The Politics of Power: Getting to Grips with Changing Electrical Technologies — TUED Bulletin 80

November 5, 2018

With this issue of the TUED Bulletin, we bring you a guest contribution from Simon Pirani, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, and author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption, published this year by Pluto Press. Simon is also a long-time activist around issues of energy, democracy and climate change.

Simon’s book provides a thorough and detailed historical account of how fossil fuels have come to shape modern societies, economies and environments. It is an invaluable contribution to debates about the challenges we face if we are to successfully reclaim energy to public, democratic control, and navigate the transition we need towards a sustainable alternative based on renewable sources.

In the piece below, written specifically for TUED, Simon describes key aspects of our rapidly changing systems for providing electrical power. Emerging technologies hold enormous potential for meeting people’s energy needs in safe, secure and sustainable ways — but realizing this potential will require deepening the technical expertise throughout our movement, developing concrete programs for action, and redoubling our commitment to class-conscious, worker-focused politics.

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Technological Change in Electricity: Why History Matters

By Simon Pirani

Electricity technology is changing. The communications revolution of the last quarter century – i.e. the growth of the internet and the instant information-sharing and management techniques that go with it – can, and will, turn supply, distribution and balancing upside down.

Computer technology not only has the potential to ease efficient organisation of electricity consumption by households and larger users. It also makes balancing, storage and distribution simpler on regional and national scales. All this enhances the potential of decentralised generation – and that in turn helps renewables. Properly used, the technology will keep pushing the cost of smaller-scale renewable supply sources downwards.

Many engineers see integrated urban systems – in which electricity, district heating, gas and transport networks are closely linked – as the next horizon. When there is too much of one form of energy, other networks can store it. Surplus electricity would be converted into heat, or hydrogen to be used as fuel. Surpluses of other energy types might be used to produce electricity, which could be stored, for example, in electric vehicles’ batteries. Combined heat and power technologies, long used to boost power station efficiencies, would become more adjustable.

For electricity workers on one hand, and social and labour movements fighting for socially just energy provision on the other, this technological leap throws up both possibilities and problems. Our movement’s strategies for electricity are developing, in opposition to the corporations that control the networks in many countries, and have their own ideas about how technological change can profit their owners.

To fashion effective approaches in the present and future, an accurate understanding of the past is helpful. Having recently researched a book on the global history of fossil fuel consumption – in which electricity plays a big part – five themes, at least, jumped out at me.

1. Technological innovation doesn’t solve class conflict

Working-class militants of the late 19th century were inspired by the thrilling possibilities that electricity opened up. Its ability to provide easily-accessible heat, light and motive power fitted, like hand in glove, with their hopes of transforming society.

August Bebel, the German socialist leader, foresaw electricity lifting the burden of domestic labour from women. Charles Steinmetz, a militant on the run from Germany’s anti-socialist laws, emigrated to the USA, became the chief engineer at General Electric, helped invent alternating current – and believed that electricity grids could lay the foundations of social justice. The mood was summed up in 1901 in Work, a novel by Emile Zola. One of his characters, an electrical engineer, said: “The day must come when electricity will belong to everybody, like the water of the rivers and the breezes of the heavens.”

Were such hopes realised? Yes and no. In the rich countries, with the growth of the labour movement, the welfare state and municipal services, electricity was supplied to urban working-class populations and contributed to a massive improvement in living standards. Domestic labour became less back-breaking, although the time women spent on it didn’t go down much on average. But electricity, almost always and everywhere, remained under the control of corporations who saw it as a profitable commodity, or by governments who saw it as essential infrastructure for industrial development. The democratic potential dreamed of by Steinmetz and Zola was not achieved.

2. Electrification always reflects inequality and class divisions

Between 1950 and today, the proportion of the world population with electricity access rose from well under half to more than four-fifths – while the share of the world’s total fossil fuels used to generate electricity rose from one tenth to more than one third.

But electrification was unequal. Corporations prioritised urban customers, both industry and households – and usually the state did, too, even in the Soviet Union, where most rural areas were only electrified after the second world war. In no country, not even the USA, was the countryside electrified by private corporations. In India, in states where owners of large farms pressured government, electrification was extended to the countryside for agricultural production – but poorer farmers in other states were deprived of electricity, in some cases until today.

3. Struggles over commodification have profoundly shaped how electrical systems have evolved

The tension between the supply of electricity as a commodity (by private corporations) and as a state benefit to industry and households (by governments) persisted in the post-war boom, as networks spread across the rich world, and in the last third of the twentieth century, as they multiplied across the global south.

In the 1990s, the wave of liberalisation and privatisation encouraged by the World Bank and other international financial institutions did little or nothing to advance electrification in the global south. Governments, under pressure from labour and social movements, rejected elements of the institutions’ privatisation recipes – although corporations often took control of profitable generation assets.

In the last three decades, the massive expansion of urban populations in the global south has meant that a huge proportion of the world population – more than 1.5 billion people today – live on the edges of the commercial energy system. They have some access – usually irregular and unreliable – to electricity, but use biofuels to cook, as do the 1 billion people with no electricity at all.

In poorer neighbourhoods of cities in the global south, from Brazil to north Africa and India, the opposition between electricity as a commodity, and access to it as a state benefit, has taken shape in social conflict, in which urban residents have demanded free or cheap electricity as a right.

4. Ownership and control over electricity have proven to be decisive in shaping our options for tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

Since the 1980s, the more obvious it has become that fossil fuel consumption needs to be reduced to avert dangerous global warming, the clearer it has become that possibilities for non-fossil generation, and for energy conservation, are constrained by the way that electricity is owned and controlled.

For non-fossil power generation, governments in the richest countries had focused almost exclusively on nuclear throughout and following the post-World War II economic boom – a technological option that dovetailed with their military activities. In the USA, state support was given to solar development in the 1970s but withdrawn in the 1980s. Countries that persisted with renewables, such as Denmark with wind, proved to be exceptions to the rule, in which incumbents invested, and often over-invested, in mainly coal-fired generation.

Governments and international organisations alike projected constant growth of electricity demand: energy conservation, which began to be seriously researched after the oil price shocks of the 1970s, was pushed to the margins again in the 1980s, as oil prices fell again and globalisation set in. Conservation measures recommended by researchers, such as building regulations with teeth, and wider use of cogeneration, were often brushed aside.

5. Given these patterns, the potential of new technologies to curb demand has not been realized

On one hand, possibilities for rationalising grids with internet-based technologies have been held up by corporations who profit by keeping throughput high. On the other, the internet itself has become a substantial new source of demand – larger than India’s – due not to technical necessity but largely for advertising purposes.

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These are five general, global trends. Obviously there were and are exceptions and complexities in individual countries, of which readers will be aware. Nevertheless, a general conclusion can be drawn, that the technological evolution of electricity systems has been shaped by the social, economic and political contexts.

From this it follows that a future change in the technological system – and decarbonisation implies very sweeping change – can best be envisioned in the context of deep-going social, economic and political transformations.

This, I believe, applies not only to electricity networks, but to the other big technological systems that account for the vast bulk of fossil fuel consumption: urban car-based transport networks; urban built infrastructure; industrial processes such as steelmaking and manufacture; chemical fertiliser production; and state and military uses.

History does not provide us with any easy formulas to guide future transitions. But it can help us unravel the complex systems that use fossil fuels, and the forces that shape them, to understand better how change can be brought about.

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Simon Pirani is the author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption and a lifelong militant in labour and social movements.

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