What if energy wasn't a commodity?
About energy commons, or ways to take energy out of the market and (hopefully) take control
I present thee:
Three stories of energy for the people
The Berliner Städtische Electricitätswerke Aktiengesellschaft or the municipal electricity company dated back to the 19th century. Starting in the 2000s, it was sold piecemeal to one of the Big Four energy companies in Germany: Vattenfall. However, as the energy company was privatized, Berlin’s star was rising on the urban firmament, and as it did, it became less accessible and less affordable. People started to resist the idea of a “free” markets (for housing, gas, and, yes, electricity) . A referendum in 2011 called for the publication of the contracts of the sale to Vattenfall, mounting political pressure on a reluctant city. But a new referendum two years later, on a collectively drafted law for municipal energy, failed because too few people voted on it.
Right around the same time, people from the Isthmus district in Mexico’s state of Oaxaca were mounting their own protest against privatization. Mexico is the second country for wind power in Latin America, after Brazil. Air pressure differences between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific make the Isthmus district an especially ‘valuable’ corridor.
The San Dionisio project (2011), with a proposed 102 turbines, was going to be biggest wind farm, not only in the Isthmus region but in all of Latin America. Its energy would power industrial sites like a Coca Cola factory. However, to exploit the wind, turbines must occupy the land. That land was inhabited mostly by farmers from indigenous communities, with a sort-of recognized communal claim to their land. As it became increasingly clear to farmers they were being duped and displaced by investors, the wind farms triggered the release of longer pent-up anger, leading to large scale organizing, civil disobedience, and election boycotts. The San Dionisio project got caught up in these struggles. Farmers managed to stall construction efforts by blocking the main access road. In 2014, investors pulled out and the project was relocated under new management.
One final story, as we’re carried by the winds into Cuba. Up until 1997, Santa Maria de Loreto, a relatively remote farming village of some 200 inhabitants (and dwindling), received its electricity from a diesel generator, for about 3 hours per day. Then, the national Research Centre for Solar Power chose it for an experiment: it supplied them with PV panels and a battery bank for a small local plant and effectively built a micro-grid.
It was the task of the village now to make sure everyone had reliable access to the electricity the microgrid provided. One challenge in particular was to avoid the dreaded peaks in consumption, because the system would simply disconnect if they didn’t. This meant imposing quite strict rules about which appliances could be used, and when. The mayor of the town adopted a communal process for adopting new rules as new problems surfaced (like, when certain people started acquiring heavier appliances). They also implemented informal mechanisms of social control and sanctions (like getting cut off for a while) for those who violated these rules.
These are three stories about people wanting or needing greater control over the energy in their midst. The idea of the (energy) commons helps us understand what’s going on.
Most likely, you are already familiar with the term commons through the expression “the tragedy of the commons”. ‘The commons’ refers to a resource that isn’t owned by anyone, but used by multiple people. In its original formulation in 1833, the resource in common was land and its use was letting cattle graze its grass. The tragedy, according to subsequent economists who spend their time creating math out of game-theoretical interactions between self-interested “actors”, instead of watching performances of Greek plays with actual actors, is that none of the individuals of the land have an individual reason (a.k.a. an incentive) to make sure their cattle graze only as much as the land can bear. Their incentive is to graze as much as they can so they can sell as much milk as they can. As a result, the land is overgrazed and so, we need population control. 🤪 If you know this history of this term, you’ll also know of Elinor Ostrom’s work, which showed that communities of actual people have ways of dealing with the problem of shared resource depletion.
That doesn’t mean that having energy as that common resource doesn’t pose challenges. Do the mechanisms of social control work in villages like Santa Maria de Loreto? Is it possible to recreate some of those mechanisms for ‘light’, urban communities? Or if you can’t, should an internal market with its financial - rather than social - discipline replace them?
“Capitalism’s original sin”
The situation that Oaxaca’s farmers found themselves in can’t be captured by the idea of the tragedy of the commons. For that I want to turn to an expression which is a little less known (but which is very famous if you know it): enclosure of the commons.
The enclosure of the commons is a process originally witnessed in the history in England. Land was owned by nobility, but by customary law ‘commoners’ could work it for subsistence and petty trade. Enclosure meant doing away with this customary law and (literally) closing access to the land, putting up a fence, and keeping out the farmers. It was described by Marx et al. as the process that led to the “liberation” of farmers who were left with nothing to do but to sell their labour - i.e., the creation of the proletariat.
The enclosure of the commons is intimately tied to extraction - farmers were kicked out in part because the landlords wanted to practice more intense forms of agriculture. There was more value to be had from the land. This is basically the same dynamic as in Oaxaca: indigenous farmers were excluded from (communal) land so that investors could ‘extract’ the value of wind.
There are also resonances with the push-back against the Big Four energy companies in Berlin. Enclosure of the commons is, ultimately, just the privatization of land. And privatization is precisely what has proven contentious, in many contexts.
Private, public, common
Recently, in fact, “the commons” have made their re-appearance as a kind of rallying cry in the struggle to counter or reverse the (neoliberal) trend to Privatize Everything. To take a “resource” - usually an essential good or service - out of the “free market”.
That is why you can often hear a claim to the commons in struggles over (access to) water. The privatization of water is seen (more readily than energy) as some fundamental violation of something that is ‘common’ to all - and should thus be managed in common too, without anyone in particular profiting from it.
But what does that mean exactly - manage in common?
The idea of the commons opens two doors. One door opens up to making things public - that is, owning and governing them through the state (as representative of the people). The move to re-municipalize electricity in Berlin was made in that spirit. The other door leads to making things communal - that is, owning and governing resources through a citizen collective. Both imply a move away from the market, but the second approach also implies a move away from the state. People who pursue this path will emphasize self-reliance and autonomy.
While the two doors open up to directions that are potentially at odds, they’re not mutually exclusive. Nor, in fact, is it impossible that they incorporate some kind of market dynamic either.
So, to explore how different communities and social movements are trying to create commons out of energy, in order to have more democratic control over it, I’ll be reviewing:
energy as public utility,
struggles against extractivist renewable energy, and
ways to deal with managing energy as a common pool resource.
(And I might throw in an edition about our planetary atmosphere as a commons too.)
Do let me know if you have references that I can’t miss on these topics!
Take care for now,
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Becker, Naumann, and Moss. 2017. "Between coproduction and commons: understanding initiatives to reclaim urban energy provision in Berlin and Hamburg". Urban Research & Practice. 10 (1): 63-85.
Sellwood, Scott A., and Gabriela Valdivia. 2018. "Interrupting Green Capital on the Frontiers of Wind Power in Southern Mexico". Latin American Perspectives. 45 (5): 204-221.
Jenny, Annette, Fernando Hechavarria Fuentes, and Hans-Joachim Mosler. 2007. "Psychological Factors Determining Individual Compliance with Rules for Common Pool Resource Management: The Case of a Cuban Community Sharing a Solar Energy System". Human Ecology. 35 (2): 239-250.