Technological infrastructures, green energy, and consumer choices

Last night David Roberts (@drgrist) tweeted “We think of solar, wind, & geothermal as power generation. Instead we should think of them as energy infrastructure. Discuss.” Even though this was right before my bedtime, I replied that “As a historian of tech & environment, I would say that we should think of all energy in terms of infrastructure of prod. and use.” He followed up by asking “What would that mean in terms of policy?” While I made an attempt to reply on Twitter this morning, I think I need to write something more extensive to come up with a proper answer.

Historians of technology have done much excellent work on energy infrastructures and technological change, notably Thomas P. Hughes, but I would also like to mention Arne Kaijser (professor at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology and former president of the Society for the History of Technology). We can learn much from the studies that have been done in this field

First, solar, wind, and geothermal energy can’t be discussed as if they were freestanding energy sources; we need to see them as alternatives to an established and entrenched energy system. Such systems do not change without resistance – political, cultural, material, or organizational. Hughes calls this momentum, we can also call it a combination of vested interests and the obduracy of the built environment. Fossil fuels are extremely entrenched, which is why it is so hard to transition to renewable energy sources. This not just due to ill will from the oil companies’ side. Past energy choices are built into our everyday lives, our cities, our transport infrastructure – everything. Changing the energy infrastructure of a city – a nation of cities – is no small task. Alexis Madrigal argued something along the same lines a few weeks ago, when he said that “your city – pretty much wherever it is – was built for a climate that it may no longer have.” “Cities will have to get less efficient and more resilient. Redundancies will have to be built into systems that previously seemed to work just fine. This is how climate change will cost us all money.” Green energy infrastructures should certainly be part of this discussion.

Second, we need to think of energy not just in terms of production (though it certainly matters) but also of consumption, of the actual situations where consumers, corporations, and others make their specific energy choices. This is also a mode of analysis that comes from the history of technology. Ruth Schwartz Cowan called this the consumption junction, “the place and time at which the consumer makes choices between competing technologies.” From this point of view it is possible to see all the different factors that influence consumer choice at specific points in time. (Cowan, 263)

I have thought much about this in writing my own book on the infrastructure of beverage container recycling – one of the most common environmentalist actions people do in the Western world. In other words, how can our understanding of technological change help us understand – and support – environmental actions?

Just like energy, the choice to recycle should not be understood simply as an individual action, but needs to be seen as part of a larger socio-technical infrastructure. People will generally not recycle when it is inconvenient and where the effect is hard to see. Why recycle an empty bottle when there is no deposit and the recycling station is in an out-of-the-way location? Some people have enough ideological motivation to do so, but the recycling rate is never very high in such systems. Other places, however, where most beverage containers carry a deposit and are returned at the point of purchase, in reverse vending machines in grocery stores, reach extremely high recycling rates (90-99%, depending on material type, in Norway and Sweden).

So to come back to Cowan’s point and look at the consumption junction: Why choose green energy if it is more difficult and more expensive? Why drive an electric car if you can’t find charging stations when you need it? When you’re just trying to get through the day, getting the kids to and from daycare, through the daily commute, going to the grocery store, in the famous “time squeeze“, why should you (or how can you possibly) go out of your way to be green? Offering environmentally friendly products, services, and infrastructures for such situations should be a great business opportunity. And policy should support it in any possible way.

Cowan, Ruth Schwarz, “The Consumption Junction: A Proposal for Research Strategies in the Sociology of Technology” in Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch. The Social Construction of Technological Systems. New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 261-280.

Hughes, Thomas P, Networks of Power. Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983)

Jørgensen, Finn Arne, Making a Green Machine. The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011)

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