Political Economy Seminar
Illusions of empowerment: checking household energy autonomy
PRESENTER: Associate Professor Stuart Rosewarne (University of Sydney)
DATE: Sep 16 2022
TIME 1:00 pm – 2:30 pm
LOCATION: Room 650, Social Sciences Building (A02), University of Sydney, NSW, 2006 and Zoom,
Australian households have the highest rooftop solar voltaic panel take-up rate in the world. The investment displayed many of the traits of a social movement set upon challenging the recently established hegemony of energy corporations. Much of the investment had been inspired by neighbourhood climate action groups, with households taking the lead in doing what the energy corporations were failing to do, namely, investing in technologies to reduce their carbon footprint. They had secured the support of the state in the provision of feed-in tariffs and were taking control of their energy future and states were pressured to provide assistance to low-income households to become members of this renewable energy club. One reflection of this being a shadow movement has been the high concentration of households with rooftop solar power, what some critics have characterised as (social) contagion. However, a contrary thesis holds that in the absence of an organised movement coalescing solar households, or a forum that gives voice to household ambitions, and Energy Consumers Australia which is the ostensible representative voice of the residential and small business sector, the promise of residential self-sufficiency and energy autonomy has been more than eclipsed. Energy corporations have been able to capture the generating capacity of households, conscripting households to join virtual power stations, and the state has reinforced the momentum of what has become a reconsolidation of generating capacity under the control of energy corporations. Corporate capture and control of residential generating capacity has been enabled by two key initiatives that have had the backing of the state. Those households provided with support to instal solar panels have been required to sign onto virtual power station agreements as a condition of the assistance. This provides energy corporations with ready access to generating capacity effectively at no cost given the cutbacks in feed-in tariffs. More significantly, it is an arrangement that has been generalised across the residential sector with the AEMC’s the retailer reliability obligation regulation that compels retailers to enter into agreements that guarantee they have a claim on sufficient dispatchable energy to ensure orderly supply in the market. In effect, the regulation formalises the authority of the energy corporations to sequester power, and this has been endorsed by Energy Consumers Australia. The claim for an orderly and competitive market has become the cover for the assertion of corporate control of the market while households have been cajoled into investing in generating capacity and carrying much of the risk in a market undergoing transition.
Stuart Rosewarne has had a longstanding research interest in the environment developed within a Marxist or socialist ecology conceptual frame. Over the last decade, this research focus has concentrated with the challenge of fossil fuel capital in the generation of energy as the prime driver of climate change. This is reflected in the jointly-authored Climate Action Upsurge: The ethnography of climate movement politics (2014) and Beyond the Coal Rush: A turning point for global energy and climate policy? (2020). The recently-published sole-authored Contested Energy Futures: Capturing the renewable energy surge in Australia explores the resistance of fossil fuel capital and the state to transitioning from a national accumulation regime based on the extraction of coal and gas and how this resistance is being challenged by the contrasting endeavours of residential Australia to become energy self-sufficient and renewable energy capital seeking to construct a low carbon-based pattern of accumulation.