Reflecting trends in the academic landscape of sustainable energy using probabilistic topic modeling

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Background: Facing planetary boundaries, we need a sustainable energy system providing its life support function for society in the long-term within environmental limits. Since science plays an important role in decision-making, this study examines the thematic landscape of research on sustainable energy, which may contribute to a sustainability transformation. Understanding the structure of the research field allows for critical reflections and the identification of blind spots for advancing this field. Methods: The study applies a text mining approach on 26533 Scopus-indexed abstracts published from 1990 to 2016 based on a latent Dirichlet allocation topic model. Models with up 1100 topics were created. Based on coherence scores and manual inspection, the model with 300 topics was selected. These statistical methods served for highlighting timely topic trends, differing thematic fields, and emerging communities in the topic network. The study critically reflects the quantitative results from a sustainability perspective. Results: The study identifies a focus on establishing and optimizing the energy infrastructure towards 100% renewable energies through key modern technology areas: materials science, (biological) process engineering, and (digital) monitoring and control systems. Energy storage, photonic materials, nanomaterials, or biofuels belong to the topics with the strongest trends. The study identifies decreasing trends for general aspects regarding sustainable development and related economic, environmental, and political issues. Conclusions: The discourse is latently adopting a technology-oriented paradigm focusing on renewable energy generation and is moving away from the multi-faceted concept of sustainability. The field has the potential to contribute to climate change mitigation by optimizing renewable energy systems. However, given the complexity of these systems, horizontal integration of the various valuable vertical research strands is required. Furthermore, the holistic ecological perspective considering the global scale that has originally motivated research on sustainable energy might be re-strengthened, e.g., by an integrated energy and materials perspective. Beyond considering the physical dimensions of energy systems, existing links from the currently technology-oriented discourse to the social sciences might be strengthened. For establishing sustainable energy systems, future research will not only have to target the technical energy infrastructure but put a stronger focus on issues perceivable from a holistic second-order perspective.

Original languageEnglish
Article number49
JournalEnergy, Sustainability and Society
Issue number1
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - 20.12.2019

Bibliographical note

This work was funded by the Leuphana University under its PhD research fellowship program [grant number 73000882]. Apart from providing funding, the funding body was not involved in this study.