Renewable energy

Photo: Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

by Alf Hornborg

The concept of renewable energy is generally used for electric power that is not derived from finite sources such as stocks of fossil fuels or uranium. It includes the harnessing of flows such as direct sunlight, wind, and water. Harnessing such flows for electricity production requires technologies that are fundamentally different from the technologies used for deriving mechanical power from burning stocks of coal, oil, or gas. This applies to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams as much as it does to photovoltaic panels, but the focus here will be on solar power.

The rise of the fossil economy

The burning of fossil fuels as sources of mechanical power began with the steam engine in Britain in the 1760s. This innovation was essential to the Industrial Revolution. It marked a transition from relying on organic and flow-based energy sources propelled by current sunlight—such as human labour, draft animals, watermills, and windmills—to the combustion of subterranean mineral stocks. These mineral stocks—coal, oil, and gas—contain energy from ancient sunlight accumulated in organisms and deposited as sediments in the Earth’s crust.

The energy transition of the Industrial Revolution was not simply a discovery of how mineral energy could be converted into mechanical power. The harnessing of mineral energy required capital, that is purchasing power. As the wealthy core of the world’s greatest colonial empire, Britain was able to invest in steam technology. The expansion of steam technology in late eighteenth-century Britain was thus a process linked to the British appropriation of African slave labour and American plantation land. It saved Britain substantial quantities of labour time and agricultural land, but at the expense of great amounts of African labour and American land.

Energy technology – part nature, part society

The experience of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and other wealthy areas of the world was interpreted as a miraculous achievement of engineering. This is undeniable but does not tell the whole story. Technologies are not merely ingenious ideas or blueprints applied to nature. For them to materialize, engineers must have access to specific physical components—and at specific ratios of exchange (that is, prices). Engineering was certainly a necessary condition for the establishment of steam technology in early industrial Britain, but it was not a sufficient condition. The technology for harnessing the energy of coal was contingent on the market prices of raw cotton, African slaves, the labour of coal miners, Swedish iron, lubricants, and other inputs in relation to the market prices of exported cotton textiles. The physical existence of the machine, in other words, hinged not only on the revelation of nature, but also on social processes of exchange. However, this hybrid essence of technology—part nature, part society—has largely escaped the modern conception of engineering.

Across the political spectrum, there is a general faith in the capacity of modern society to shift to renewable, non-fossil energy sources without substantially reducing its levels of energy use.

By the end of the twentieth century, natural scientists had recognized that the combustion of fossil fuels is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. There have also been concerns about the depletion of finite mineral energy stocks and the decreasing net energy return on energy expended on extraction, also referred to as ERO(e)I (Energy Return On energy Investment). Moreover, the huge global disparities in per capita energy use are no longer easily rationalized as uneven development but suggest structural and increasing gaps between wealthier and poorer parts of world society. Given the dominant understanding of energy technology, however, these problems have generally not informed mainstream visions of the prospects of an increasingly globalized modern society. In these visions, the growing per capita use of energy continues to be fundamental to social progress, regardless of energy source. The problems with fossil energy are viewed as challenges of engineering. Across the political spectrum, there is a general faith in the capacity of modern society to shift to renewable, non-fossil energy sources without substantially reducing its levels of energy use.

Will renewables replace fossil fuels?

The main candidates for replacing fossil with renewable energy are solar and wind power. Experts are divided regarding their potential to replace fossil fuels. Some see no technical or economic obstacles to such a transition. Skeptics have argued that renewable energy technologies applied at such a scale would require impractically huge amounts of materials, space, or energy. Some have emphasized that the production and maintenance of infrastructure for production of renewable energy is based on fossil energy to such an extent that the energy derived from it is very far from carbon-free. This is particularly obvious where the manufacture of solar panels is conducted in coal-powered factories, as in China. Given that the world economy is currently propelled by fossil energy to about 90%, some have concluded that economic investments in renewable energy represent a fossil energy subsidy of similar proportions. Also, given this reliance on fossil fuels, a rise in prices of fossil energy cannot simply be hailed in terms of an increasing competitiveness for solar, as it will translate into higher production costs for alternative technologies. More centrally, given the fact that the cheapening of solar panels in recent years to a significant extent is the result of shifting manufacture to China, we must ask ourselves whether European and American efforts to become sustainable should really be based on the global exploitation of low-wage labor and abused landscapes elsewhere. The global, societal conditions for energy technologies tend to be equally overlooked whether we are accounting for the eighteenth-century shift to fossil energy or deliberating about how to abandon it. Both steam engines and solar panels have relied on asymmetric global flows of biophysical resources such as embodied labor, land, energy, and materials.

A transition to renewable energy generally focuses on electricity production, but most of the total global energy use occurs in other contexts, such as non-electric transports. Electricity globally represents about 19% of total energy use. In the year 2017, only 0.7% of global energy use derived from solar power and 1.9% from wind, while over 85% relied on fossil fuels. In March 2018, Vaclav Smil estimated that as much as 90% of world energy use derives from fossil sources, and that the share is actually increasing. Solar power is not displacing fossil energy, only adding to it. The pace of expansion of renewable energy capacity has stalled—it was about the same in 2018 as in 2017. Meanwhile, the global combustion of fossil fuels continues to rise, as do global carbon emissions.

We have every reason to dismantle most of the global, fossil-fueled infrastructure for transporting people, groceries, and other commodities around the planet.

Downscaling energy needs

How should we understand and transcend this impasse? To continue burning fossil fuels cannot be an option, but to believe that modern, high-energy society can be maintained based on renewable energy is similarly deluded. We shall certainly continue to need electricity, for example to run our hospitals and computers. But we have every reason to dismantle most of the global, fossil-fueled infrastructure for transporting people, groceries, and other commodities around the planet. This means making human subsistence independent from fossil energy and substantially reducing our mobility and consumption. Solar power will no doubt be an indispensable component of humanity’s future, but this will not happen as long as we allow the logic of the world market to make it profitable to transport essential goods halfway around the world. In order to provide the conditions for a sustainable technology, we must begin by establishing a sustainable economy. Crucially, also, we must modify our understanding of the very idea of technology. Contrary to our modern worldview since the Industrial Revolution, technology is not a neutral way of revealing and harnessing the forces of nature. A better way to define technology is to acknowledge that it is a global social phenomenon and a moral and political question rather than simply one of engineering. If we forget about this distributive aspect of technology, it will likely continue to save time and space for a global elite at the expense of human time and natural space appropriated elsewhere.

Further resources

Alf Hornborg. Nature, society, and justice in the Anthropocene: Unraveling the money-energy-technology complex. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Argues that modern energy technologies, in exploiting global differences in the price of labor and resources, are based not only on politically neutral revelations of natural forces but crucially also on accumulation of the capital invested in harnessing them.

Dustin Mulvaney. Solar power: Innovation, sustainability, and environmental justice. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019.
Discusses what changes would be required in the life cycle of photovoltaic solar power technology to make it just and sustainable.

Vaclav Smil. Power density: A key to understanding energy sources and uses. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.
Compares different energy sources in terms of the amount of energy that can be derived from them per square meter of space.

Alf Hornborg is an anthropologist and Professor of Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden. His research focuses on theorizing the cultural and political dimensions of human-environmental relations in different societies in space and time. His books include The Power of the Machine (2001), Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange (2011), Global Magic (2016), and Nature, Society, and Justice in the Anthropocene (2019).

Energy and the Green New Deal

Image: Fiona Paton CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Tim Crownshaw

Nothing happens without energy. Literally. Lacking energy, there can be no heat, food, motion, information, or life. Commonly defined as ‘the capacity to do work’, energy has always been central to human societies, whether derived mechanically from moving wind or water, chemically from wood, oil, coal or other combustible fuels, or thermally from the sun. This is more than an abstract footnote—there are deep links between available energy and the very structure of civilizations, including their types of social organization and levels of complexity, as noted by anthropologist Leslie White [1]. While this relationship is obviously not deterministic, there are social, technological, and economic arrangements, such those we enjoy in privileged parts of the global North today, which are likely unattainable at significantly lower levels of energy consumption.

Much discussion and research in recent years has focused on the prospects for a global transition to renewable energy, motivated by growing awareness of the existential threat posed by global climate change as well as localized environmental issues attributable to the production and consumption of fossil and nuclear energy. The Green New Deal (GND), the subject of this essay, is the latest in a long line of ambitious plans aimed at accelerating this process, in addition to its social and economic goals. However, many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities. In the process, they typically sidestep irreducible uncertainties and fail to properly engage with the considerable challenges involved in fundamentally transforming our energy system. It must be asked whether the GND commits these same errors. Avoiding them requires recognition that the transition to renewable energy is not simply the eventual outcome of the right set of policy settings, but what systems scientists would call a complex, path-dependent, socio-metabolic process. In other words, the transition will be far more constrained in terms of what we can achieve than we often like to think and will necessarily transform the basic configuration of our societies [2, 3].

Many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities.

That we must one day rely solely on renewable energy is true by definition. The fossil and nuclear fuels are depleting resources and their use entails ecological harm on an immense scale. Therefore, this use will eventually become infeasible, unacceptable, and uneconomic. But how we get from here to there is radically uncertain. There is no guarantee that we will complete the transition while maintaining an industrial socio-metabolic regime (our current pattern of material and energy use and associated societal configuration). In fact, this appears highly unlikely [2, 3].

Alternative narratives

For most people in the developed world, modern energy services are so ubiquitous and ingrained in our daily lives that they have been rendered largely invisible (at least until they are interrupted). Nevertheless, understanding energy is critical to accurately discerning where we are going as a society and what we can hope to achieve. This understanding suffers from what Mario Giampietro has called a “clash of reductionism against the complexity of energy transformations” [4].

Energy is typically understood in loose terms as something produced and transported by large and highly visible infrastructures (of which there are ‘good’ kinds and ‘bad’ kinds, defined by one’s perspective). It is generally perceived that energy is used for various crucial purposes, such as moving people and things around, heating and cooling homes and workplaces, powering appliances and devices, and producing consumer goods. Beyond this, various emotionally charged and frequently oversimplified narratives come into play, which inform expectations of what lifestyles and society at large ought to look like. While the range of perspectives and positions on energy is vast, they can be broadly grouped into two opposed narratives:

  • Narrative one sees energy presenting an urgent moral duality: oil derricks, pipelines, smog-covered cityscapes, and corporate interests on one side and climate saving technologies, eco-friendly behaviours, and new political movements on the other. In this strain of thought, we already have the requisite technology to carry out the transition to renewable energy and the only serious barriers are political in nature. Nowhere is the first narrative more clearly depicted than in US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent ‘A Message From The Future’ video.
  • Narrative two considers fossil fuels to be miraculous, prosperity-building, and geo-politically important resources, which should not be disregarded in favour of unproven, unreliable alternatives. As for climate change, positions can range from “the science in not settled” to “no problem, we’ll have the tech for that”. This narrative is captured in PR communications from major oil companies (and even more transparently depicted here), frequently loaded with promises of jobs, technological breakthroughs, and nostalgia for an era of pioneering industrial vitality.

Neither of these narratives is totally correct, but neither is totally wrong either. The first rightly highlights the social and ecological imperatives we face and how some forms of energy production are significantly less harmful than others, but tends to downplay the challenges and implications of transforming the entire energy basis of modern economies. Meanwhile, the second accurately identifies the unique qualities of fossil energy resources and their role in reaching our current level of development, but fails to identify that these have a limited lifespan, both in terms of their physical abundance and the extent to which we can use them without unacceptable consequences. It is on this fraught ideological landscape that the GND must vie for influence against competing visions of our energy future.

The Green New Deal

The GND (a clear allusion to Roosevelt’s depression-era New Deal) burst onto the US political scene in 2018, emerging from the youth-led ‘Sunrise Movement’ and subsequently championed by freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and a growing list of progressive political figures. Its supporters now include Joseph Stiglitz, Ban Ki-Moon, Paul Krugman, US senators (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Ed Markey), and numerous organizations (including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, 350.org, the New Economics Foundation, Extinction Rebellion, and the United Nations Environment Programme). The concept has quickly spread internationally to Canada, the UK, Australia, and the European Union due in large part to the advocacy of respective green parties in these places. A recent Yale survey found a strong majority in the US (81% of those surveyed and even 64% of republicans) ‘strongly support’ or ‘somewhat support’ the various proposals associated with the GND. With this impressive momentum, the time has come to translate zeal into workable policy.

In the US, the GND is often described with the tagline “decarbonization, jobs, and justice.” Policy proposals center around a green industrial revolution—a rapid, large-scale transition to renewable energy alongside vastly expanded public transportation and building retrofits for energy efficiency within a 10-year timeframe. The plan is to achieve near carbon-neutrality of the US economy and improved environmental quality through immense public spending initiatives, funded primarily via redistributive measures designed to tackle inequality. The draft text of the GND House Resolution includes the aim to “virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” Variations often include increased minimum wages, universal health care, improved access to education, shorter working hours, and democratized workplaces. For a more complete description of the origin story and details of the GND, see this article or this one.

As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial.

Although it’s not hard to see the appeal, no one would deny that this is an immense task. In fact, there is already a chorus of critical voices from right across the political spectrum on questions of cost, timeframe, technical assumptions, and policy design. As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial. To go any further, we need to cover some energy basics.

Energy primer

The global energy system is by far the largest, most technologically advanced collection of built capital, supporting infrastructure, expertise, and organizational capacity that has ever existed. Despite the hype around renewables, the global energy system is still 96% non-renewable, while solar and wind—the two renewable energy sources with the greatest growth potential—supplied just a little over 1% of total world energy in 2018 [5].

Firstly, it is important to understand that each type of energy production can satisfy only some types of energy demand: energy resources and the flows derived from them are not interchangeable. Instead, the energy system comprises a series of distinct flows spanning four basic stages, from primary resources through to delivered energy services:

Figure 1: Flows of energy travelling through four stages of the energy system

To provide a bit more specificity to this picture, the table below shows common examples of each of the four stages and sequences of flows between them:

If fully enumerated, this would look more like a complex, multi-nodal network rather than a straight line, but this simplification serves to highlight some key features:

  • Changes at one stage require corresponding changes at all other stages in order to avoid supply bottlenecks or unused excess capacity. Each new increment of supply (primary resources plus secondary conversion) must be met with a corresponding increment of demand (end-use capital plus energy service demand) and vice versa. This means that investments needed to change the system are often larger than they first appear—investments in one part of the system require corresponding investments in others—and the ways societies use energy must evolve as supply changes.
  • The common lay concept of ‘energy’ as a homogeneous, aggregate quantity is a fiction. The various flows within the energy system are non-equivalent and non-substitutable (at least not directly). For example, gasoline is produced by a refinery and fuels your car, but this is not interchangeable with the electricity generated by a gas-fired turbine powering your laptop. In particular, the flows of ‘energy carriers’ between the second and third stages—consisting of electricity, liquid fuels, and heating fuels—must be considered separately, otherwise we risk overlooking constraints integral to the system.

The non-equivalence of energy carriers is an essential concept, analogous to the metabolism of living organisms requiring fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to survive. For most animals, diet can change with food availability, but there are limits to this. Humans can substitute one food group for another, at least for a period of time, but beyond certain boundaries severe physiological consequences begin to occur, including starvation and death. The energy system functions basically the same way. The composition of supply or demand can’t be changed arbitrarily and to the extent that it can be changed, this typically requires expensive and time-consuming adjustments at other stages in the energy system.

Energy for energy

Aside from the flows ultimately ending up as final energy services (or waste), a large part of the output of the energy system must be directed back into its own construction, operation, and maintenance. These flows represent the metabolism of the global energy system. As shown in Figure 2, energy carriers are utilized in an ‘autocatalytic loop’ (energy invested to produce energy) and a ‘capital hypercycle’ (energy invested to maintain the means of turning energy into services).

Figure 2: Energy carrier flows required for the construction, maintenance, and operation of the global energy system

Our current economic structure and resource dependencies ensure that we’ll burn a lot of fossil fuels to carry out a major shift towards renewable energy—a cost of the transition that we can’t afford to ignore. Among other things, this complicates discussions around the pace of the transition; it is not necessarily true that faster is better as large, short-term increases in fossil fuel demand for a renewable energy buildout may lead to significant excess capacity, wasting resources and frustrating the transition further down the line. Generally speaking, an ‘optimum’ timeframe in terms of what would limit greenhouse gas emissions or ecological impact will not likely align with the deadlines proposed to date by the advocates of rapid transition. Vaclav Smil notes that energy transitions on this scale typically occur over multiple decades or centuries, not years [6].

The manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal.

Examining the energy system’s own metabolism also raises questions of residual non-renewable energy dependence that may be difficult to eliminate. The energy system’s autocatalytic loop and capital hypercycle are comprised of a mixture of energy carriers, meaning any attempt to shift the system towards a renewable basis will likely run into limits (due to energy carriers required to support the energy system not likely to be produced at scale via renewable means). For example, the manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal. Will it be possible to run solar PV panel and wind turbine production lines using solar- and wind-generated electricity in the future? We don’t know, but there are reasons to be skeptical [7]. How about all of the remote access roads, transmission towers, substations, and supply depots required to create a renewable energy infrastructure? And the rare-earths, lithium, copper, iron, coltan, cadmium, and vast quantities of other minerals needed for the renewable energy buildout? It is hard to see how all of this can subsist on renewable energy flows alone.

Electricity

And then there’s electricity. Electricity is not like the other energy carriers in one critical sense: it is not a physical substance that can be produced and set aside for later use. In effect, this means supply must match demand at all times in order to maintain the stable, functioning electrical networks that distribute electricity to end users. Demand is stochastic—it changes as industrial production ramps up and down, and more erratically as households turn on or off light switches, run appliances, or do anything else that uses electricity. Consequently, supply must be ‘dispatched’ to meet demand on very short timescales as any temporary gap leads to changes in system frequency and large gaps can cause blackouts and damage vital electrical equipment (illustrated below).

Figure 3: The supply-demand ‘seesaw’ directly affects the frequency and stability of electrical networks (image source)

The key problem with most renewable electricity production (including production from solar and wind) is that it is intermittent and can’t be counted on when it is required most. Electricity systems needs to retain the ability to meet demand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. There are ways to maintain this ability as the share of renewables increases, such as building enough spare dispatchable generation capacity to act as a backup (often gas- and coal-fired) or building storage and additional transmission capacity. All have significant costs, in both energetic and monetary terms, and face their own social and technical limitations. For example, while there is much discussion around building better batteries to unlock renewables, this is still an exceedingly expensive option that is suitable only for shorter timescales, not the summer to winter supply-demand gaps creating most of the need for system flexibility [8]. Returning to our diet analogy, pinning all of our hopes on storage is a bit like asking a someone to put on 300 lbs every fall to survive the winter months with very little food. We wouldn’t expect a human being to be capable of this for very long and the odds of the energy system pulling off the equivalent feat are not much better.

This difficulty only increases as renewables provide a larger share of total electricity. Figure 4 below shows how the mitigation investment required to maintain stable electricity grids increases non-linearly as the share of intermittent renewables grows [9, 10]. Technical and economic limitations in the electricity sector will manifest during any large-scale transition to renewable energy. Aside from a few fortunate regions with abundant dispatchable renewable energy resources (geothermal in Iceland, hydropower in Nicaragua, etc.), with current technology, this ceiling is far below the aspirational 100% renewable goal of the GND. The importance of these electricity system barriers is underscored by the fact that the provision of many of our energy services will need to be electrified in order to align with the growth of renewable energy.


Figure 4: The level of mitigation necessary to maintain stable electricity networks increases exponentially as intermittent generation rises

A story of limits

The crux of the problem is this: renewable energy typically produces forms of energy that are poor substitutes for the energy required to manufacture, transport, install, and operate renewable energy, at least without major investments into each stage of our energy system, significantly reducing or even erasing the net energy delivered. As such, these energy sources are dependent on the existing system and function less as a replacement for the fossil fuel economy and more as a temporary extension of it. The empirical evidence agrees—renewable energy investment does a poor job of displacing fossil fuels [11]. Of course, there are exceptions (such as traditionally produced biomass), but these have nowhere near the potential scale required to run today’s enormous globalized, industrialized economy.

Wherever the existing limit lies on the path to a 100% renewable energy system, we can and should push this limit through changes to consumption behaviours on the part of both industries and households, through things like shared utilization of end-use capital and energy services (think communal kitchens), a shift away from currently preferred but inefficient types of end-use capital (e.g. prioritizing public transit and micromobility over cars), greater alignment of demand to match intermittent supply, and overall demand reduction. However, it is precisely these kinds of changes which are more difficult to motivate, especially among those following the second narrative described above who may assume that high-energy, fossil-fuelled lifestyles represent ‘the good life’. Even at the extremes of practical behaviour change, the 100% target may still be unattainable.

Leaving aside the narrow concept of limits, a fundamental change in our energy basis and socio-metabolic regime would mean becoming a very different society from the one we know today. It is tempting to opine on our society’s wasteful habits and ask how much energy we really need, but the answer depends largely on the type of society we want to live in. Do we want to be able to build smartphones? How about MRI machines and water treatment plants? We may not be able to pick and choose what we want to keep from varying levels of socio-technical complexity (while it is certainly worth discussing what we might want to keep and what we can afford to lose). There is no demonstrated historical tendency for complex societies to voluntarily downshift their energy consumption on a large-scale [12].

When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.

The main point here is that the prospects and implications of shifting toward renewable energy extend far beyond present-day cost-benefit calculations, political maneuvering, or waging war on climate change. When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.

Raised stakes and political pushback

By forcing extensive change into an expedited timeframe, the GND raises the stakes and reduces the margin for error in the transition to renewable energy. If such a policy package were embraced, people everywhere would be subject to dramatically increased risks of misallocation of resources, misalignment of capacity between the various stages within the energy system, and of consequent economic and social fallout. The calls for radical action motivating the GND stem from a sense of desperation in the face of increasingly dire predictions regarding converging climate and ecological crises. That desperation is certainly justified, and yes, time is not on our side, but we must not dismiss the existential risks of a poorly executed GND.

The GND makes some very big promises and displays unmistakeable utopian elements. The problem is not so much the aspirational decarbonization goals, but the assurances of prodigious social benefits assumed to be attainable through or while pursuing them. Universal modern healthcare and higher education, job guarantees, raised minimum income, the elimination of poverty and inequality, significantly increased taxation of the wealthy—these goals proved elusive even during the period of greatest stability and economic surplus the world has ever seen. To achieve them during what will likely be a period of profound and growing ecological disruption, climate instability, and social unrest is rather optimistic to say the least. We will need to walk a long tightrope, balancing the pace of change, unforeseen challenges, impacts on communities, and necessary sacrifices. Perhaps the most dubious aspect is the overall ethical shift underscoring the kind of social cohesion necessary to achieve the GND in developed nations, from hyper-consumerism to environmental stewardship and the voluntary curtailment of discretionary consumption—essentially expecting everyone to spontaneously drop any differences of opinion and embrace the first narrative.

Owing to the existence of embedded conflicting perspectives, the GND will always have its opponents. Assuming we go ahead with it, any unintended consequence or local failure (of which there will be many) will be met with a backlash that risks eroding public confidence in the GND. This is a dynamic heightened in direct proportion to the level of ambition the GND embodies; the more utopian the stated goals, the starker the underwhelming reality, and the greater the negative reaction will be. How would we maintain broad political support for the GND, given the inevitability of broken promises? It may be that some of these promises need to be tempered against the requirement for achievable goals. A prime example can be seen in the German Energiewende, a planned national energy transition initiated in 2010 aimed at phasing out coal and nuclear energy. Promises of clean, renewable, reliable, and affordable energy clashed against the reality of Europe’s highest power prices and unconvincing progress on decarbonization [14]. This failure dampened public enthusiasm and made other countries hesitant to follow Germany’s example. The GND must learn this lesson—to promise more than you can deliver is to ensure failure.

There isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face.

One might reasonably ask whether too much ambition is really a weakness. Isn’t it better to have highly aspirational goals, even if they aren’t achieved, if only to carry us further than we would have gone otherwise? Well, not necessarily. It is important to note that there isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face. Time and our capacity for change are both limited. A last-ditch, herculean attempt to rebuild modernity anew would forestall the pursuit of other more credible and beneficial models of development.

First things first

So is the GND a good idea? Unfortunately, not in its present form. Given current levels of understanding of the complexities and trade-offs involved in a transition to renewable energy, and inflated expectations of future energy consumption, it would almost certainly result in a catastrophic failure. However, if guided by 1) an accurate and realistic understanding of the role of energy in society and 2) a willingness to honestly confront the profound socio-economic implications of a shift to a renewable energy basis, a reformulated GND might be able to point our global system toward a more sustainable paradigm.

Here are some additional principles for a truly transformative GND that I would propose:

  1. Energy literacy: energy transition is at the heart of the GND and its current assertions in this area are highly questionable. As such, there is a pronounced need for energy literacy, both in policy formulation and post-implementation general education. This energy literacy is needed to disarm simplistic narratives and enable transformative thinking.
  2. Demand side adaptation: to help bridge the gap between ambition and feasibility and unlock energy transition to the extent possible, the GND must embrace a radical rethinking of expectations for energy consumption. This must include overall demand reduction, but also greater demand flexibility, shared utilization of energy services, and shifting away from inefficient modes of energy service provision. Supply side interventions won’t cut it, we need to talk about the energy we use as a society.
  3. Evolving timeline: a complex, socio-metabolic process cannot be forced to conform to arbitrary deadlines and attempting to do so serves only to lock in unintended, suboptimal outcomes in terms of what we really want to achieve. The GND must abandon its stated 10-year timeframe and instead incorporate an informed, contingent, and evolving target for the pace of the transition.
  4. Political realism: assuming a forthcoming, sweeping alignment of perspectives on energy and social issues and subsequent unilateral action, as if in a political vacuum, is simply wishful thinking and must be rejected. The GND’s overall strategy must remain mindful of contrary narratives and the political pitfalls of excessive ambition. There should also be more discussion on who—from movements like Extinction Rebellion to environmental justice groups—can build the necessary political power for a truly transformative GND and how.
  5. Epistemic openness: new approaches are needed to navigate radical uncertainty and conflicting socio-technical narratives regarding energy transition. The GND must engage fields like Post-Normal Science—an approach to scientific decision-making for issues where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent” [15, 16]—as antidotes to reductionism and ideological echo chambers.

As a parting thought, ‘deal’ may not be the appropriate language given an overwhelming level of uncertainty. How can a deal be made and subsequently serve as the benchmark of success when the most relevant details are not yet known? In place of the GND, we might be better served by scaling back our ambition and embracing a Green New Direction. This alternative could preserve many of the same essential goals, but would need to forgo the use of enticing promises to motivate action and instead do the hard work of building solidarity and commitment to collectively face an energy future which will be more complex, more unpredictable, and more challenging than anything we’ve previously encountered.

References

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  3. Haberl, H., et al., A socio-metabolic transition towards sustainability? Challenges for another Great Transformation. Sustainable Development, 2011. 19(1): p. 1-14.
  4. Giampietro, M., K. Mayumi, and A.H. Sorman, Energy analysis for a sustainable future: multi-scale integrated analysis of societal and ecosystem metabolism. 2013, London, UK: Routledge.
  5. BP, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019. 2019, BP. p. 64.
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  8. Carbajales-Dale, M., C.J. Barnhart, and S.M. Benson, Can we afford storage? A dynamic net energy analysis of renewable electricity generation supported by energy storage. Energy & Environmental Science, 2014. 7(5): p. 1538-1544.
  9. Heard, B.P., et al., Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 2017. 76: p. 1122-1133.
  10. Trainer, T., Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case. Energy Policy, 2010. 38(8): p. 4107-4114.
  11. York, R., Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels? Nature Climate Change, 2012. 2(6): p. 441-443.
  12. Smil, V., Energy in world history. 1994, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  13. Cai, T.T., T.W. Olsen, and D.E. Campbell, Maximum (em)power: a foundational principle linking man and nature. Ecological Modelling, 2004. 178(1): p. 115-119.
  14. Schiffer, H.-W. and J. Trüby, A review of the German energy transition: taking stock, looking ahead, and drawing conclusions for the Middle East and North Africa. Energy Transitions, 2018. 2(1): p. 1-14.
  15. Funtowicz, S.O. and J.R. Ravetz, Science for the post-normal age. Futures, 1993. 25(7): p. 739-755.
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Tim Crownshaw is a PhD Candidate in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University in Canada and a student in the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) research partnership. He studies global dynamic transition pathways from non-renewable to renewable energy resources using quantitative, systems-based modelling approaches.

In the land of the rising sun, climate efforts are falling behind

Sunset over Tokyo. Photo by Arto Marttinen.

by Imogen Malpas

Japan is no stranger to extreme weather events, nor to developing massive infrastructural defenses against them. At the beginning of the millennium, faced with a capital city susceptible to cataclysmic flooding, the Japanese government poured millions of dollars into the creation of Tokyo’s Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel, the largest underground water diversion system in the world. An impressive cathedral-like structure, the channel can divert the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool into the Edo River every two seconds. It is a masterpiece of civil engineering and a testament to sheer human determination to innovate our way out of any existential threat.

But even with the support of the Channel’s miles of tunnels, Tokyo today—not in some distant climate future, but right now—still faces the prospect of a flood severe enough to require the immediate evacuation of up to 1.78 million people. As climate change pushes Japan’s natural disasters to new extremes, efforts to out-design increasingly lethal weather patterns may be in vain. Rather than attempting to treat the symptoms of climate change, Japan must tackle its root causes.

This was the charge levelled at the Japanese government following the devastating events in the summer of 2018, which saw the country, which generates 83% of its energy from fossil fuels, brought to its knees by climate change-driven extreme weather. Over the month of July, huge swathes of southwestern Japan were inundated with water. Flash flooding and mudslides took the lives of over 200 people. Many regions set rainfall records by enormous margins.

As the rain fell, a heatwave was simultaneously gaining strength, burning through still-flooded prefectures and killing at least 65 people in a single week. 65 kilometres northwest of Tokyo, in the city of Kumagaya, the mercury had just hit 41.1 degrees Celsius—the highest temperature in Japan ever recorded. Just one month later, the Typhoon Jongdari made landfall, with 120 km/h winds injuring 24 and driving the evacuation of thousands. It was only a few short weeks before Typhoon Jebi—Japan’s strongest storm in 25 years—slammed into Kyoto, killing 7 and smashing a 2,591-tonne tanker into a road bridge. Completing a trilogy of destruction, Typhoon Trami followed hot on Jebi’s heels, cutting power to 750,000 homes and evacuating over 380,000. This time the winds reached 216 km/h.

This was record-breaking weather, and the media responded accordingly, running stories about the growing impact of climate change on Japan’s already storm-prone archipelago. Aired in an atmosphere of crisis, the stories ended with the familiar climate imperative: ‘Act now!’ But in the same year that unprecedented floods and rising temperatures wrought havoc on the country, the Japanese government released a report with a bizarre angle on climate change. Jointly produced by five government agencies, the report assured its readers of the opportunities for businesses to ‘take advantage’ of climate change. How? By building products to make heatwave-stricken homes and offices more comfortable, or designing sophisticated financial instruments to manage the economic risks of abnormal weather events.

Examples included Japan-based Dexerials Corporation’s heat-ray reflective window film, a product that promises to shield buildings from extreme heat, along with Kokusai Kogyo’s GPS technology that provides land management tools for farms struck by increasingly erratic weather-related disasters. The report made no mention of fossil fuels, carbon emissions or waste reduction, but did note that new varieties of oranges able to tolerate the heat are now being grown in Ehime, a prefecture that suffered 25 deaths and millions of dollars of damage in the 2018 floods. 

While such official responses to climate change are deeply out of touch with the urgency of the situation, it wasn’t long ago that Japan’s energy sector was poised to lead a worldwide energy transition. In 1997, when world leaders came together to sign the historic Kyoto Protocol, Japan was synonymous with fighting climate change. But its drive for clean energy faltered in 2011, when the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country’s eastern shores delivered a fatal blow to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant, in what would become the world’s biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

In the ensuing panic, the country’s nuclear reactors, which had been generating just under a third of Japan’s energy, were shut down immediately. The tide of public opinion seems to have turned against nuclear energy for good. In 2014, 59% of the public opposed switching the reactors back on. To date, nine reactors have been brought back online since the Fukushima disaster, bringing nuclear’s contribution to Japan’s energy mix up to 3%.

This disaster was a boon for the fossil fuel industry, as coal and oil were seen not only as safer than nuclear energy, but also a more reliable alternative to still-developing renewable energy sources. Japan’s reliance on imported oil and coal soared, and it took less than a year for Japan to become the world’s second biggest importer of fossil fuels. More than two decades after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, just under 15% of Japan’s energy needs are met by non-carbon sources.

Comparing the Fukushima disaster with the even greater threat posed to Japan by climate change allows a certain irony to emerge. Not only were the Japanese government’s actions after Fukushima driven by all the urgency that has been so sorely lacking in their response to climate change, they also set the country on a path of self-destruction, as continued reliance on fossil fuels continues to warm our planet. But when it comes to Japan’s climate inertia, the impact of Fukushima is just one part of the story. To understand why the fossil fuel industry maintains its iron grip on Japan today, we need to look beyond the aftermath of this disaster and to ongoing conditions.

The long road to decarbonization

For many businesses, the decision to do without fossil fuels would doom them to a competitive disadvantage severe enough to threaten their existence. Instead, major Japanese corporations seek to place the burden of change on consumers.

Japan currently holds the most solar technology patents in the world, and is the leading manufacturer of photovoltaic devices, providing nearly half of the world’s quota. The islets and channels in its Western coastal regions offer significant tidal energy generation potential. Moreover, as a mountainous island surrounded by sea, Japan is perfectly placed for the development of wind technology. But the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry failed to award a single contract last year to a solar energy supplier to deliver energy to consumers, citing costs that exceeded government targets. Plans announced in 2013 to install tidal turbines along Japan’s coastline have not yet come to fruition, and public doubts about the reliability of wind power have been exploited by regional electricity companies who, citing variability issues with wind-generated electricity, are sticking to the ‘safe bets’ of oil and coal. 

Meanwhile, the Abe government refuses to take the lead on emissions reductions. The Japanese government’s ‘Long-Term Energy Supply and Demand Outlook’ pledged to increase the amount of energy supplied by renewables from 15% to 22-24% by 2030: a goal that was described as ‘modest’ by news outlets, and more bluntly by the country’s own Foreign Minister as ‘lamentable.’ In negotiations leading up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries were asked to present their own national emissions reduction plan. Each plan would work towards an overall global reductions target, while taking economic and infrastructural differences between countries into account. So far, so good—except Japan’s plan for a 26% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030 was widely criticized for falling far short of the plans produced by other industrialised nations. For comparison, the European Union is chasing a minimum target of 40%.

With the national climate strategy plagued by inertia, some Japanese businesses have begun mobilising to accelerate the energy transition. Last July, as floods swallowed the south of the country, a handful of companies, local governments and NGOs joined together to form the Japan Climate Initiative, a network independent of the national government and committed to fostering productive climate action. JCI’s mission statement is simple: ‘We believe that Japan can and should play a greater role in the world in realizing a decarbonized society.’

As of March 2019, the network includes 350 companies, and counts giants SoftBank and Fujifilm among its members. According to the network’s website, over 50 Japanese companies have committed to setting ‘science-based targets’ to reduce emissions. Many are signing on to RE100, the pledge to generate 100% of a company’s energy from renewables, and some local governments have even declared a goal of zero emissions.

But for many businesses, the decision to do without fossil fuels would doom them to a competitive disadvantage severe enough to threaten their existence. Instead, major Japanese corporations seek to place the burden of change on consumers. The Japanese technology giant Hitachi, for example, claims that since the majority of their emissions result from the use of their products by consumers, their hands might as well be tied. ‘It’s really a challenge,’ a Hitachi spokesman lamented, echoing Sony’s proclamation that the real problem lies in families’ failure to teach children about curbing carbon emissions. Never mind that in the last fiscal year, Sony Japan’s carbon dioxide emissions accounted for 75% of the company’s total global emissions—an increase from the previous year.

Such rhetoric serves to mask the driving force of ceaseless competition for profit that incentivizes the production of carbon-intensive and environmentally-destructive goods in the first place. This competitive logic prevails even as corporations are required to disclose their environmental impact. Revelations that Japanese carmakers Nissan, Suzuki Motor, Mazda and Yamaha have been faking vehicle emissions data could be just the tip of the iceberg of climate malfeasance. 

With the corporate sector at best an unreliable ally in the fight to reduce emissions, Japanese citizens have been working to pick up the slack. But this burgeoning climate movement faces its fair share of challenges too. 

Japan’s burgeoning climate movement 

Posing a defiant alternative to the Abe government and corporate sustainability, these protesters point to the only possible path forward: Japan must take responsibility for its historical emissions, and use its enormous wealth to help pull the planet back from the brink.

On February 22, 2019, 20 young people from Japan’s Fridays For Future chapter gathered in front of Tokyo’s Diet Building holding placards and shouting their support for climate justice. Though a far smaller spectacle than the crowds that gathered in Paris and Sydney, this act of rebellion marks a significant step forward in the fight to bring climate legislation to Japan. Public demonstrations in the country are uncommon, usually arising in response to only the most contentious social issues.

One of the largest gatherings of Japanese protestors took place in 2012, in response to the restarting of a nuclear reactor 16 months after the Fukushima disaster: around 100,000 people took to the street to protest the decision to bring the reactor back online. I spoke to a member of an online Japanese climate activist group, who put the numbers into perspective: ‘It was the largest demo in several decades… [and] it wasn’t that [big],” he noted. ‘Japan is a country of 127 million. Even considering the logistics, the greater Tokyo area is home to 30 million.’ But as it seeks to expand its reach into mainstream Japanese society, the climate movement will have to overcome a prevailing sense of apathy. Some see this apathy as unsurprising for a generation that came of age during Japan’s ‘lost years’ of economic decline.

This apparent lack of political engagement is compounded by the perceived social costs of protesting. A member of the group Climate Youth Japan suggested that ‘not only young people but also Japanese people generally feel that the hurdles to participating in [protest] actions are high.’ Views of social change in Japan tend to hew to tradition: let the government lead and citizens follow. In such a staid political climate, taking a stand as an activist means taking a serious risk. As the Japanese saying goes, ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.’ Street protests struggle to garner support in a culture that values adherence to the official channels of parliamentary politics.

As a member of an online Japanese climate activist group explained, ‘there’s a vote where everyone gets a chance to choose a representative. Then you should petition and call your representative. If a handful of people gather in the street to forcefully set the agenda on a topic, many see it as an unfair process.’ Those who do protest publicly will go to considerable lengths to cover their faces and preserve their anonymity. Police forces in Japan are known to keep databases on members of political movements, and participating in protest actions can spell significant legal and financial trouble.

While these risks are not unique to Japan, my activist contact pointed out that while some protests in Europe or America do find public support, in Japan, ‘you’d most likely just be labelled extremist or criminal, if you’re lucky enough for the media to pick up the story.’ My contact had touched on another barrier to the climate movement in Japan—awareness. 

The between awareness and action among Japanese youth remains a major obstacle for climate protests. Outside the Diet building during Fridays for Future protest, 18-year-old protestor Isao Sakai admitted that it was only thanks to an environmental science class he took during his time studying in the US that he was worried about the world’s projected future. Before then, he says he ‘didn’t care,’ nor do many of his peers. 

To turn this apathy into action, local activist groups are doing their best to tear down the status quo. Last month, young students and workers gathered in Saitama for the first ever ‘Power Shift Japan,’ a regional chapter of the worldwide climate summit network Global Power Shift. The event’s three days were filled with campaign brainstorming and strategising, culminating in the planning of two protest actions involving demonstrations in front of local landmarks. And it wasn’t only Japanese youth in attendance: activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan also showed up to participate, proving that the desire to mobilise against government inaction isn’t bound by national borders. The event, which many considered a test run, offered an outline of something new: a shining example of how online activism, institutional campaigns and street protests can fit together in a growing movement. It might just be the new blueprint for the next decade of Japan’s climate fight.

The Fridays for Future protest was organised via social media, where platforms uniting citizens around climate change are quickly spreading. Climate Youth Japan, Extinction Rebellion Japan, Fridays For Future Japan and 350.org Japan are just some of the spaces on Facebook where young activists post links offering advice on how to create a more environmentally-conscious workplace, or share news of school walkouts inspired by Greta Thunberg. The movement is age-inclusive: ‘Let’s move to action,’ a recent post on one group reads, ‘knowing that it’s not just young people but all generations who can work to combat global warming!’

These groups are not only passionate but increasingly direct in their demands. Climate Youth Japan’s ambitious five-point plan includes establishing a road map for the abolition of coal-fired energy and pushing clear goals for phasing in renewables. These plans are underpinned by two major goals: to achieve the Paris Agreement’s aim of keeping planetary warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to ensure that youth ‘will be involved in the process of social decision-making’ to hold their country accountable for its climate contributions.

Posing a defiant alternative to the Abe government and corporate sustainability, these protesters point to the only possible path forward: Japan must take responsibility for its historical emissions, and use its enormous wealth to help pull the planet back from the brink. If this climate movement succeeds in catalyzing a dramatic political transformation, it might just save the land of the rising sun from a dark future. 

Imogen Malpas is a writer and teacher currently living and working in Nagasaki, Japan. Recently graduated from University College London with a degree in literature and neuroscience, her journalistic interests lie in the social and political responses to the environmental crisis.

Power = power

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.