Power = power

We can debate endlessly about which type of renewable energy is better, but in the end, what matters is who has their hand on the thermostat, and who does not

Filed under: Essays
The Three Gorges Dam in China, the largest dam in the world. Source: Flickr

The Three Gorges Dam in China, the largest dam in the world. Source: Flickr

by Aaron Vansintjan

We are now at the precipice of a new energy age: the limits of the oil-and coal-based economy are becoming more and more visible. As governments and corporations dig deeper to find unconventional sources, so are communities resisting endless extraction and blocking its flows. People left, right, and center are trying to figure out what can replace fossil fuels as the primary source of power.

Wind turbines and solar panels are primary contenders for replacing the dominance of fossil fuel. Proponents argue that they are clean, non-polluting, efficient, and cheap.

Detractors, as best exemplified by the ecomodernists, argue that they can never provide as much power as other alternatives: hydro and nuclear. Respected environmentalists like James Hansen and George Monbiot have put their weight behind nuclear, saying that it is the only source of energy powerful enough to stop climate change caused by carbon emissions.

Many experts are jumping into the fray, holding spirited debates on the merits and demerits of each source of power. Investments, efficiency, productive capacity, innovation: these have become the arena of the renewable energy conversation.

Unfortunately, these finer details will have very little to do with what kind of energy will replace fossil fuels. In the future, energy will be, as always, a source of political power—and it is every government’s prerogative to secure as much of it as possible. The best way to do so is to install massively concentrated energy supplies—no matter how efficient or relatively productive these megaprojects are.

Take for example the case of India. The country finds itself at a crossroads: with incredible growth, terrible inequality, and a sizeable chunk of carbon emissions, it needs to figure out adequate alternatives to its coal-powered economy. But instead of subsidizing small-scale renewable energy—which would, if implemented, be more than enough for much of India’s impoverished rural population—the government is ramping up its plans for gigantic wind, thermal, solar, and hydro power plants, each of which are often met with resistance by local communities.

Why are governments in love with centralized forms of energy? A glance in the history books can give us some ideas.

In India, as with many rapidly developing economies, the government’s priority is to supply centralized power to its cities and industrial zones rather than to its impoverished countryside. The irony is that these cities are growing so rapidly because of mass dispossession, indebtedness, and destruction of rural livelihoods—in many cases precisely due to construction of large infrastructure projects such as hydro dams, special economic zones, and foreign land acquisition.

For the same reason, the UK is borrowing money from China to invest heavily in nuclear options, even as they are scaling back funding to wind, biomass, and tidal alternatives, which necessarily function at a small, local scale. And yet, the UK has some of the highest rates of energy poverty in Europe—something that could, in large part, be addressed by subsidizing small-scale renewables.

In very similar ways, the governments of countries like China, Vietnam, and Brazil are going full speed ahead with hydro and many are considering nuclear as a viable option. For these countries, efficiency, productive capacity, and new, innovative technological improvements are only secondary to whether they have control of the energy supplies.

Why are governments in love with centralized forms of energy? A glance in the history books can give us some ideas.

Before the age of renewables, governments rushed to control fossil fuels around the world, and worked to keep control of these resources as concentrated as possible. As Timothy Mitchell details in his book, Carbon Democracy, coal was an appropriate fuel for building nation-states because it was so centralized, easily extracted, and easily protected. In turn, the state was an excellent tool to help companies extract coal, because it had a monopoly over violence and therefore the power to control workers uprisings.

Consider the early stages of the industrial revolution. Just as Britain’s land was being enclosed—which involved the government formalizing property rights in favor of the elite—there was also a massive displacement of the rural population. Now dispossessed from their ancestral land, peasants flocked to cities in search of work. There were masses of “vagrants” who would do anything, if they could just have some bread. At the same time, Scotland and Ireland’s forests were just about exhausted: there was no more cheap fuel.

Coal’s concentrated energy allowed the first proper nation-state to emerge—or rather, coal mines and the British nation-state created each other.

Putting two and two together, English aristocrats and wealthy merchants opened coal mines, funneling labor into concentrated sites—which in turn powered the burgeoning textile, shipping, and agricultural industries. In order to encourage peasants to join this labor force, the role of the government was expanded to take account of the country’s population, count the “unemployed”, criminalize vagrancy, and outlaw foraging and subsistence hunting. Coal’s concentrated energy allowed the first proper nation-state to emerge—or rather, coal mines and the British nation-state created each other.

To demand living and working improvements, laborers in Europe and North America tried to block the sites and arteries of extraction through strikes and blockades. For this reason, oil was more useful for the British and American governments. Because it required even less workers to operate its extraction—most oil wells don’t need more than a few construction workers and engineers to be operated—the working class was less and less able to make demands, while the state had control of more and more energetic and political power.

Once again, the private sector and the state worked in concert to find alternative centralized energy sources. As the British Empire receded from the Middle East, American companies like Standard Oil made deals with newly-formed Middle Eastern governments, who were promised the benefits of oil extraction. In turn, when these governments tried to nationalize or democratize their natural resource, American and British governments would step in by threatening withdrawal of their support. In this way, the private sector’s profits have always been dependent on its alliance with states.

Historically, nation-states have always benefited from centralized forms of energy, and used it as a means to assert power over their people—and other people as well. Any control of energetic power by democratic movements was seen as threatening to states.

In the mid-twentieth century, social movements for democracy in the Middle East tried to overthrow governments imposed by the West, only to face oppression at the hands of Western-backed rebels and assassinations of their leaders. Attempts at taking democratic control over oil by the local population were constantly sabotaged. To preserve political control in the Middle East, Western countries supplied Saudi, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian dictatorships with prodigious arms deals at rock-bottom prices.

Historically, nation-states have always benefited from centralized forms of energy, and used it as a means to assert power over their people—and other people as well. Any control of energetic power by democratic movements was seen as threatening to states.

Because the legitimacy of states largely relies on their control over resources, they also have a tendency to build infrastructure that centralizes the extraction of those resources. Now that oil and coal extraction is becoming less easy to justify (and the rate of oil extraction and discovery is steadily decreasing), nuclear has become prohibitively expensive and risky, and many countries have maxed out the amount of hydro power plans they could feasibly build, governments will tend to support large centralized wind and solar plants, rather than small, decentralized, and autonomously managed renewables.

Another way the state tends to maintain power is by controlling the electricity grid. While electricity providers may be privatized, in every country, the state legalizes, develops, and manages a centralized grid to power its economy. Take this infrastructure away—or alternatively, undermine it by using wind and solar technology not connected to the grid—and the state loses much of its power—energetic and political.

Once again, India is a good example of this process. To a great extent mimicking the early industrialization phase of Britain, mass rural dispossession (largely due to rising debts of smallholder farmers, but often also caused by the building of hydro-power dams and the creation of Special Economic Zones, meant to facilitate industrial development) has lead to unprecedented rural-to-urban migration—in turn creating the slum cities we are familiar with from the news and movies like Slumdog Millionaire.

In order to employ these newly unemployed—or informally employed—masses, the state is creating massive energy infrastructure that can power the Special Economic Zones. Like early British industrialists, it’s connecting the need for cheap energy and mass impoverishment to attract industry at rock-bottom prices. In turn, lacking a large middle class, industrial development supplies the state’s primary tax revenue, which it so desperately needs to keep growing.

Dispossession of the poor, centralization of energy, and centralization of the state go hand-in-hand. It would therefore be against the Indian government’s interest to supply renewable, decentralized energy to its rural and marginalized population: this would help break the cycle of rural-to-urban migration that it depends on so much to stay in power.

 This explains why, even in the face of a climate crisis, politicians like Narendra Modi in India and David Cameron in the UK are refusing to subsidize localized energy systems that would be more than enough for India’s villages and much of the UK’s energy poor.

This explains why, even in the face of a climate crisis, politicians like Narendra Modi in India and David Cameron in the UK are refusing to subsidize localized energy systems that would be more than enough for India’s villages and much of the UK’s energy poor. It also helps us understand why Morocco is now building the largest solar power plant in the world, intended to power one million of its city dwellers—but not its most impoverished rural population.

It also explains why socialists like Leigh Phillips advocate turning to nuclear power because it increases the state’s power against neoliberalism.

If this is true, it has repercussions for what we call “renewable energy.” Decoupling energy supplies from the grid would present a challenge, not just to the energy companies, but also to the very basic structure of society, what some call “the establishment.”

A decentralized grid of renewable energy sources has the potential to take away power from the owning class, as long as the power structures that manage the decentralized grid also are decentralized. This would mean community-based management, allowing whole neighborhoods and towns to have a say over where their energy goes and how much they use. It could involve things like participatory budgeting and bioregional resource management. Decentralized energy requires a totally different political system to exist.

But this is still a pipe dream. Despite all talk of globalization and austerity, nation-states continue to reign supreme, and are showing little sign of disappearing any time soon. Perhaps state-centered energy politics—and by extension, highly centralized energy power plants—are our only hope to address climate change. Then again, as Timothy Mitchell’s book shows, states have a very poor track record when it comes to democratic and fair centralized energy systems.

What drives power plants is not just energy—it’s the power needed to make them a reality. In other words, those who control society also control the flow of energy, and vise versa.

In any case, this angle presents a very different picture of the debate between nuclear/hydro and wind/solar environmentalists. What both sides rarely get is that at the root of the energy discussion is also a power struggle. What drives power plants is not just energy—it’s the power needed to make them a reality. In other words, those who control society also control the flow of energy, and vise versa. At stake is not just global warming; it’s also who has a hand on the thermostat and who does not.

In a way, being at the precipice of a new age of energy also means being at the precipice of a new social structure. If we were to successfully decentralize sources of energy, we would also need to decentralize decision-making power. But if we were to want to keep the current economy going in some form, we’d need to stick to highly centralized energy systems, managed by highly centralized power structures. In both scenarios, the kind of political power structure you have will determine the kind of energy solution you’re going to get.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.