torsdag 12 januari 2017

The green democratic energy narrative (article)

My last blog post concerned a submission to a special issue about "Energy and the Future" (in the journal Energy Research & Social Science), but I submitted also a second proposed article to this special issue together with two colleagues [TEMPORARILY ANONYMIZED]. This is a slightly repurposed version of an article proposal we submitted half a year ago to another special issue of the same journal. Our proposal was at that time rejected due to the strict one-article-per-person rule that the editors of that special issue instituted when they got many submissions (probably a lot more submissions than they expected).

The Call for Papers for the "Energy and the Future" special issue has disappeared from the ER&SS website, but I asked the editors (who work at "The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future" at Boston University) to send it by mail and have now re-read it. Here's a short description of the focus of the special issue:

"This special issue seeks to produce a collection of latest and original interdisciplinary papers on both ‘the future of energy,’ and ‘energy and the future’ that consider these emergent and crucial contemporary situations and developments. The collection aims to [...] to focus on the critical assessment of the future synergies, trade-offs, and tensions among issues of energy resource supply and demand, environmental sustainability and climate change, access, innovation, strategy, security, decision-making, justice and fairness, markets, and institutional arrangements on local, national, and international levels."

The Call for Papers further enumerate five "themes" and specify that they expect to select 3-5 papers for each of these themes for the special issue:

·      Future energy transitions: including issues of pace or speed (short-term, mid-term, and longer-range), space or level, and scale (small-scale and large-scale) in the context of both developed and developing countries, with a particular emphasis beyond Europe [...];
·      Visions or discourses of ‘energy and the future’: including energy sociotechnical imaginaries, analyses of future actors and potential for change, and future energy publics;
·      Energy modelling and the future: including how future risk and uncertainties are handled or dealt with in energy modelling, integrated assessments, scenarios, and systems analyses;
·      Future governance of energy: including conceptualisations of innovative policy and institutional arrangements and mechanisms, planning, implementation/operations, monitoring, and evaluation that consider existing and future multiple overlapping roles and hierarchies, linkages, and networks; and
·      Ways of thinking about the future of energy: including approaches of knowledge production about the ‘future of energy,’ ‘energy for future generations,’ and ‘energy for the future,’ their processes, contradictions, trade-offs, frictions, and tensions, as well as their negotiations and settlements, which might led to the creation of new interdisciplinary fields.

Our submission below is (again) aimed at the theme "Ways of thinking about the future of energy". We have this time around shortened and sharpened the proposal a little, but we are basically interested in investigating the same question as last time around (half a year ago), i.e. what is the connections between current carbon-based energy systems and current systems of governance and what are the implications of shifting to other (renewable) energy sources in terms of implications for governance?

Renewable democracy?

KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden
(1) School of Architecture and the Built Environment
(2) School of Computer Science and Communication

It has become a truism that the current fossil energy regime is unsustainable (Aleklett 2012) and that CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions pose great risks for humankind as well as for flora and fauna (IPCC 2014, Steffen et. al. 2015). Proposed solutions – beyond hopes for urgent breakthroughs in breeder reactors or fusion energy – point in the direction of a rapid scaling-up of renewable energy sources, e.g. solar, wind and biofuels. Renewable energy sources is and have been a continuing source of hope for more than four decades, spanning the anti-nuclear movement, green political movements and the (European) proto-green political parties of the 1970’s and the 1980’s (Dobson 2007), renewable energy ideologist and German “Energiwende” architect Hermann Scheer’s visions about a “Solar Economy” (Scheer 2001, Scheer 2007, Scheer 2013) and super entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Tesla home battery for storing solar energy, “The Tesla Powerwall”.

These ways of thinking about the future of energy narrate a shift away from fossil fuels to ushering in a utopian, green, decentralised, affordable, democratic, equitable, renewable and resilient energy regime. This is a familiar story and it offers much-needed hope, but is it realistic? Is it possible to “have it all”, or, are there tension (Hornborg 2014) between (for example) having both renewable energy and an equitable democratic society? In this paper, we aim to question and to defamiliarize the reader with the well-known story of renewable energy as a unique source of redressing everything that is wrong in today’s society.

Timothy Mitchell has in his recent book “Carbon Democracy: Political power in the age of oil” (2011) argued that an understanding of specific characteristics of fossil fuels and their concomitant (political economy) consequences is crucial for also understanding social developments such as the spread of democratic ideas (first in the UK and later in other industrialised countries of Europe and North America). The growth of coal production (distribution, use) both in terms of volume and importance gave workers the possibilities to exert power over coal mines, railways and power stations and to leverage that power into concessions that eventually led to a more equitable and democratic division of power.

Mitchell explores the link between the origins of coal- and oil-based fossil fuel regimes (Debeir et. al. 1991, Sieferle 2001, Malm 2016), fossil economies and the emergence of democratic values and he also dares to ask (but not to answer) the question: What if the system of democratic governance in itself is carbon-based?

This leads up to this paper’s research questions:
If the system of democratic governance is carbon-based, what then happens when we either voluntarily wind down or involuntarily are forced to decrease our use of fossil fuels?
What if specific characteristics of present and future renewable energy systems, in our case solar energy, challenge some of the values we hold dear in Western liberal democracies?

We will explore this through a critical reading of policy documents and by conducting focus group interviews with experts and decision-makers in the field of solar energy.
Perhaps a “green”, decentralised future renewable energy regime is at odds with equitable and democratic developments (Desvallées 2016)? What if we are only telling ourselves stories when we imagine a future renewable energy regime as being green and distributed and affordable and democratic and equitable?


Aleklett, K. (2012). Peeking at peak oil. Springer Science & Business Media.

Debeir, J. C., Deléage, J. P., & Hémery, D. (1991). In the servitude of power: energy and civilisation through the ages. Zed books.

Desvallées, L. (2016). “Mais il ne fait pas froid au Portugal!”: comment une forme de pauvreté politiquement invisible affecte les ménages de Porto. Institute Sociologica, Working paper 3.a Série, No. 10.

Dobson, A. (2007). Green political thought (fourth edition). Routledge.

Hornborg, A. (2014). Why Solar Panels Don't Grow on Trees: Technological Utopianism and the Uneasy Relation between Marxism and Ecological Economics. In Bradley, K., & Hedrén, J. (eds.), Green utopianism: perspectives, politics and micro-practices. Routledge

IPCC (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland.

Malm, A. (2016). Fossil capital: The rise of steam power and the roots of global warming. Verso Books.

Mitchell, T. (2011). Carbon democracy: Political power in the age of oil. Verso Books.

Scheer, H. (2001). A solar manifesto. Earthscan.

Scheer, H. (2007). Energy autonomy: the economic, social and technological case for renewable energy. Earthscan.

Scheer, H. (2013). The energy imperative: 100 percent renewable now. Routledge.

Sieferle, R. P. (2001). The subterranean forest: energy systems and the industrial revolution. White Horse Press.

Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S. R., de Vries, W., de Wit, C. A., Folke, C., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Mace, G. M., Persson, L. M., Ramanathan, V., Reyers, B. Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223), 1259855.

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