RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2013
||The contested politics of urban electricity networks: Insights from urban infrastructure studies (1); Social movements and protest in the electric city
Energy Geographies Working Group
Andrés Luque (Durham University, UK)
Jonathan Silver (Durham University / The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)
Andrés Luque (Durham University, UK)
||Wednesday 28 August 2013, Session 2 (11:10 - 12:50)
||Electrical Engineering Building, Room 508 - DO NOT USE 2016
This session is aimed at unpacking the ongoing politics across electricity networks in cities. It aims at drawing attention to the political and political ecological dimensions shaping electricity networks and their current transformation. Cities across the global North and South are reimagining and redeploying their electricity networks in response to issues of climate change, resource constraints, the search for energy efficiency and the advent of smart digital technologies. Building on previous work that highlight the political nature of urban infrastructures (Graham and Marvin, 2001; McFarlane and Rutherford, 2008; Coutard and Rutherford, 2009; Swyngedouw, 2004) and uncover the uneven power relations embedded in the urbanization of nature through infrastructure (Kaika and Swyngedouw, 2000; Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003), the session aims to explore new ways in which the urban infrastructure literature can contribute to the field of energy geographies, furthering its use for understanding urbanization processes. Some of the key questions we aim to collectively answer are:
• How the reconstitution of electricity networks through discourses on decentralized generation, ‘smart’ technologies and localized electricity markets are producing a new type of geographies of post-networked urbanism (Coutard and Rutherford, 2009).
• How historical processes of uneven urbanization contribute to current electricity network geographies and associated social relations (Jaglin, 2008; Kooy and Bakker, 2008).
• How urban electricity networks relate to infrastructural notions of informality, the incremental and the everyday (Simone, 2004) within and across post-colonial settings.
• What is the role of urban electricity networks in reinforcing, reflecting or reducing urban inequalities and shaping a splintered urbanism (Graham and Marvin, 2001).
• How wider theoretical debates around post-structural approaches to urban infrastructures, such as assemblage urbanism (McFarlane, 2011) or vital materialities (Bennett, 2010), can shape our understandings and conceptualizations of urban electricity networks.
The contested politics of urban electricity networks: Insights from urban infrastructure studies (2); The uneven geographies of the electric city
The contested politics of urban electricity networks: Insights from urban infrastructure studies (3); Film screening
Metabolic inequalities across Accra's electricity network
Electricity is a vital resource across cities for economic development, poverty reduction and quality of life and it is widely recognized that electricity access plays a crucial role in mediating the socio-economic relations of urban dwellers. Yet historical and contemporary processes of urbanization have predicated uneven geographies of electricity and a splintered urbanism across and beyond the networked systems of our cities, generating socio-environmental inequalities and questions of the political nature of these infrastructures (Graham and Marvin, 2001). As cities across the globe address a variety of challenges, from universal access to sustainability imperatives, the uneven geographies of the electric city become entangled in contestation and conflict across the social relations of different urban intermediaries. The 'electric actors', from social movements through to municipalities, NGOs and financial institutions,mobilize discourses around connectivity, affordability, dignity, access, efficiency and low carbon to justify particular agendas and visions of the electric city.
This paper provides an overall introduction to the session "The contested politics of urban electricity networks: Insights from urban infrastructure studies". Drawing on Harvey’s (2008) ‘Right to the City’ agenda, the paper considers how multiple - and often contested - discourses intersect in the 'electric city' and ongoing attempts to reconfigure and re-imagine networked and post-networked infrastructures. Whilst we suggest that the right to the electric city is an agenda that can be based on the collective power of urban dwellers to transform, re-imagine and reshape the electricity network, we suggest that this right is interpreted, acted upon and circulated in multiple and often contradictory ways by a range of different actants and based upon different rationalities. Exploring the range of papers in the session, we draw on examples of what the right to the city could be and outline a tentative framework for articulating an urbanism that centres on urban dwellers and their role in governing the flows and circulations that make up the electric city.
Divergent visions and competing strategies: Barcelona’s engineers and the solar guerrillas
This paper examines how potentially alternative, simultaneously socio-economic and politically charged relationships around energy were taking shape in Western European Barcelona in 2010. The paper provides an exploration of two competing visions on alternative urban energy relationships – of ‘eco-empowerment’, enacted by a set of Barcelona-based activists, and ‘carbon reduction’, performed by the municipal energy agency (and by extension, the Municipality of Barcelona). While both were effectively seeking to alter an undesirable status quo, differences in these discourses and their associated socio-material practices draw attention to three features that are relevant to the study of unfolding urban energy futures: 1) the ‘urban’ extent of the dynamics shaping the prospects for new relationships around energy in the city, leading to questions concerning the nature and emergence of a specifically ‘urban’ energy geography; 2) the politics involved in contesting relationships around energy, including the implications of actors’ different visions and means for bringing about change; and 3) the ways in which cities are both conditions for, as well as products of, the processes by which the aspiration for desirable future alternatives translates into imperfect and contested urban spaces.
(Re-)constructing urban infrastructure: civil society movements are claiming the grid
Electricity grids are an essential element of modern societal infrastructure. They are also natural monopolies, with the special attention to management and value creation this entails. And they are key drivers of a sustainable energy system. In Germany, grid operation on low voltage levels was traditionally the prerequisite of vertically integrated companies providing for energy production, supply, and grid management. Implementation of EU legislation has since resulted in the unbundling of these companies. However, this has resulted in corporate groups with grid operators remaining tied to the interests of electricity production and supply as represented in other branches of the enterprise. This essentially leaves the power relations unchanged. Grid operation continues to be dominated by the established energy companies. And low voltage grids throughout the country are failing to live up to the challenge of a renewably sourced energy system.
Increasingly, this has given rise to civil society initiatives, demanding a more proactive stance in grid operations and a voice in the management of local infrastructure. Beyond appealing to public institutions or demanding public management of power infrastructure, civil society movements have turned to engaging in grid management directly. Citizen-led cooperatives across the country are entering the competition for low voltage grid operations. While also focusing on the potential of local power grids for increased renewable energy production and energy efficiency, as well as reduced energy consumption, citizens’ cooperatives importantly point to the socio-economic and democratic dimensions of grid operations. While previously confined to smaller constituencies, the new citizens’ cooperative BürgerEnergie Berlin eG was established in 2012 to take over grid operations of the German capital. Beyond managing the country’s largest low voltage grid, this project illustrates the potential of citizen initiative on a large scale. The public attention established in its first year has already moved the Berlin senate to publicly commit to increased citizen participation in grid operations as off 2015. The cooperative thus presents an important illustration of the co-production of local infrastructure, both ideally and literally, of public and civil society actors.
Beirut, metropolis of blackness – uneven geographies of electricity supply, protests and private informal electricity suppliers
Despite massive investments in infrastructure reconstruction, Beirut has never fully recovered 24/7 provision of electricity after the civil war (1975-90). Since 2006, the consequences of Israeli bombings and of infrastructure decaying in a context of political bickering preventing new investments plans have worsened the situation. On average, electricity is currently supplied only half of the day.
Building on Timothy Mitchell’s project to follow the tracks of energy in order to unravel the precarious agencies of power that allow its flows to circulate, I try to map the disruptions and reconfigurations of energy circuits and to show that it both reflect existing configurations of power in the city and create new ones. (Mitchell 2011)
At a first glance, uneven access to electricity might well be understood as the way to reproduce social and political domination between central Beirut and its suburbs and between the wealthiest and the middle and lower class, for which the cost of making without public network is very heavy.
But seen from Mitchell’s perspective, the economic arrangements and the technological devices needed to run the system and for the electricity being generated and processed contain in themselves their fragilities that allow such domination to be constantly challenged by the clients-users-citizens or newcomers like informal vendors of alternative electricity devices (the famous generators). Thus, one might well read the rising protests against the current state of blackness in Beirut as new agencies of power that seek to undermine and derail the symbolical hierarchies of power (here I will analyse cartoons and the Minister of Energy bashing on the social networks), despite the constant struggle by the political class to reenact them through sectarian cleavages. Hooking and meter-pirating, as well as non-payment, display the power of the network’s end-users. The development of private illegal-but-tolerated generators involves the building of new local configuration of power.
Hooked on electricity: Colonizing Palestine on the grid
Despite the importance of electrification and the rolling out of electricity grids in Palestine, these developments have largely been overlooked often featuring as passive residues of historical, political and economic processes. Electrification remains however a crucial site of contestation and a fundamental factor defining Israel’s settler colonial spatialities. By looking at the material and symbolic dimensions of electricity infrastructure in Palestine, this paper seeks to unravel how these networks come to matter socially, politically, economically and spatially. More specifically, it investigates the uneven spatial configurations and path-dependency logics underpinning the development of these networks. An analytical focus on how these ‘large technical systems’ are constructed and used in Palestine offers a powerful way of thinking about electricity as a complex assemblage of actors, agents and processes that connect to, and drive, much debated processes of colonialism, modernity, statecraft and uneven development.