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Technics and Transition: Australian Renewable Energy in World-Systemic Context

by Andrew Brodzeli on April 12, 2018

Near-consensus about our critically ill climate and the culpability of fossil-fuels is no longer enough to compel rapid energy transition – last year, Australia’s carbon emissions rose once again. Clearly, something is amiss in how we socially organise. Relying on technological breakthrough no longer seems a viable option, and neither does relying on business as usual. In my honours thesis, I sought to understand the political-economic deadlock surrounding energy transition, and to identify a strategy for how this may be overcome.

In answering this question, I looked to the historically conditioned social relations that underpin our energy production as the key mediator of technology, power, and economy, and therefore, as the potential source of systemic inertia. This perspective, following Jason W. Moore’s world-ecological paradigm, situates the seemingly technical problem of energy-transition within historical context, where the emergence of capitalism as an economic system, of colonisation as its geographic tendency, and of the technoscientific quest to secure steady flows of cheap energy, are part of the same complex that must be addressed for a successful social transformation.

An Australian History of Cheap Energy

The history of securing cheap energy in Australia is tied up with the development of the settler-colonial and capitalist state-system. As an early colonial outpost of the British Empire, Eastern colonies’ coal was a critical export, a source of cheap energy for the Empire and a source of income for Eastern colonies through trade duties. This world-systemic demand for coal, amongst other minerals such as gold, compelled the extension of the colonial frontier, and connected this project with the narrative of colonial (and later, national) development. The dispossession of Indigenous inhabitants and Australia’s early colonial development was linked by the early coal industry.

Since then, the orientation and demand for much of Australian fossil-fuels has remained internationalised, with isolated regions such as the Pilbara, Bowen and Gippsland basins becoming key nodes in the global commodity boom. It is not a coincident that the development of these coal extraction sites often overlap with state projects of Aboriginal dispossession such as proposed forced closure of remote communities in Western Australia, and the forced signing of Indigenous Land Use Agreements, as is now the case in the Carmichael basin.

While remaining much the same, this ‘coal-state nexus’ mutated in the neoliberal era to enable the ascent of the corporate sector, marked by the privatisation of nearly all the entities conducting energy production and distribution. In this context, the capture of the Australian regulatory apparatus by actors allied with fossil-fuel capital appears as an almost foregone conclusion.

Energy post-politics?

Yet the ascent of financial capital, with its noncommittal industrial allegiances, has troubled the incumbency of fossil-fuel capital in the Australian energy sector. With rising costs associated with fossil-fuel energy, and falling costs of renewable energy technologies, the latter have promised more profitable avenues of investment. This has put the Australian state in a contradictory position of having to pay tribute to split allegiances, between coal and financial capital.

Yet the fossil-fuel incumbents have the advantage of the significant assets invested in infrastructure, including large centralised power-plants and the unidirectional Eastern electricity grid, which risk being stranded in the case of a major sectoral transition. This large and expensive grid is also the physical basis upon which the National Energy Market (NEM) operates, which, overseen by the Australian Energy Market Operator and Regulator, performs the complex task of allocating electricity according to grid supply and demand. Yet despite its clear public interest, there is no democratic input into how this infrastructure and market should be designed and operated. It is emblematic of the post-political and technocratic management of privatised infrastructures that underpin our social relations in the neoliberal era.

These institutional arrangements point us toward the structural problem at the base of the political stasis around energy policy in Australia. On the one hand, as a global problem, climate-change challenges the territorial sovereignty of the nation-state, which is itself constrained by the world-systemic logic of capital accumulation. This suggests that a solution cannot flow top-down from the neoliberalised Australian state. Rather, a meaningful response requires a break with this ‘post-political’ status quo, and should consider different ownership structures of energy production, such as those made possible by renewable energy technologies.

Renewable Energy and the Expanding Commodity Frontier? …

Australia’s rapid uptake of residential solar-panels is globally unprecedented. Generating a total of 7GW capacity, 21% of suitable rooftops in Australia have solar PV systems, and their installation rates have accelerated in the previous 12 months. More than being simply ‘clean’, household solar-PV systems enable a different kind of social relation around energy – where decisions over its production, generation and distribution are effectively made by households themselves.

Their rapid uptake, the consequent decreased residential electricity demand, and their capacity to feed into the grid, has also threatened the stability of the centralised, unidirectional electricity grid. As a result, existing energy utilities have mobilised to contain the nascent threat of widespread grid withdrawal, the potential stranding of their electricity grid assets, and the implicit threat to the capital value-relation. In doing so, they have sought the expansion of the commodity frontier by way of connecting and commercialising energy produced at the ‘grid-edge’.

Such moves have entreated the state-system to invoke the martial rhetoric of securing ‘energy security’ and to deploy its technoscientific apparatus to find ways to ensure solar-PV equipped households remain grid-connected. Important examples include the CSIRO-led development of the smart-grid, which provides novel technologies for household-energy producers to value and sell their energy; the development of solar-panel leasing arrangements such as virtual-power-plants (where utilities retain ownership); the creation of renewable energy price-purchasing agreements; and ‘sharing-economy’-style online marketplaces for the peer-to-peer, peer-to-retailer, and retailer-to-peer sale of energy. The household uptake of such innovative developments is also incentivised by the existing Renewable Energy Target’s small-scale technology certificate-trading scheme, allowing polluting companies to buy household-generated certificates to offset their own emissions.

… Or Renewable Energy and the post-Capitalist Future?

A transformational politics that seeks to address the underlying causes of climate crisis should guard against the possibility that renewables become the next frontier for the accumulation of capital. It should look to new spaces of post-capitalist social organisation in the struggle over the present energy transition. As salient torch-bearers, the movement for energy democracy, and the trade union-led initiative for just-transition, are doubly significant – not only as historic moves away from the labour and fossil-fuel alliance, but toward a new post-capitalist social relation around energy production.

A major caveat remains that such a devolved and democratic configuration of energy politics can only present a challenge to domestic energy capital – the transnational fossil-fuel-capital-and-state alliance remains entrenched. On this front, Australia’s role as provider of cheap energy for the world-system must be politicised, something which can only be achieved through the antecedent confrontation of Australia’s settler-colonial heritage. And on this matter, we must look to, and energetically support, the movement for Indigenous sovereignty.

Whilst reports from the frontlines of climate science invite easy despair, it’s critical to be wary of calls to urgently shift our energy production system at any cost. Such prescriptions miss an important lesson that the present crisis can teach us – that transforming the technologies is not enough, that we must transform our way of socially organising as well, if we seek a truly sustainable future.

Andrew Brodzeli
I'm a graduate of the honours program in Political Economy at the University of Sydney. I am interested in questions of technical and economic change and environmental history.
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  • Chris Kerr
    April 20, 2018 at 11:39 pm

    An interesting article outlining some of the broad brushstrokes of the evolution of the energy system in Australia.

    It would be interesting to see more about the transition from a state-based energy system to privately-owned in NSW, Victoria, SA and how that fared differently to Queensland and Tasmania which maintained state control over their grids and large sections of their generation – especially in the context of the increasing penetration of renewable energy generation.

    It would also be good to see how energy grids and markets – which are not merely the sum of generators but complex adaptive systems – would evolve under a post-capitalist future. Firstly, would such a vision be based upon the deindustrialisation of the economy, and how does the answer to that question logically flow onto your vision of decarbonising the economy, building political support and alliances, and the design of an energy system.

    If deindustrialisation is not a strategic driver, there would be a need to address how smart-grids would interact as a system to the broader economic structure – rooftop solar and batteries do not in and of themselves form an energy system as they are (non-synchronous and do not provide inertia). Batteries also have significant issues at scale (cost, scarcity, pollution in disposal).

    It would be interesting to explore and compare the strategy in the article with one of combining micro-grids/smart-grids within broader state-run electrical grids, which would also allow for the state to take a lead role in the electrification and decarbonisation of the broader energy sector (transport, industry etc), such as outlined on a high level by John Quiggin

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