Environment & Animals

Accelerating the Transition

A few months after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Union announced its new energy plan, REPowerEU. Its aim is to reduce European dependence on Russian fossil fuels and to expand renewable energy production. The plan’s emphasis on ‘accelerating the transition’ to a renewable energy economy may appear to be a significant step forward, but this is not the first time that politicians have imagined a more sustainable future.

Instead of changing the model of industrialisation, similar attempts in the past have often implied a continued, and even accelerated, use of fossil fuels. One hundred years ago, it was common for people to imagine the future as one driven by ‘natural’ resources like hydro or solar power. My doctoral research examines how politicians and public figures came to speak of the world in terms of kilowatts and increasing energy efficiency in the decades leading up to the First World Power Conference in 1924. Early twentieth-century debates about renewables suggest that ‘accelerating the transition’ is not enough if it fails to confront the large-scale use of fossil fuels.

New hydroelectric units being constructed at Bonneville Dam, Oregon (1941). Library of Congress.

As early as the 1860s, the British economist William Stanley Jevons observed that increased efficiency does not automatically decrease the use of resources but more often leads to an expansion. Engines becoming more efficient also meant that they were used more widely. Jevons’ concern was how long the British Empire could maintain its dominance, given that it was based on a resource – coal – that was not renewed on human time scales. In his archives, one finds newspaper clippings on French experiments with solar-powered engines in Algeria. Despite his interest in such projects, he was sceptical about the possibility of replacing coal with any other fuel. Even if that became possible, Britain was only uniquely endowed in the case of coal, and a transition to any other energy source would diminish British hegemony.

Some historians see this moment as a missed opportunity when Britain – then the foremost industrial power in the world – could have changed course. This implies that influential figures forgot or ignored the downsides of relying too much on an ‘exhaustible’ (that is, nonrenewable) resource. It is more accurate to say that, for many engineers and politicians in Britain, Europe, and the United States, it became a truism that humans would eventually find better ways to use the powers of sunlight, wind, and water, thereby transcending the need for coal. One of the main arguments for developing renewable energy sources was that coal and oil exist in finite amounts. What engineers and politicians tended to ignore was not the threat of depletion, but the paradox that increased efficiency does not automatically lead to a more rational use of resources.

By the start of the First World War in 1914, countries like France, Italy, and Switzerland were developing hydroelectricity, and there were experiments with geothermal power. Scientists and engineers were also exploring the possibilities of tidal power and ethanol. The chemist Frederick Soddy even proposed the possibility of using the power of the atom to fuel a less wasteful civilisation. Industrial warfare revealed the need to expand the capacity of these ‘inexhaustible’ resources. But it also demonstrated the importance of fossil fuels. Whereas some French engineers suggested the possibility of reducing the country’s dependence on coal imports through hydropower, the war made it clear that coal would remain necessary, and that oil was becoming a decisive element of geopolitics.

Nevertheless, at the First World Power Conference in London in 1924, there was significant interest in renewable energies. The conference brought together engineers, scientists, and politicians from 40 countries with an aim of mapping the world’s actual and potential energy sources. This rethinking of the map of Europe and the world in terms of energy also led to an emphasis on acceleration. Summarising the efforts of the World Power Conference, Scottish economist Hugh Quigley spoke of a ‘work of acceleration’, of ‘levelling up’ power production, and of creating superpower zones. The ‘economic future of Europe’, he continued, ‘lies in a speeding-up of the less developed countries to bring them into line with those developed’.

While, today, China is leading an unprecedented expansion in renewable energies, at the time of the 1924 conference the rising power was the United States. In the 1920s, the US was not only a large oil and coal producer. It was also at the forefront of promoting the ‘superpower system’, a potentially nationwide electrical grid based on massive power plants and long-distance transmission lines. This was not envisaged as a primarily fossil-fuelled system. In the words of Westinghouse Electrical Company chairman Guy E. Tripp, a key player at the 1924 conference, waterpower was ‘the foundation on which the single super-power system rests’. Coal was only a supplementary power source within the new system.

These assumptions proved wildly optimistic. While a massive increase in hydropower production did occur in the decades following the 1924 conference, at no point did it replace coal. The real carrier of the American energy future—oil—was a surprisingly limited topic for discussion at the conference. Mostly, engineers assumed that it would be used up, at a rate even quicker than coal. Overemphasising the newest technologies meant obscuring the actual transformation of infrastructures.

In the decade after the First World War, the focus on alternative energy sources did not preclude an admiration for Germany’s ‘conservation’ efforts during and after the war through the greater use of brown coal. This definition of conservation contrasts with present-day calls to leave coal in the ground. What engineers in the 1920s tended to mean by conservation was saving high-quality coal for industrial processes, while using lower-grade coal for power production. For many engineers, leaving a waterfall undeveloped or coal in the ground constituted a waste, and therefore a less efficient energy economy. Where waterpower was unavailable, this meant greater use of brown coal – a substance which produced far more pollution. Conservation in a wider sense involved using fewer resources to produce moreenergy. But in practice the ideal of energy efficiency equated the maximisation of energy production with progress, thereby supporting an ever-widening use of resources.

Recent events have led European politicians to create their own version of this earlier cartography of acceleration. In conjunction with REPowerEU, certain countries are making plans for implementation zones that will see an increased use of renewables. A French law even speaks directly of zones d’accélération. German vice-chancellor Robert Habeck, a long-time member of the Greens, provides a good illustration of how concerns about energy security have increased emphasis on energy efficiency. Habeck is now accused by fellow Greens of overseeing an increase in coal production and keeping nuclear reactors running. His response is that Germany is ‘expanding renewables, developing hydrogen, promoting efficiency’. There seems to be little concern with the problem that increasing efficiency has, for more than a century, been the ideal of the very model of industrialisation that we are seeking to overcome, underwriting the acceleration of energy use. During that time, increasing energy use has had disruptive effects on the world’s climate. The older cartography of acceleration was transfixed by hydroelectricity and brown coal, at a time when oil consumption was already beginning its inexorable rise. The new cartography is more firmly based on renewables, but seems to repeat the mistake of believing that increasing renewable power production will automatically decrease reliance on fossil fuels.

A common argument is that this situation is only a temporary state brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It will only be temporary, however, if institutions ensure a future demobilisation. In 1929, the Great Depression triggered a demobilisation of sorts. The issue went from being one of boosting power generation to one of increasing demand, as companies went out of business and people lost their jobs. A less triumphalist version of energy-as-progress emerged, only for a true revolution in energy production to be spurred by the Second World War and continued in the post-war era. Today, there is little certainty whether the boost in renewable energy production or the prolonged use of fossil fuels will be the most significant aspect of current changes in the energy economy.

The discourse of efficiency simply highlights once more that ours is an accelerationist future, a globalised model based on different fuels and dependencies, which threatens to increase extractivism and energy production. Despite a much stronger sense of the global impact of heat-absorbing gases, politicians today still seem incapable of thinking in any other terms than efficiency and acceleration. Their discovery of the language of acceleration is in many ways a rediscovery of the language that made the twentieth century’s massive increase in energy production and greenhouse gas emissions thinkable and even desirable. The architects behind this massive increase in power production also believed they had corrected the errors of the past and that they were building a cleaner, more rational future.

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