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Francesca Ciulli

Institutional complexity and sustainable development in the EU electricity sector


Over the last decades the European Union (EU) electricity sector has undergone numerous radical changes, which have been engendered largely by two key factors. On the one hand, EU countries have increasingly adopted deregulation and privatization policies. On the other hand, societal concerns about the economic, social and environmental sustainability of electric utilities’ activities have risen. These factors have caused substantial changes in the structure of the sector, challenged core practices and, lately, the very existence of the major European electric incumbents.
When organizations, such as electric utilities, are confronted with multiple incompatible institutional pressures, they face ‘institutional complexity’. The numerous and divergent institutional pressures to which the EU electricity sector is exposed make it a particularly valuable research setting for investigating how firms manage sustainability-related institutional complexity within and/or across national organizational fields. By answering this research question, the dissertation aims to attain three main interrelated objectives. First, it aims to provide a contribution to institutional theory by increasing its explanatory power of institutional complexity in general and in the context of corporate sustainability in particular. Second, it seeks to contribute to the research of the electricity sector, institutions and sustainable development, by examining crucial phenomena that have revolutionized the industry in the last years and electric firms’ responses to them. Third, it aims to shed light on a topic of societal relevance, by examining how firms operating in an industry that provides a critical good for today’s society, electricity, tackle multiple sustainable development issues. A more clear understanding of electric utilities’ behaviour will help policy-makers design measures that are more effective in driving the electricity sector towards a more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable future.