Solar Energy and Cities

A Mouchot of the future will invent a machine to guide the rays of the sun and make them work, so that we shall no longer seek sun-heat stored in coal in the depths of the earth. -Kropotkin

One of the important things to remember when thinking about our social problems today is the centrality of energy. As living beings, we of course use energy in the form of food, and one can consider a lot of human history to be about energy – how to conserve it, use it, grow it, burn it, and so on. Different ways of dealing with energy have even opened up new places and ways for humans to live, from biological adaptations of ancient humans like sweat-cooling to using fur clothing to live in colder places. And yet little in radical politics or urbanism today deals with the fact that we are living in a novel time in human history with regards to energy.

Civilization has always demanded energy. In the past, this energy behaved in certain ways because it had certain and specific characteristics. Consider heating. Heating was formerly created primarily by burning things or capturing solar energy in a passive way. Cooking was only accomplished by burning things. This meant of course, that wood or other fuels like coal or oil had to be moved, that houses had to face a certain way to capture sun – in effect, certain social relations were determined, especially in cities, by specific types of energy use. Whatever economic system existed, in a 19th century city without changes from how capitalist cities were in the 19th century, coal would have to have been mined, transported, and used for people to live and cook, as there could not have been sufficient local energy to support people at that density or location.

Solar electricity production has changed this dynamic, and we should reckon with how this changes our politics. Once a solar panel has been installed, it provides a localized, long term, fungible source of energy that can be put to nearly every use, from heating to cooling, from cooking to lighting. This is a massive change in the way that energy comes into cities. Now cities have the potential to create much of their own energy, lightening their extraction of resources from elsewhere.

How should this change in energy production and consumption be expressed in our politics? Well, we should firstly promote and increase solar energy usage. Compared to coal, oil, gas, or nuclear, solar energy doesn’t necessitate at the point of production and distribution large centralized structures, which even if anarchised would lead to certain dynamics between producers and consumers. In our current world, where these sources of energy are controlled by the state or capitalists, they represent significant squeeze points that can be wielded against any insurrectionary movement. One can imagine a city in revolt having its electricity cut off by the state. Decentralized energy presents a powerful tactical advantage against authority.

Solar power also increases our ability to engage in free association with each other. Consider that even if the coal or gas industries were run by co-ops they would still be areas where their decisions of free association - the gas company cutting off someone for whatever reasons - would negatively impact someone because of a lack of alternative. However, with solar energy a person or collective wishing to freely disassociate from another group or person could do so without worrying so much about their living conditions.

Solar power might also lead to new city designs. Our cities may well look different if there was no need to have power lines running from substation to power plant, or gas lines beneath every street.

Solar energy, finally cheap and competitive in generation with fossil or nuclear power, has arrived. Let us in the anarchist and urbanist movements act like it.

- 9 toasts