Prosumption and energy demand

Marius Korsnes
Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture
Norwegian University of Science and Technology

My postdoctoral project compares and contrasts prosumers with respect to energy use and household practices in urban dwellings and neighbourhoods in China and Norway. In this text I would like to discuss briefly the uses and potential pitfalls of the concept of the prosumer, and how – if at all – prosumption is useful in order to say something about energy demand.

The term prosumption is a combination of the two words production and consumption, and was introduced by futurist Alvin Toffler in his book ‘The Third Wave’ in 1980. Toffler held that in the ‘Third Wave’ the line between producer and consumer would be progressively blurred because of a return to production for own use. This implied taking a step away from production for exchange value, as during the ‘Second Wave’, the industrial society, where production and consumption were separated, and returning so something similar to the ‘First Wave’, agrarian society, where people lived in cottages and produced mainly for their own use. Toffler argued that the industrial revolution created an artificial division between supply and demand, and that this division would be increasingly blurred during the ‘Third Wave’. Accompanying this trend would be a ‘de-massification’ of society where not only ‘information, production, and family life, but the marketplace and the labor market as well are beginning to break into smaller, more varied pieces.’ (ibid., p. 231). This entailed that more work would be performed in the home, or in what he called ‘electronic cottages’.

The examples mentioned by Toffler (1980) do not appear particularly novel today. Prosumers could dial their own ‘long-distance calls instead of asking a telephone operator to do it, administer their own pregnancy tests instead of relying on a doctor and a laboratory, pick out their own rice and cereal at a grocery store instead of depending on a counter clerk to get these products from the back’. As pointed out by Humphreys and Grayson (2008), these changes represented merely changes in the extension of a value chain, and not a change in production and consumption: People who went to the grocery store were still consumers, in the end, although they had to do a little more work to purchase their goods. A more contemporary example of prosumption is the increasing use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), especially tied to the ‘revolution’ in user-generated content on the Internet often referred to as the Web 2.0, where YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are prominent examples (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010). This development has been termed a new ‘prosumer capitalism’ that rewards unpaid rather than paid labour, offers products at no costs and that can be exploitative and alienating (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010, Comor 2010).

A similar sentiment is expressed by Humphreys and Grayson (2008), who argue that prosumption means that a consumer is producing exchange value for companies:

the true potential revolution in consumption/production is occurring in those increasingly frequent instances in which consumers are being asked – and often are willingly agreeing – to take over steps in the value chain that create exchange value. That is, they are helping companies to be more successful in the marketplace (ibid.: 11).

Examples of this are if a company asks their customers for advice about how to best market a product, or asks customers to suggest designs that the company can later use. In a critique of the concept, Comor (2010: 322) points out that Toffler proclaimed a very individualistic idea, a narrative that would further entrench a ‘now atomized polity’. According to Comor (2010: 320), the problem is the focus on exchange value as an output that requires and reproduces a market governed and profit oriented system: ‘Beyond the prosumer’s economic exploitation, if prosumption is primarily about making money, existing material relations are perpetuated.’ Comor then points out that a fundamental change in economic organisation of society would come about if prosumers work or create ‘primarily social or intrinsic needs rather than for exchange’.

Evidently, the concepts of use and exchange value constitute the backbone of how prosumers are theorised. If prosumers generate use value for themselves or others they can represent a positive change, but if they generate exchange value for companies they are exploited and alienated. This sounds like a nice and simple realisation, but it is not such a simple task to neatly separate and understand use and exchange values: how are they constituted, how do they change, and through what relations and practices? For instance, what is use value and exchange value in the case of blogging: is the use value connected to the process of writing itself, perhaps? And would exchange value be connected to amounts of ‘clicks’ indicating how much traffic and views a site gets, which could be given exchange value in the form of advertisement? I look further into this problem by turning to how the prosumer term has been applied to understand energy (electricity and heat) demand. Ellsworth-Krebs and Reid (2016: 3) claim that ‘the concept of prosumption offers great potential as a device to reveal the complexity of energy production and consumption relations.’ This is so, they claim, because energy prosumption has ‘potential to create new patterns of demand through changing a product’s use value’. In other words, they argue that changes in use value can occur if consumers become prosumers.

In the energy domain, the concept of prosumer has revived lately due to an increase in microgeneration technologies of renewable energy combined with an increasing interest in smart technologies (e.g. Juntunen 2014, Olkkonen et al. 2016). Energy prosumption could mean having PV panels on the rooftop of a house, a small wind turbine on the property, but it could also mean producing your own heat, e.g. through chopping, stacking and burning firewood. Burning wood would be considered a classic form of prosumer activity since you both produce and consume the energy. It would create a direct form of use value, although it implies taking over large parts of the ‘value-chain’ of production. For many, such a change is inconvenient, which in turn impacts the use value. Rinkinen (forthcoming) identifies talk about ‘onerous’ consumption and convenience as a red herring in this respect. Instead, what is convenient is constantly changing and depends on the context:

“For some people, an onerous form of heating is a source of tension and trouble, but not for all. It seems that the apparent inconvenience of living with the temporal demands of wood heating can be defined in other ways, especially if this method of warming the home is culturally accepted and if it is taken to be normal.”

In other words, what could be considered a daunting or even unnecessary task for some is not the case for others. Thus, use value depends on the case and context in question.

Moving to electricity prosumption, we can include forms of heating since heating is becoming more and more electrified in the shape of heat pumps and similar technologies. Since electricity is multipurpose there is not necessarily a direct connection between how it is used and how it is produced. This makes it difficult to single out the effects from prosumption per se. Compared with heating with logs for example, taking over parts of the value chain may not require as much recurring effort since a PV panel is installed once with a 20 year lifetime, whilst chopping, stacking and drying wood must be done repeatedly. What is more, everyday life set-ups are composed by various practices and their dependence on electricity may vary: e.g. writing on a computer may be replaced (temporarily) by a notebook and a pen, light can be provided (temporarily) by the sun/fire, and some practices cannot be carried out at all without electricity, e.g. any ICT-related practice. In other words, use values are relative and situated, and depend on substitution – which makes the link with how they were generated difficult.

In essence, the argument of energy prosumption appears to boil down to the occurrence of a microgeneration technology, i.e. a solar PV panel on a roof or a wind turbine in the garden, which might alter the way we use electricity. This is perhaps because it is no longer obvious that electricity will always be there, but rather will be there mainly when the sun shines or the wind blows. We might, for instance, imagine a future society that has reached 100% renewable energy, in which the intermittency of electricity generation to a larger extent will decide consumption patterns. This might mean that the understanding of power as something that always ‘is there’ would be challenged. Nevertheless, since intermittency does not equal production it is still difficult to understand how this change in understanding of energy availability is connected to the production of the electricity. In fact, intermittency implies that when there is no production we no longer can consume, and where does that leave ‘prosumption’? I agree with Ellsworth-Krebs and Reid (2016) that more research should be directed at understanding the introduction of microgeneration technologies and the implications for everyday life. I struggle to see, however, that the concept of prosumption is helpful in this regard, because I do not see how to draw the boundaries of what ‘production’ and ‘consumption’ should mean in each case. Thus, wholeheartedly accepting the concept as a device to understand energy demand is probably a step too far.

Perhaps another way of interpreting the usefulness of energy prosumption is that new ways of organising production and consumption may lead to new patterns of energy consumption. This could for instance be observed in what is termed the ‘sharing economy’, i.e. the recirculation of goods (eBay or craigslist), increased utilisation of durable assets (Couchsurfing, Airbnb or Zipcar), exchange of services, (LETS or Task Rabbit) or sharing of productive assets, including initiatives where assets or space is shared in order to produce rather than consume (e.g. shared working spaces) (Schor 2014). In other words, the sharing economy can be said to be an umbrella term that covers many recent online-based, initiatives that can change the way we make use of things, space, skills and time. To be sure, it is not clear whether these sharing platforms represent a positive change in income distribution, equality and welfare, or how the environment is impacted (Frenken and Schor 2017; Schor 2016; Schor et al 2016).

There is no guarantee that a socio-economic reorganisation will happen with new prosumer initiatives, or that these prosumer initiatives will lead to reduced demand of energy. It might even be more likely that a reorganisation will lead to increased demand, since, as Wilhite (2016: 88) argues, ‘policies and processes of production, provision and consumption are saturated with incentives, infrastructures and technologies that are designed for high and increasing energy use’. For this reason, to understand something about energy demand it may be more fruitful to attempt to understand the way in which a system of provision is set up in a specific context (Fine and Leopold 1993). What are the various ways in which an infrastructure and production system is geared towards the consumption of that product or service? What incentives, motivations, interests, experiences and habits exist that speak for a particular ‘solution’ to a particular ‘problem’? At the very least, such an approach would recognise the difference between separate types of commodities and how use and exchange values would change depending on the context.

To summarise, the prosumer concept is too vague and represents an individualistic ontology and a techno-economic vision, which we should be careful about reproducing. Prosumption appears to denote something that we are seeing today: more and more people spend time, energy and resources producing and using online content and ICT to organise their lives. However, as an analytic concept it does not provide a better understanding of how energy demand is constituted. Wearing a sweater, cooking your own meal, growing your own vegetables could all be considered prosumption. And ‘energy prosumption’ appears to equal microgeneration technologies at home or close to home. These technologies appear to affect everyday life not only or necessarily because they ‘produce’, but because of a wide range of issues such as the timing, feeling or meaning of the sociotechnical that reconfigure the everyday (Strengers 2016). But we might also ask: is it always better to do it yourself? Where does the drive to produce more come from? Although it appears that the world is going in a prosumer direction we do not have to accept the term as a useful analytic construct. A concern with the prosumer term is that it represents an exchange system in new clothing, and a failure to recognise this will likely mean that the proponents of the idea have gotten one more supporter.


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