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Dawson’s People’s Power argues for localised renewable infrastructure, but central, collective and democratic planning is what is needed, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

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Ashley Dawson, People's Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R Books 2020), 262pp.

The starting point of People’s Power is the need for power generation to move away urgently from fossil fuels; an argument which will be uncontroversial to most readers of this review. If you went only by reports in the mainstream press, you might be forgiven for concluding that this shift was not only uncontroversial but assured. Good news stories about increases in renewable energy generation have been fairly frequent. The report that the UK generated a record 50.7% of its electricity on Boxing Day 2020 from wind power is only one of a number of recent examples. Dawson argues however that there is no room for complacency here. Renewables still only account for 6.4% of global electricity generation and the speed of transition away from fossil fuels is slowing everywhere.

The argument that the transfer of our energy systems from fossil fuels is inevitable is made, Dawson points out, on the basis that what we are seeing is dematerialisation: the decoupling of economic growth from energy use. The trouble is, this dematerialisation is only achieved in theory through various cap-and-trade type emissions trading schemes. There is now considerable evidence to show that these sorts of market mechanisms do not work to reduce emissions, whatever effect they may have on the profits of those trading in them.

Enthusiasm for dematerialisation can also obscure the real issue, by implying that there is no difference in commitment to a transition to renewable energy, only in assessments of how best to achieve it. The main problem for power generation is, Dawson argues, the power of fossil-fuel interests to prevent any transition at all. The scale of government investment to prop up fracking operations which are as environmentally damaging as they are unprofitable is evidence of this.

It is clear that leaving the transition from fossil fuels up to the energy companies is not an option. Dawson goes further, however, to posit that even if we could rely on the current structure to switch to renewables, this would not be a sufficient response to the climate crisis facing us. Such a transition would simply be repeating the failures of capitalist power generation with a different power source.

Capitalist renewables and an alternative

It is easy to see how a renewable power generation infrastructure could, in the hands of power companies, become another way of disadvantaging poorer communities. A key issue with renewable power generation is space, since the numbers of wind turbines and solar arrays required to meet the power requirements of Western countries will need a significant amount of land. It is possible to see communities being forced to give over large amounts of land for these installations with little benefit to themselves, much like many First Nations communities in Canada and the US have had oil pipelines imposed on them.

The point is that switching to renewables does not in and of itself have to be a move away from extractivism. Regarding renewables as automatically transformative is in fact a form of technological determinism. Capitalism is sometimes regarded as if it is synonymous with fossil fuels and with the Industrial Revolution, but this isn’t quite correct. While the widespread use of fossil fuels has underpinned capitalist production, capitalism, and capitalist destruction of the environment, predates the Industrial Revolution by a century or two. Dawson points out that the slave trade by European powers between Africa and the New World was begun and carried out using sailing ships. This doesn’t make wind power inherently colonialist, but it is a neat demonstration that we can’t regard renewables as inherently progressive either.

Switching to renewables won’t therefore automatically transform society for the better, but Dawson argues that it is an opportunity to remake how we understand and relate to energy. Rather than understanding energy as a commodity, we should see it as a commons; something to which we all have rights but which no one owns. This clearly means that power generation cannot be in the hands of private companies, but how they should be managed is more of a question.

For Dawson, renewables offer an opportunity for decentralised power generation, where communities generate their own energy themselves. A model here is the German village of Feldheim, which built its own smart grid and therefore achieved ‘complete energy autonomy and self-governance’ (p.182). This is not simply a German phenomenon, however, as Dawson also cites examples of energy co-operatives in a number of US cities. The important common feature of these ventures for Dawson is the autonomy achieved by the villagers of Feldheim. While they can take power from the national grid when required, and feed excess power back to it, they can operate separately from it when required. What these communities have, or are looking to achieve, is therefore energy self-sufficiency.

Generating power in a local community rather than from a power station miles away brings people into a more personal and active relationship with power generation. Rather than being passive consumers, Dawson argues that people would be empowered (pun intended). This would also be a way of getting them to use less energy. Dawson is clear that power use has to decline to combat the climate crisis, commenting for example that a problem with simply swapping solar panels and fossil-fuel power stations is that it would maintain ‘the toxic illusion that it is possible to sustain current levels of energy consumption’ (p.13). In these autonomous energy co-operatives, individuals would be able to use sharing apps and Blockchain technology to trade for power with each other, meaning that they would be more thoughtful in using it. They would, Dawson says, be able to ‘make choices about how much power they will consume and when they will do so’ (p.143).

The dangers of autonomism

It is at this point that this starts to sound less like an empowering step into a renewable utopia and more like having to have a lengthy argument with your neighbour before you can turn on your washing machine. It is also reasonable to regard supposed peer-to-peer sharing apps with a degree of scepticism, given how Uber and AirBnB, for example, have turned out. Dawson does acknowledge these sorts of precedents, but doesn’t allow this acknowledgement to alter the overall message that peer-to-peer energy management is the way forward.

It is telling that one of the examples Dawson cites of a community renewable project - Highland Park in Michigan - was set up by residents in the face of local government failure so profound that the streetlights were repossessed. In the face of this failure, it is easy to see why residents doing it for themselves was a step forward, but it is harder to argue that this means that a community grid is axiomatically a better option than having a functioning local government.

Similarly, the history of the development of the electricity grid in the US and the failings of power companies are extremely good arguments against the status quo. Quite incredibly, Con Ed, the power company in Brooklyn, deals with gas leaks not by fixing them, but by drilling holes in manhole covers so that the methane produced can leak into the atmosphere instead (p.165). However, contrary to Dawson’s view, these do not mean that centralised energy generation and distribution is inherently inefficient and oppressive.

It is clear that being the customer of a private company which has a monopoly is not a comfortable position in which to be. Dawson cites JS Mill’s argument that utilities are natural monopolies, as a result of the inefficiency of setting up parallel, competing infrastructure, implying that the situation that the residents of Brooklyn are in with Con Ed is the automatic result of the inherent nature of centralised utilities. The only way to avoid this sort of monopoly control is not to do centralised utilities at all.

The problem is private companies.

In fact, Mill’s conclusion elided a considerable amount of inefficient competition between different utility companies. The development of London’s piped water infrastructure in the early nineteenth century, for example, involved decades of companies laying parallel pipes, destroying competing installations and switching customers from other companies by force.i The history of the railway network in the UK also shows that private companies were willing to create competing infrastructure if it meant that they might be able to steal another company’s customers. This sort of competition had been brought under control, partly by the companies themselves, but largely by government regulation, by the time mains gas and electricity were being installed, but the history here is a reminder that the sort of private monopoly Dawson rightly criticises is less an inevitable feature of centralised utility provision than it is a political choice.

Dawson takes the view that a centralised power grid is always an evil. He comments for example about the German system of regional monopolies that ‘the fact that this centralized system was created during the Nazi era helped underline the authoritarian political calculus’ (p.179). This rather smacks of the technological determinism Dawson rightly derides about renewables, and also overlooks some convincing arguments in favour of centralisation.

The technical case for a centralised grid powered by renewables is that it can be a way of overcoming intermittency. Renewables are by their nature intermittent, but while it may be dark and still for a prolonged period in one area, it is likely to be windy or sunny somewhere. Increasing the scale of the grid maximises the chances of this, while also providing storage for power generated but not immediately used. Using a large-scale rather than a local grid also enables solar panels and wind turbines to be sited in the best locations for efficient energy generation, as opposed to simply on the only bits of land available to a particular community. The smaller the size of the grid, the more you either need back up non-renewable centralised grid as well, or ways of storing power generated for when you need it, an issue not addressed by Dawson.

The social model

Aside from the technical arguments, it is also possible to make a social case for centralisation. It is clear that in a fair society, our energy has to be under our real democratic control, but it does not necessarily follow that this means that it has to be at decentralised, small community level. Dawson argues that we need to forge a path between the ‘disempowering legacy of Stalinist statism’ and autonomism, following Poulantzas’ key question: ‘how is it possible radically to transform the state in such a manner that the extension and deepening of political freedoms and the institutions of representative democracy (which were also a conquest of the popular masses) are combined with unfurling of forms of direct democracy and mushrooming of self-management bodies?’ (p.112).

The model Dawson proposes in answer to Poulantzas is of each self-defined community going its own way. The stress on the autonomous nature of the smart grids Dawson celebrates rather implies that each community could just pull up the drawbridge at will in the face of natural disaster or state collapse. As is sometimes the case with green proposals, this can be read as a manifesto for the survival of communities with the wherewithal to be self-sufficient at the expense of those that can’t. Not everywhere has sufficient land around it to set up its own smart grid as Feldheim did, nor the $4,000 it took from each household to get it going.

It is also unjustifiably assumed that these autonomous communities would automatically develop genuine democracy, as opposed to an unstated hierarchy in which some get much more power (in all senses) than others. The way in which organisations which believe themselves to be flat and non-hierarchical, and which do not have internal democratic structures, tend to operate in practice is relevant here.

Dawson sees decentralised renewable generation at community level as a way of achieving ‘communal luxury and human solidarity’ (p.214). Unfortunately, this reads more at times as a proposal for individual communities to prepare themselves to survive the apocalypse, with all the lack of solidarity for those not so well prepared that that implies. Dawson is correct that the need for a wholesale shift away from fossil fuels is urgent. He is also correct that simply replacing power stations with solar panels, while addressing the immediate problem, does nothing to address the systemic causes of the crisis.

There is a strong case to be made that all utilities, including broadband, should be provided to everyone free at the point of delivery. Clean water, heat and power should be human rights, and since government policies themselves make access to the internet necessary to function in society, access to that too should be a given, not related to anyone’s ability to pay for it. This is only an argument against centralisation if we give up on the idea that we could ever bring centralised utilities under the people’s democratic control.

If you think that this is an impossible goal, then by all means, start planning your post-Day of the Triffids/zombie apocalypse self-sufficient community. A more hopeful view of our ability to fight back and change the world would have us fighting for a centralised renewable power grid run by and for the people.

Endnote

i For the full story, see my dad, John Graham-Leigh’s London’s Water Wars. The competition for London’s water supply in the nineteenth century (Francis Bootle Publishers, 2000).

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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