AAG Annual Meeting: NEW ORLEANS 2018, April 10-14, 2018
Session organizers: Ingrid Behrsin (UC Davis), Conor Harrison (University of South Carolina), Sarah Kelly-Richards (University of Arizona), Sarah Knuth (Durham University), James McCarthy (Clark University)
Recent work in economic geography and political ecology has analyzed energy transitions as fundamentally geographical processes, ones with the power to transform the capitalist space economy in myriad ways (Bridge et al. 2013). Critical energy geographers have begun to explore how the rapid uptake of solar, wind, hydropower, and other renewable and ‘clean’ energy technologies in recent years is introducing new competition for land and resources and raising a host of environmental and social concerns across a variety of spaces, from rural lands and Indigenous territories to dense urban areas (Bridge et al., 2013; Calvert, 2015; Kelly-Richards et al., 2017; McCarthy, 2015; Huber and McCarthy, 2017). Energy geographers are likewise investigating energy efficiency as another accumulation frontier within today’s energy transition, as established conservation programs intersect with new schemes for making energy efficiency a valuable ‘resource’ within urban real estate markets (Knuth 2016), regional energy portfolios (Thoyre 2015), and smart metering initiatives (Levenda et al. 2015). Energy geographers studying the new accumulation sites and strategies above are increasingly attempting to situate them within broader trajectories of capitalist environmental-economic crisis and resolution, as energy transitions take center stage within the green economy’s imaginary of technological ‘disruption’ and renewal (Knuth 2017) and its promise of socioecological fixes to crisis tendencies (McCarthy 2015).
Electric utilities are key actors in these dynamics, sometimes embracing and sometimes resisting transitions to renewable energy sources. The industry is undergoing a period of tremendous technological change and turmoil across many national and regional contexts. In the face of the falling price of renewable energy, energy efficiency initiatives, and a variety of ‘smart’ technologies, tech firms, energy entrepreneurs and investors, and some policy makers view the industry as ripe for disruption and are deploying new accumulation strategies. With new accumulation strategies come new actors, dynamics, and uncertainties in renewable energy development, as market-based de- and reregulation continues to transform established electric utility regimes and large-scale electric grids. At the same time, these would-be ‘disruptors’ confront obdurate socio-technical systems and entrenched political interests. Many incumbent utilities are attempting to use their amassed political economic strength to withstand changes to accumulation strategies that have changed little since the early 20th century, and are thus investing heavily in centralized natural gas and nuclear generation while undermining distributed energy initiatives at every turn. Meanwhile, the expansion of electric grids is becoming a point of conflict in energy transitions in many developing contexts, as managers struggle to grow centralized transmission and distribution grids capable of handling variable renewable energy generation sources, while new competitors market distributed infrastructural and accumulation alternatives.
In the two paper sessions and associated panel session described below, we seek to explore the ways in which these transformations are unfolding, and being contested, across diverse-but-interconnected geographical and sectoral contexts, ones that present multiple sites for critical analysis and intervention. Our intent is to assemble one paper session focused on the political ecology of renewable energy projects and transitions broadly understood; a second paper session focused on the electric utility industry in the context of those transitions; and a panel session that will integrate the themes of both. We invite papers that build on recent work in economic geography/geographical political economy and political ecology in order to examine the strategies present in the renewable energy and electricity industries to ‘renew’ accumulation, and correspondingly, how these strategies articulate and conflict with existing land uses , territorial logics, and utility industry structures. Potential topics of interest may include:
- The politics of renewable and ‘clean’ energy planning and deployments: e.g., what are the techniques and justifications used to plan and legitimate such projects?
- Displacements and dispossessions associated with planned or enacted renewable energy projects.
- Flows of investments into the renewable energy sector and specific territories and/or projects.
- The increasing role of tech firms in the electricity industry.
- Competing tech paradigms, accumulation strategies, and visions for long-term accumulation.
- Regulation, deregulation, re-regulation, and the changing structure of utility industries regionally, nationally, and transnationally.
- Increases in renewable energy generation and land use implications.
- Utility strategies to resist distributed energy projects in the Global North and South.
- Material and technological politics (e.g., interactions between renewable energy growth and grid innovations, new proposals for energy efficiency and storage).
- Conflicts and environmental governance implications of the transition to renewable energy.
- Contradictions in the private-sector-led development of renewable energy.