacts, both positive and negative, on
people[168]. Our denition, instead, is rooted in the political ecology tradi-
tion and focuses on equity (the unequal distribution of burdens and benets),
access (to energy and decision making) and ownership (who controls and makes
R.C. Spijkerboer et al.
Energy Research & Social Science 92 (2022) 102801
pitfalls of geothermal energy as a decarbonization strategy. To better
contextualize this landscape, we now turn to the scholarly literature on
geothermal energy from a social science perspective.
3. Exploring the social in geothermal: perspectives from social
sciences and humanities
Despite initial engagement in the 1980s with pioneering works from
researchers like Martin Pasqualetti [3436] and Penelope Canan
[37,38], social scientists' interest in geothermal power is relatively
recent and limited. This section illustrates how geothermal energy is
ying low under the radar of energy and environmental social scientists
and is perceived as a technological and biophysical issue (as also
observed by [1,17,18]). Here we provide a narrative review [39] of the
existing body of work.
While attention for direct use of geothermal energy is gaining trac-
tion (see [40] for a review of this literature), deep geothermal energy
remains in the domain of the geological. Bobbette & Dononvan [17] call
for critical engagement with the political side of geology in general,
including geothermal energy. Some initial insight into the social science
dimensions of geothermal energy from various disciplines (e.g., geog-
raphy, policy, economics) are provided by [1,10]. However, these ac-
counts remain relatively general, providing an overview of geothermal
technology and pointing towards issues and cases that could be explored
in more depth.
The majority of literature on geothermal energy presents national
cases and development trajectories in an unmistakably descriptive
manner [4146]. These studies, focusing on availability, affordability,
exploitability, and eventually legal issues, often result in policy recom-
mendations regarding administrative systems, nancial policy mea-
sures, and instruments necessary for further deployment of geothermal
energy. There are only a few cross-country comparisons [3,47,48].
Studies that explicitly address government policy focus predominantly
on the benets and drawbacks of various scal policies (e.g.,
[11,4951]). Two notable exceptions are a study by Ejderyan et al. [52]
which analyses how federal and local governance surrounding
geothermal energy in Switzerland is both a bottom-up and top-down
effort, and a study by Horn et al. [53] regarding the need for gover-
nance for sustainable management of near-surface geothermal energy
Existing social science and humanities perspectives on geothermal
energy focus primarily on public perception, participation and social
acceptance [3,13,20,5463]. These studies often result in policy advice
regarding public communication on risks and benets related to
geothermal energy development. A related strand of literature analyzes
how media and social movements frame geothermal energy (e.g.,
[6470]). Unlike other renewable sources of energy such as solar and
wind power, geothermal energy has barely been associated with major
discourses in energy transition literature regarding energy governance,
energy decentralization, energy democracy, and energy justice (see e.g.,
[14,16,7173]). Some notable exceptions are Shortall et al. [7] and
Soltani et al. [4], who provide a review of geothermal energy from an
integrated sustainability perspective. These authors hint at the connec-
tions between geothermal energy and issues such as energy poverty (see
also [47] for a discussion on cultural dimensions in geothermal energy).
Benediktsson's [74] critical study on the nature imaginary of
geothermal energy technology and Guðmundsd´
ottir et al.'s [75] inquiry
into the political ecology of Iceland's geothermal energy development
also represent notable exceptions calling for further research.
The existing body of literature shows that there are opportunities to
expand the lenses used to explore geothermal energy, paying attention
to how the production of geothermal spaces is intertwined with an
intricate convergence of different epistemologies, imaginaries, constel-
lations of political economic actors, and the production of specic socio-
natures (see Section 4). An interesting side of this debate can also be
found in the synergies sought between politics of expertise owing be-
tween geothermal and fossil fuel sectors (see [76]).
In sum, there appears to be a lacuna in terms of the analytical di-
versity of approaches from social science and humanities engaging
critically with geothermal energy in its materialities, temporalities, and
spatialities. The studies that do exist demonstrate the urgent need for
further critical engagement with geothermal energy systems from a so-
cial science and humanities perspective. Despite some studies hinting at
opportunities and drawbacks of geothermal energy for a specic
Fig. 1. The ten countries with the highest installed capacity (MWe) of geothermal power generation in 2020. Source: authors, based on data from Huttrer [23].
R.C. Spijkerboer et al.
Energy Research & Social Science 92 (2022) 102801
location or a specic community (e.g., [9,31,32]) we argue that there is
room to expand geothermal debates with emphasis on issues such as
equity, access and ownership and make explicit links with larger energy
transition governance discussions. In the following we illustrate three
theoretical approaches that may be particularly promising, discuss their
interlinkages, and explore how they may be applied to geothermal
4. Theoretical reection on geothermal energy from a social-
technical perspective
Energy transition is often conceptualized as a socio-technical tran-
sition, focusing on the interrelations between actors, networks, in-
stitutions, and technologies across levels and scales [7779]. Thus,
pushing geothermal energy studies beyond the technical-geological
domain requires recognition of geothermal energy as an explicit part
of the socio-technical transition of energy systems, including a critical
perspective on its promises and pitfalls. In this section, we discuss the
key concepts, relevance, and potential operationalization of three
complementary approaches that have been used in the social sciences to
observe and address other forms of energy and energy transition: (1)
socio-technical assemblages, (2) socio-technical systems, and (3) socio-
technical imaginaries.
4.1. Socio-technical assemblages
The key purpose of assemblage thinking is to focus attention on how
phenomena are shaped through multiplicities of contingent and het-
erogeneous elements (e.g., human and non-human, material and non-
material) that are related at a certain moment in time [8083]. An
assemblage can be broadly understood as a ‘fragmentary whole, where
the various elements can be rearranged and recombined to change its
nature [81]. This enables researchers to remain deliberately open as to
the form of the unity, its durability, the types of relations and the human
and non-human elements involved (p.124 [83]). In socio-technical
assemblages, the material aspects are placed in relation to the social
and cultural networks surrounding it.
Using an assemblage perspective in the context of energy transition,
Van Veelen [84] argues that ‘energy [is perceived] not as a singular,
self-evident object of analysis, but rather as a phenomenon that is
composed of plural social, political, and material actors and processes;
and [] how this assemblage (re)produces the more-than technical
aspects that make up our lives(p.3). Elements of energy-related as-
semblages include, for example, political-institutional structures, energy
markets, material infrastructures, and socio-cultural discourses [82].
Assemblage thinking is increasingly used to explore and explain energy
systems [82,85]. Haarstad & Wanvik [82], for example, explain the
existing carbonscape as a collection of smaller assemblages that are
partially integrated in other assemblages of different scales (p.442).
They argue that assemblage thinking is particularly suited to exploring
change processes and potentials (see also [83,86]). Thereby, they make
the connection to energy transition literature. Examples where assem-
blage thinking has been applied to study energy transition include topics
such as green nancing for low-carbon agriculture [87], energy de-
mocracy [88], the electric mobility transition [89], energy efcient
cities [90], and the potential of solar energy for enhancing energy access
[91]. We argue that with its focus on the dynamic relation between
material and non-material aspects of geothermal energy, insights from
assemblage thinking can provide novel apertures to expand this eld
into the domain of new materialism and beyond.
Existing research into fossil fuel assemblages can also help explore
the interwoven linkages between the matter and the social. Haarstad &
Wanvik [82] make a useful distinction between assemblages surround-
ing resource exploitation zones, distribution infrastructure, and sites of
consumption in oil landscapes. In a similar manner, Sheller [92] dis-
tinguishes between objects, infrastructures and practices embodied in
assemblages when studying aluminum's relation to the energy sector.
When applied within geothermal energy assemblages, such distinctions
can help connect resources and energy across sites and scales. Therefore,
assemblage thinking is particularly suited for exploring issues of equity,
access, and ownership related to geothermal energy. This is exacerbated
by the heat component associated with geothermal energy. This heat
component creates incentives for cascading systems with various users
of heat in relatively close proximity to extraction sites to ensure opti-
mum use of geothermal resources. Taking into account the whole heat
chain is particularly pressing in countries where geothermal energy is
seen as part of an ongoing transition from natural gas to other heating
sources (e.g., the Netherlands) [93,94].
Assemblage thinking is also useful in studying how geothermal sys-
tems are embedded in the wider material and spatial repertoire of en-
ergy transition in both the global South and North. This relates to
questions on how assemblages of geothermal energy are related to and
potentially recongure, adapt and convert related assemblages around
other types of energy production. Such assemblages intentionally or
unintentionally leave some subjects out of the equation. Kathryn Yusoff
[95] suggests that voiding subjects was also about voiding a relation to
earth that was embodied, organized, and intensied by those relations to
place; taking place is also taking ways in which people realize them-
selves through the specic geologies of a land (p.4).
Tracing methodologies have been used to analyze assemblages
[92,96,97] and can provide insight into the role and position of
geothermal energy assemblages in (trans)national energy assemblages
that are embedded in objects/materials, infrastructures and practices.
Particularly given the absence of a body of work on geothermal energy
grounded in social sciences and humanities, assemblage thinking can
demonstrate and prove novel regroupings of material and social re-
lations with its capacity to deal with coexisting complexities, keeping
open their multiplicities, without reducing them to singularities(p.12
[98]). For instance, the geothermal boom in Turkey since 2010s, which
catapulted the country to the position of fourth largest producer glob-
ally, can also be read as an uncanny assemblage of international climate
nance, overlapping exploration permits over a major fault line, dubious
environmental impact assessment procedures, struggle over land rights,
specic geological formations with a high-carbon content, and techno-
utopian visions to commercialize CO
released from these reservoirs
[99,100]. As such, assembling geothermal energy as a complex eld of
material and non-material relations can help analyze the multiplicity of
elements and relations that condition geothermal energy deployment as
a decarbonization strategy in different contexts, as well as the potential
conditions for change [101].
4.2. Socio-technical systems
The concept of socio-technical systems points to a heterogenous and
interdisciplinary scientic community adopting a systems-theoretical
[102] approach to study processes of technological change, especially
sustainability-related. It heralds the need for an integrated perspective
to understand innovation as emerging from the complex interplay of
multiple, partly autonomous elements and processes (e.g., technologies,
regulations, practices, markets, cultural meanings, and networks of
distribution and support) at different scales [103,104].
Socio-technical systems literature comprises two main strands: the
rst strand is analytical and studies past transitions to understand their
dynamics. It spawns from a gradual broadening in perspective of science
and technology studies since the 1990s, leading to an integrated
perspective on how technical and social processes interact in promoting
or hampering technological change [105]. This change cannot be fully
directed or predicted in advance, but emerges from iterative processes of
variation, selection, and retention, depending on existing social and
technical structures [106,107]. One of the most successful approaches,
the multi-level-perspective (MLP), observes transitions as non-linear
processes emerging from the interactions between niches (protected
R.C. Spijkerboer et al.
Energy Research & Social Science 92 (2022) 102801
spaces where radical innovations occur), regimes (semi-coherent sets of
rules and structures which provides stability to the systems) and land-
scapes (slowly changing variables and trends inuencing socio-technical
actors but unvarying in the short run [106]). The regimes tend to pro-
duce inertia in the momentum [108] of technological change, causing it
to suffer path dependency [109] and lock-in along predetermined
pathways (e.g., around fossil fuel technologies). Regimes can be
changed when alternative solutions developed in the niches reach a
critical mass breaking down the inertia of incumbent structures, an
insight that can be used to accelerate transitions [110114].
The second strand aims at devising processes to deliberately promote
the transition of innovation systems towards more collectively desirable
equilibria, such as those fostering sustainable development [115]. One
of the most known approaches within this strand is transition manage-
ment (TM), a new form of long-term policy-making, focused on driving
desirable transitions in socio-technical systems (especially energy)
[116]. As MLP, TM acknowledges that any socio-technical transition is
emergent - it results from the interactions between multiple groups, and
thus, cannot be steered at will by public authorities [117] - it may even
be unclear what the problem is and which actors should be involved
[118]. It is conscious that policy designs may have unpredictable and
unintended effects, causing new problems while striving to solve others
Socio-technical systems approaches are not immune from criticisms
[122]. Scholars have called for more attention to the political and value-
laden character of transitions [116,123], citizen participation [124] and
ensuring that the eld maintains overture to new perspectives, chal-
lenges and contexts [114], especially with other forms of systems-
thinking, such as those connect with resilience [104,125,126]. Other
scholars have noted the need for this approach to consider the role of
social elements, such as trust, in transitions [127], and more funda-
mentally, to provide a clearer denition on the socio-technical nature of
the systems [128]. Studying the social sustainability of geothermal en-
ergy can also progress the theoretical development of socio-technical
systems approaches.
Socio-technical systems approaches have been used extensively in
the energy eld, and there are many studies examining the drivers and
barriers to the energy transition. Very few of these studies (e.g.,
[129132]) explicitly mention geothermal power among renewable al-
ternatives. Kinchy et al. [133] argue in favor of a socio-technical system
approach to analyze subterranean resource development, as an oppor-
tunity to integrate materialities and controversies in areas such as
mining and energy. Moreover, existing studies have explored possible
synergies between geothermal power and other energy debates such as
carbon capture and storage [134,135], complementarities with the oil
and gas sector [136] or geothermal's potential role in green hydrogen
[137]. Ejderyan et al. [52] mention the importance of socio-technical
systems perspectives when comparing different pathways to foster
geothermal energy in Switzerland, concluding on the need for more
coordination across levels to promote its development. Socio-technical
systems approaches have also been used to highlight the possible
future pathways for geothermal energy in Indonesia [138] and potential
side effects of near-surface geothermal development in Germany [53].
Other studies employ the notion of socio-technical systems in a more
metaphoric fashion, to offer an integrated view on issues such as public
perception [74,139,140] or public engagement [59,124] regarding
geothermal power. While the application of socio-technical systems to
geothermal power is very incipient, the few cases in which it has been
used, plus its robust trajectory in analyzing other kinds of renewable
energy sources, grant it a strong potential to provide an integrative
overlook on the dynamics and governance challenges of geothermal
power and its interaction with other technologies.
4.3. Socio-technical imaginaries
The concept of socio-technical imaginaries is commonly attributed to
Jasanoff & Kim's [141] seminal study on how the political cultures of the
U.S. and South Korea informed divergent visions of nuclear power.
Dened as collectively imagined forms of social life and social order
reected in the design and fulllment of nation-specic scientic and/or
technological projects (Ibid. 120), an imaginary is a type of social
vision of a desirable future. The central task in the study of socio-
technical imaginaries is to analyze how such social visions are consti-
tuted by and constitutive of scientic or technological projects. Re-
searchers have now examined the imaginaries of a variety of
technologies, social groups, environments, and geographical regions at
multiple scales. Much research has been carried out to understand the
imaginaries implicated in both renewable energy systems (e.g.,
[76,142144]) and fossil energy systems (e.g., [145148]). While these
represent two different streams of research, we argue that it is auspicious
to consider insights from both streams to understand the imaginaries of
geothermal energy projects in energy transitions.
Existing studies have uncovered a rich variety of imaginaries impli-
cated in renewable energy systems. Even so, structural similarities can
be observed. For instance, deeper ideographs such as progress, envi-
ronmental sustainability, and autonomy recur across cases, as well as
themes of conicting visions such as ecological modernization vs.
degrowth, utopian vs. dystopian, or incremental vs. transformative
[144,149]. Beyond identifying cross-regional patterns, the study of
socio-technical imaginaries includes critical considerations of culture,
power, and sustainability. One study revealed that imaginaries were
used to attract heavy industry investment[75] for geothermal energy
in Iceland. This study demonstrated how imaginaries of geothermal
energy as a renewable resource may be interwoven in political and
economic interests which perpetuate problematic perceptions of nature
and justify social inequalities (see also [74]). In a study on solar energy
in Senegal and South India, Jasanoff & Simmet [150] similarly
concluded that alternative visions of social life, nature relations and
collective energy are demoted in the face of hegemonic imaginaries of
large-scale renewable energy development. Drawing on progenitors of
socio-technical imaginaries research [151], we may ask to what degree
such imaginaries are inherent to advanced geothermal energy devel-
opment which often requires large capital investments.
Studies on imaginaries implicated in fossil energy systems make up a
rich body of research, pivotal for work on energy transitions within
elds such as energy geography, ecological economics, and energy hu-
manities. This stream considers how imaginaries derive from human-
environmental relations and the biophysical composition of fossil
fuels. Notable insights from this literature include how access to highly
energy-dense fossil energy carriers have inuenced modern notions of
space, time, energy, progress, money, and economic growth
[145,152155]. It also includes the modern notion of technology, which
was closely knit to the surge in fossil fuel consumption during the 20th
century [156,157]. As such, even if socio-technical imaginaries of
renewable energy technology may challenge fossil-based systems, they
may rely on notions of reality symptomatic of fossil imaginaries.
Studying the imaginaries of geothermal energy projects, we may ask
how different social groups in the world struggle for representation of
alternatives to such fossil imaginary lock-in.
The notion of energy and space presents another fruitful area for
researching the imaginaries of geothermal energy projects. Recent
literature has demonstrated how modernity has developed an uncritical
distinction between access to land and access to energy [158160].
These studies unanimously show how the turn to renewable energy
represents a return to land as a crucial factor of production. This in-
cludes not only the land implicated at the site of energy harnessing, but
also the land implicated in the production of renewable energy carriers
and their infrastructure [15]. Chateau et al.'s [161] integration of socio-
technical imaginaries and spatial imaginaries may be useful to un-
derstand how actors generate competing imaginaries of the space and
scale of geothermal energy projects. The deep geothermal energy project
driven by the corporation E.ON in Malm¨
o (Sweden) [162] may be
R.C. Spijkerboer et al.
Energy Research & Social Science 92 (2022) 102801
studied to understand how the imaginaries of the developers form scalar
imaginaries of geothermal energy which include or exclude environ-
ments and peoples implicated in the global production of the infra-
structure. Using methods such as Q methodology (see [163]) or story-
completion method (see [164]), this may bring interesting results to
discuss in relation to geothermal energy, fossil imaginary lock-in and
environmental justice.
5. Towards a steaming research agenda for the social science of
geothermal energy
The three theoretical approaches discussed in this perspective article
have all been fruitfully applied in energy transition studies. A funda-
mental commonality in each of these approaches is the socio-technical
perspective, which focuses attention on how geothermal energy pro-
jects necessarily include both material/immaterial and biotic/abiotic
relations of the world, prompting the need for interdisciplinarity
scholarship. These approaches see geothermal energy projects funda-
mentally as relations. This relational approach is particularly suited for
studying geothermal energy, where cases are characterized by multiple
actors, components, and transformative potential in various contexts,
both in the global South and North.
Besides these commonalities there are some notable differences be-
tween the theoretical approaches (see Table 1). Each of these ap-
proaches has a slightly different drive and focus. Assemblage thinking is
more focused on creating an understanding of the relations between
material and immaterial, human and non-human elements that shape
current geothermal energy systems in various contexts. Socio-technical
systems literature specically focuses on the rather pragmatic question
of understanding what makes a transition towards geothermal energy
possible and how to better foster it. Imaginaries strive to analyze how
social visions of desirable futures are constituted by and constitutive of
geothermal energy projects. As such, these perspectives have a com-
plementary temporal focus.
These theoretical approaches also place different emphasis on
immaterial (or cultural) aspects in shaping geothermal energy projects.
However, we argue that they are complementary in this regard as well.
For example, fossil-based imaginaries of geothermal energy technology
might help to explain the tacit assumptions that inform governance and
inuence social-technical systems. Similarly, multi-scalar and multi-
sited assemblages of geothermal energy infrastructure might help to
problematize geothermal imaginaries often emerging within the con-
nes of specic regions. This will help shed light on issues of equity,
access and ownership which, despite being the focal point of much
existing energy transition research [16,72], have been understudied in
relation to geothermal energy.
One way of synthesizing these approaches in a case study is to focus
on one approach and use the two other approaches as complementary
explanations. Identifying and analyzing stakeholder imaginaries
through interviews (or other methods of data collection) may be suf-
cient, but could be further contextualized by assemblage and systems
approach for a more holistic understanding of the imaginary. The
assemblage approach may provide conceptual tools for understanding
how the geothermal imaginary is emerging within given social and
natural conditions, i.e. provide materialist nuance to understanding its
social-ecological context. The systems approach may provide a deeper
understanding on how the imaginary is constructed by the major
stakeholders to meet the challenges of deep geothermal energy systems
transcending the level of niche to regime. The geothermal imaginary
takes its shape in the complex interplay of actors operating with specic
interests within the connes of a system. For instance, in a case we are
currently investigating in Sweden, it is possible to see that the major
stakeholder is currently forming advertisements and communicating a
geothermal imaginary to cater to the assemblage as well as their aspi-
ration to take deep geothermal to the regime level. Thus, the geothermal
imaginary is better understood by including considerations of how the
assemblage and system dictates its form. A multitude of such case
studies may transcend the conceptual boundaries of each of the ap-
proaches and form a new understanding of geothermal energy systems.
Table 1
Comparison between three socio-technical approaches and their relevance to social science and humanities research on geothermal systems. Source: authors.
Approach Denition of socio-
Analytical drive
(guiding question)
Temporal focus Spatial focus Example of application to
geothermal energy
Example of potential cases
material relations
embedded in socio-
cultural contexts
relations between
material and
immaterial, human
and non-human
Past to Present
(how assemblages
emerge and
Mostly local
(assemblages are
Understanding how geothermal
energy systems in a certain
context emerged and operate as
a result of interrelations
between xthe natural
characteristics of the local
geothermal resources, the
technologies deployed, the
actors involved, their roles and
impact on decision-making, and
the institutional context.
The geothermal energy
‘boom, its recent slowdown
and the associated social
conicts in Turkey [29,165],
the difculties in geothermal
power generation in Chile
[13], or barriers and enablers
to geothermal heating systems
in the U.S. [48]
Changes in social
structures driving or
(understand how
transitions may
occur and how to
foster them)
Past (analytical) to
long-term oriented
Multi-level (local
niches to regional
and national
Understanding how geothermal
energy systems are shaped by
developments on the niche,
regime and landscape level, and
what changes are necessary on
these various scales to foster
sustainable development of
geothermal energy as part of
wider energy transition debates.
A cross-country comparison of
the niche, regime and
landscape level context and
how these levels have affected
geothermal energy
development, e.g. in Chile
[13], Turkey [45], Indonesia
[138], or Kenya [32].
interweaved in
(observe relationship
between projects and
social visions of
desirable futures)
(imaginaries) into
the Present
Local to global
(imaginaries span
Understanding divergent
imaginaries on geothermal
energy projects, their scalar
dimensions, and their position as
a decarbonization strategy,
including how these imaginaries
are used to justify the (unequal)
distribution of benets and
The divergent imaginaries on
geothermal energy projects in
Büyük Menderes Graben,
Turkey [165], the role of
geothermal in heat transition
in the Netherlands [94], or
the deep geothermal energy
project driven by E.ON in
o (Sweden) [162].
R.C. Spijkerboer et al.
Energy Research & Social Science 92 (2022) 102801
6. Conclusions: full steam towards a sustainable approach to
geothermal energy
In this paper we discuss the renewed interests in geothermal energy
systems as part of countries' decarbonization strategies, both in the
global South and North. The reduction and eventual phase out of
Russian natural gas after the invasion of Ukraine has heightened the
sense of urgency for this issue, particularly in Europe [6]. Despite the
previous contribution of several authors, we noticed a lack of critical
social science and interdisciplinary scholarship on geothermal energy
systems. The available literature demonstrate a need to further consider
geothermal energy systems from social science and humanities per-
spectives. This is especially important in the context of an increased
interest in the potential of geothermal energy technology as a decar-
bonization strategy. As emphasized in a recent article in this journal,
geothermal energy has been predominantly studied by ‘hardsciences
(e.g., engineering) (p.5 [18]). Our perspective article responds to and
extends the call for more social science and humanities (SSH) research
into geothermal energy as a decarbonization strategy and discusses
three theoretical approaches to better understand geothermal energy
systems with a focus on how they arise from and give rise to specic
social, technical and ecological relations. We show that the three ap-
proaches elaborated here can provide critical perspectives on the
promises and pitfalls of geothermal systems across time and scales,
taking into account issues such as equity (the unequal distribution of
burdens and benets), access (to energy and decision making) and
ownership (who controls and makes prots). Such considerations must
be taken into account if geothermal energy is to become part of sus-
tainable decarbonization strategies.
We call on researchers to engage with a broader spectrum of theo-
retical approaches to critically discuss and explore the use of geothermal
energy as a decarbonization strategy. It is high time for social science
and humanities researchers to consciously engage with the particular-
ities of deep (and shallow) geothermal systems, as well as the direct and
indirect use of geothermal energy. This requires researchers to work in
interdisciplinary research teams. We also join the call by another recent
piece in this journal [166] for reconguring energy governance as a
commons, in which we see an explicit role for the study of geothermal
energy systems. Such an approach offers key opportunities for single
country case studies and cross-country comparisons regarding the
development trajectories of geothermal energy systems, policies, and
their embeddedness in locally-grounded, internationally-relevant, fair
and equitable decarbonization strategies.
Declaration of competing interest
The authors declare that they have no known competing nancial
interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to inuence
the work reported in this paper.
Data availability
No data was used for the research described in the article.
We gratefully acknowledge the project Harnessing the heat below
our feet: Promises, pitfalls and spatialization of geothermal energy as a
decarbonization strategy funded by FORMAS (Swedish Research
Council, Project no: 2020-00825).
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