Can we decarbonise the economy by wielding the current energy infrastructure differently, or do we have to scrap it and start again?
Tony Martel is an ecosocialist organiser and a PhD Candidate located in Gqeberha, South Africa. He is also a member of the Nelson Mandela Bay Water Crisis Committee.
Cross-posted from Counterpunch
“Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country… What we must now try is to convert every electric power station we build into a stronghold of enlightenment to be used to make the masses electricity-conscious, so to speak” – V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 31
“The sun never sets on the British Empire,” says Miss Lumley, tapping the roll-down map with her long wooden pointer. In countries that are not the British Empire, they cut out children’s tongues, especially those of boys. Before the British Empire there were no railroads or postal services in India. And Africa was full of tribal warfare, with spears, and had no proper clothing. The Indians in Canada did not have the wheel or telephones, and ate the heart of their enemies in the heathenish belief that it would give them courage. The British Empire changed all that. It brought in electric lights. – Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
I’m going to go out on a limb and make a bold claim: Electricity is the Promethean fire of Capitalism. It is the spirit-power of the modern world, a material and vital force, akin to Wakan in West Africa or Mana in Polynesian cosmologies. Why is this important? We are in the midst of an ongoing climatological crisis, and energy is at the centre of capitalism’s response. But this “solution” to replace fossil fuels with renewables is cluttered with neoliberal assumptions and expanding energy demand. Capitalism is putting us on a false quest, presenting us with an illusion of choice between what Sean Sweeney calls two myths: an inevitable transition and climate denialism. We must navigate between the Charybdis and the Hydra, and strive toward what Fred Ho called an Anti-Manifest Destiny Marxism.
We must put electricity in the crosshairs, comprehend its scientific principles, and disentangle its historical development under capitalism. I will argue that when we do, we are faced with much more profound implications for a future society that is decarbonized than replacing fossil fuels with renewables, both of which are eco-destructive in different ways. We tend to talk about renewableslike they’re gardens while we leave out the vast level of organization, resources, and capital that dot around the globe to put those renewables together. The ecological constraints of so-called “renewables” is an entirely separate issue that is not widely accepted but must also be considered. The cost factor is also another issue that capitalism cannot address and will likely undermine an energy transition. We also neglect the relationship we have to energy (ie. rebound effects), how it affects labor (subsumption), and the limitations renewables will inevitably face on a grid designed with flexible fossil fuels (A difficult truth many are not ready to face).
Additionally, every step forward we take with renewables adds faith in the existing set of relations under capitalism to thwart climate change, but this doesn’t get us any closer to building the political movement we need, nor does it mean we are drawing down the use of fossil fuels. We might look at the important work that the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) did around conceptualizing the Just Transition in 2012, and its recuperation through South Africa’s Just Energy Transition Partnership nearly 10 years later, negotiated as concessional loans, and shrouded in secrecy. Returning to Fred Ho again, he once wrote “if the ruling class can concede it, then it can be co-opted.” We must present a response the capitalist class refuses to accept. One that leads to their ultimate demise. Neo-Luddite Revolution!
We Talk About Climate Politics. We Need to Talk About a Techno Politics
The push for renewables is driven by climate science but we are broadly less literate regarding the scientific principles of the grid that society runs on, which capitalism built with fossil fuels. We understand the importance of ecology, but we are also late to the game learning the engineering and physical principles of electricity. In short, if we want to get anywhere, we need to consult and organize with trade unions, utility workers, and engineers.
To put it succinctly, I am asking us to question whether electricity is not altogether a creature of capitalist accumulation given its historical development through the use of fossil fuels. This dependency on fossil fuels is tantamount to a dependency on electricity, and vice versa. The complex machine we call a grid is a creature of the state. Marx comes to mind when he wrote: “But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”
As far as I have learned, a mostly renewable grid will need to be balanced by non-renewables in the mix, and it will likely be centrally controlled. From a technical standpoint, system operator reports are considered authoritative information by engineers. Let us see what they tell us about renewables and grid reliability. If we look at the 2023 ERO Reliability Risk Priorities Report from the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation, their number one priority is energy policy, and its consequent threat to energy sufficiency: “The implementation of policy decisions can significantly affect the reliability and resilience of the BPS. Decarbonization, decentralization, and electrification have been active policy areas.” Elsewhere they write “Merely having generation capacity doesn’t equate to having the necessary reliability services or ramping capability to balance generation & load.” We will continue to see grid reliability prioritized by system operators as renewables take up a larger share of the energy mix. Keeping non-renewables like coal, gas, or nuclear, or the greener hydro (where possible), online is not merely a counterinsurgency imposed by the fossil fuel industry, it is what these grids need to remain operable.
The problem of electrification is addressed, even by advocates, who admit there is currently no solution to scale 100% renewables on the grid. At the moment, Europe’s gas reserves are now estimated to peak at 1,166 TWh. This is more than the entire continent of Africa consumes in electricity at 700 TWh, according to International Energy Agency data. A recent documentary by DW spells out the diversity of interests at play in an energy transition, and the challenges renewables face on the grid. The answer coming from North America and Europe is more renewables, more gas.
The point often raised about the inevitable decentralization of renewable generation naively ignores how this also means there will be greater pressure to control these sites of generation from one location, due to the variable nature of renewable technologies. They will need smart meters to regulate consumption and generation. One industry expert explained it this way, “smart meters are at the heart of an energy transition.” Imagine every house with a smart meter monitoring consumption, precisely what you are consuming, and having the capability to deduce your activity from that information.
“The American friend mentioned Mr. Ford’s favourite plan of decentralization of industry by the use of electric power conveyed on wires to the remotest corner, instead of coal or steam, as a possible remedy, and drew up the picture of hundreds and thousands of small, neat, smokeless villages, dotted with factories, run by village communities. Assuming all that to be possible, he finally asked Gandhi, “How far will it meet your objection?” “My objection won’t be met by that,’ replied Gandhi, “because while it is true that you will be producing things in innumerable areas, the power will come from one selected centre. That, in the end, I think would be found disastrous. It would place such limitless power in one human agency that I dread to think of it. The consequences, for instance, of such a control of power would be that I would be dependent on that power for light, water, even air and so on. That, I think, would be terrible.”
– Gandhi in Sarvodaya and Electricity
Is Electrification Nothing More Than a Civilizational Project?
The Soviet Union used electrification as a symbol of modernity in its developmental project. Indeed, on the periphery, electricity was colloquially termed, “Lenin’s Light” (Sneath, 2009). Electronification was earlier used with similar intentions across North America. Electricity lights up the dark corners of the state’s territories and socializes its population toward the market as “bill-paying consumers and subjects” (Power & Kirshner, 2019). The historical development of electricity in the United States was fixated on capital accumulation and expansion. “As one engineer noted, “Every step upward in the overall efficiency means a chance for a more economical supply and a larger market […] it should be possible to make electrical supply a necessity and not, as it now is in many instances, rather a luxury” (Cohn, 2016).
Extending the electricity grid likewise extends the reach of capitalist markets. Indeed, electrification could be deemed a transnational project to extend capitalist markets across the planet. “Electrification is therefore a process that guarantees ‘dual access’: peoples’ access to electricity and thus to modernity, but also the access of the market to more people ‘expanding quite literally with the extension of the electric grid’” (Power & Kirshner, 2019).
I am provoking us to think about what role electricity should play in social reproduction, in an ecosocialist society. Electrical infrastructure poses strong resemblances to water infrastructure, as tentacles of state power under capitalism, albeit with major differences: Electricity is artificial, while water is not. Indeed, the artificiality of electricity is what makes the variability of renewables so difficult to maintain on a grid.
There is no future in a just transition without a strong state, at least if it will be socialist transition. Otherwise, it will be coordinated amongst large corporate actors, or worse an economic nationalist regime, of which nascent forms may already be taking shape across the global north. So then if we take the controversial position that electricity may in fact behave as a force of domination, and question the taken for granted assumption that electricity does in fact bring a better life, then what is the good life under ecosocialism? What are we fighting for?
Is there such thing as a communist electricity? An anarchist electricity? Is there a world where electricity powers the free association of producers? Where it is a non-dominating force? Perhaps it is only in a society where electricity is no longer a basis of material inequality. Where electricity becomes peripheral to social reproduction. I wonder if a world premised on the generation of electricity at its core could ever make all things equal:
“The need for unequal privilege in an industrial society is generally advocated by means of an argument with two sides. The hypocrisy of this argument is clearly betrayed by acceleration. Privilege is accepted as the necessary precondition to improve the lot of a growing total population, or it is advertised as the instrument for raising the standards of a deprived minority. In the long run, accelerating transportation does neither. It only creates a universal demand for motorized conveyance, and puts previously unimaginable distances between the various layers of privilege. Beyond a certain point, more energy means less equity.”
-Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity
Mali is estimated to have an annual energy usage per capita that is less than the “average European uses to boil just one tea kettle.” Under capitalism, transcending energy poverty is the key lever to unlocking social mobility. But if electricity is indeed a tool of domination, building ever greater inequality, then we must begin to think about revolution where electricity and energy are not at the centre. We must build a mass movement for communism that does not rely on capital intensive industries and technologies. In fact, it might be the only way to build a truly grassroots democratic revolution.
We should think about what John Trudell used to say, “it’s not the old way, it’s not the new way, it’s the way of the earth.” We need to find out what that means for society, and fast. Instead of electrifying everything, we might even have to de-electrify everything.
Cohn, J. (2016). Bias in Electric Power Systems. A Technological Fine Point at the Intersection of Commodity and Service. In A. Beltran, L. Laborie, P. Lanthier, S. Le Gallic (Eds.) Electric Worlds / Mondes èlectriques: Creations, Circulations, Tensions, Transitions (19th-21st C.).
Power, M., & Kirshner, J. (2019). Powering the State: The political geographies of electrification in Mozambique. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 37(3), 498-518. https://doi.org/10.1177/2399654418784598
Sneath, D. (2009). Reading the Signs by Lenin’s Light: Development, Divination and Metonymic Fields in Mongolia, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, 74(1), 72-90. 10.1080/00141840902751204
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