Exploring Alternative Energies as Potentialities of Collective Reorganization

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* Article: Alternative Forms of Energy Production and Political Reconfigurations: Exploring Alternative Energies as Potentialities of Collective Reorganization. By Yannick Rumpala. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, April 3, 2018

URL = http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0270467618766995


"To a large extent and one that is highly structuring, energy choices that are made in a society are political choices. This article aims at studying how these choices can be redirected by technological developments associated with renewable energy, thus contributing to a redistribution of opportunities and correspondingly to social reorganizations. In order to show that the development of alternative energies not only depends on technological advances but can also, in the process, reveal political potentialities, three steps are proposed. The first step will clarify the theoretical arguments in favor of an approach in terms of “technological potentialism.” Second, we will extend this approach by identifying a set of potentialities linked with renewable energies and the model that could arise from these alternative forms or approaches. Finally, we will examine how these potentialities could find paths to become effective."


Technological Potentialism

Yannick Rumpala:

"Rather this article aims at exploring an approach that we will call “technological potentialism.” Its operationalization, as we will develop it, entails thinking in terms of conditions of actualization—notably, adaptability of techniques, acceptability by the people, and possibilities of appropriation. In other words, this potentialism does not depend on an essence, intrinsic nature, or autonomous force of technics, but rather on the way interested actors will be able to open up or find new opportunities in technological advances or heretofore unexplored technological solutions.


We prefer to talk about “technological potentialism,” although such an approach requires certain precautions that are both methodological and analytical. First, it is necessary to keep enough distance with respect to different types of discourses, which, be they emphatic or critical, can surround any new technological development (as has been highlighted in the case of “green technologies”; Caprotti, 2012). We must also be aware that the energy sought by human societies corresponds to an assemblage of many elements, which end up making a system and which therefore should also be understood systemically. That is, if technology should be taken into account, it is not only as material devices but also as elements embedded in sociotechnical systems, in which infrastructures, producers, users, consumers, regulators, and other intermediaries are themselves entangled (as is now commonly shown in the sociology of technology, and which can be transposed to energy-related techniques; G. Walker & Cass, 2007, p. 459). This means that there are at least as many interests, values, and expectations that will interact, and in the field of energy, we know that the arrangements thus formed can condition the dynamics of change (Rohracher, 2008). Moreover, energy is an intimate part of lifestyles and maintains strong relations with comfort conception (Chappells & Shove, 2005).

The following reflection will be organized to show that, while the development of alternative energies depends on technological advances, it can, in this process, also reveal political potentialities.


With this background in mind, we will first clarify the theoretical arguments in favor of an approach in terms of “technological potentialism,” aiming to help conceptualize and reveal the possibilities for reconfiguring established or prevailing models. Then, we will exploit this approach by identifying a set of potentialities linked with renewable energies as well as, going beyond their mere use as arguments to legitimize interest in such energies, the model that could arise from these alternative forms or schemes. Finally, we will examine how these potentialities could find paths to become effective and to what extent they could contribute to the installation of renewed sociopolitical configurations." (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0270467618766995)

Technological Affordances

Yannick Rumpala:

"A relevant way to approach this notion of potentiality is to relate it to the concept of affordance, developed by the American psychologist James J. Gibson (1979) to capture the perceptual and practical aspects of an individual’s relationship to its environment. This concept allows two perspectives to be held simultaneously, referring both to what an object provides with or permits, as well as to what a subject can do. The interaction with an environment is thus made up of opportunities and constraints. How a device is perceived will influence what will be made of it. With respect to technologies, they can be invested by desires, expectations, or hopes, but this investment is relative to particular situations into which these technologies fit and which will have implications for their uses and practices. From this point of view, the concept of “technological affordances,” provided that its implications are well understood (Parchoma, 2014), offers a more specific analytical resource to help identify what artifacts enable, and therefore which of their potentialities can be investigated under the lens of “technological potentialism.” (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0270467618766995)

From the Conclusion

Yannick Rumpala:

"In a society, where energy flows have taken center stage, the control of these flows is also a form of power. Certain operating conditions of renewable energy seem to have the potential to change the current situation, specifically by extending control over these flows far beyond a few groups of industrial operators in oligopoly (which, of course, does not exclude adaptation strategies on their part to contain what can be perceived as a threat to their activities).

The objective of this contribution was not only to identify these potentialities but also to begin to build an analytical framework to better capture them, including from the angle in which they could be deployed, beyond a geographical perspective (as in Bridge, Bouzarovski, Bradshaw, & Eyre, 2013). These forms of energy provide capabilities to people and allow them to open the range of choices. They can develop in ways that are likely to destabilize the logic of passive consumption. In these new configurations, the relation to infrastructure is likely to change, since it is no longer necessarily a question of connecting to it. Or, if a connection to the infrastructure is maintained, it is no longer to find in the previous system a way to meet all of one’s needs. The relation to technology is simultaneously also involved, since some technical options may seem more accessible to an appropriation than others. The relation to the territory is also likely to evolve if it has to do with the solar, wind, geothermal, and so on, resources it can offer.

If they maintain their decentralizating and distributed potentialities, renewable energies can help reconfigure the sociotechnical networks installed around the production of electricity and its delivery. The need for heavy infrastructure would seem more difficult to defend. Expanding the use of renewable energies can also act as an incentive to go further upstream toward the design of buildings, in order to facilitate the integration of productive capacities.

In fact, many initiatives can appear to be part of an experimentation process. But the experiences gain visibility in the form of stories circulating through the Internet or even in media reports. These autonomous or community energy options find an audience and at least show that alternatives are available and that forms of action are possible at close ranges, in the daily universe. They can also help advance and give substance to an “energy democracy” agenda, which would give people levers for a more collective and participatory control of their supplies (Becker & Naumann, 2017).

If the development of renewable energies enables a reconfiguration, it will, however, probably take time and much investment (and not only at the financial level). The more extensive a system, the more complicated it may be to reconfigure, as Finon and Hourcade (2006, p. 64) also noted:

The inertia is huge because of the importance of technical and human capital embedded in existing systems and in institutions that accompany them. Now these systems are organized around assets which [new and renewable energies] are precisely lacking: economies of scale associated with centralized forms of production and distribution, ease of transport and concentration, storage. (author’s translation)

An ambitious adaptation may be especially costly. The transformation of the housing stock represents a daunting task indeed. Experiments in decentralizing approaches certainly seem to advance, but also have to face resistance (e.g., against wind farms), as well as imaginaries and standards of comfort which have found themselves associated with “traditional” energy sources. Coalitions of powerful actors, both public and private, may have an interest in maintaining the current technical system and may take advantage of their power relations to make it difficult to reverse (see, e.g., W. Walker, 2000, about the case of nuclear fuel and its reprocessing). It is also necessary to take into account the more specific role of the state’s interest in the defense of the least “soft” power sources (Macdonald, 2012).

In terms of practices, advancing toward the actualization of this potential would require that equipments and production methods remain relatively manageable for the entire population, that is, that they not be locked in a situation that requires too high of a level of technical expertise. The efficiency of equipment also depends on users’ behaviors, which themselves depend on the skills of these users (Zélem, Gournet, & Beslay, 2013). It is for such reasons that the way in which technological trajectories will settle is important. Specifically, socioeconomic forces as well as reconfigurations of sociotechnical networks, in particular connections and assemblages in the process of deploying, should now be more closely followed.

To this purpose, the analytical framework proposed in this contribution is also envisaged as an exercise in social theory or critical social theory. These have given little interest to energy challenges (or only indirectly so, e.g., through the issue of climate change). Thinking in terms of “technological potentialism,” as this text encourages, can be a way to provide useful theoretical supplements. Because, as the philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg (1999, p. 98) noted: “In anticipation, theory may situate itself imaginatively on the boundary of the new civilizational configuration that will give a concrete content to its speculations, judging this society from the standpoint of a possible successor.” (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0270467618766995)

More information

  • Giotitsas, C., Pazaitis, A., Kostakis, V. (2015). A peer-to-peer approach to energy production. Technology in Society, 42, 28-38.