Reading Group: 2 July 2014

The Group discussed ‘Accomplished by methods which are indefensible’: Electric utilities, finance, and the natural barriers to accumulation, Geoforum 49 (2013) 173–183, by Conor Harrison and for this reading group we had the author in the room, as Conor is currently a DEMAND visitor at Lancaster, and Anna on Skype.

Conor opened the discussion by explaining the origins of the paper, drawing from his PhD work, but then evolving considerably through the process of review and revision to take on some particular political economy literature in support of his empirical analysis.  The following discussion was wide-ranging and demonstrated the multiple ways in which his work intersected with the DEMAND research programme.  Several people focused on his key point about the distinctive materiality of electricity (demand and supply have to be simultaneously connected) and how this was implicated in processes through which energy generators and suppliers sought to induce and create demand for electricity, hunting out ways in which load curves could be flattened out over the day by drawing in new uses of electricity and new forms of consumer.  His use of the notion of ‘spatial fix’ (from Harvey and others) intrigued others, drawing out meanings associated with both how infrastructure is fixed in space, but also how space is employed as a means of fixing accumulation problems (e.g. through territorial expansion of markets).  Elizabeth got interested in ‘the wires’ and how they were a key but easily forgotten element of the process of infrastructure expansion.  Parallels with contemporary settings were also clear, including with modern forms of and rationales for load shifting (Conor pointed out that the basic shape of the daily load curve is still the same today as it was 100 years ago) and current debates about the different private/public/cooperative institutional models for energy provision.  All in all a great session that really demonstrated the value of historical research, plus a good setting up for the summer school theme on energy histories.

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