Benjamin Schuetze is Head of a DFG-funded Emmy Noether Research Group at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute (ABI) in Freiburg, Germany, and Fellow with the Young Academy for Sustainability Research at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS). His research examines the political economy of renewable energies in the Middle East and North Africa and so-called ‘democracy promotion’ initiatives.
Alke Jenss is a Senior Research Fellow at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute (ABI) in Freiburg, Germany, and responsible for the institute’s Contested Governance Cluster. Her research is situated at the intersection of critical political economy, state theory and urban (in-)security with particular reference to Latin America.
While transregional energy infrastructure projects like the Central American Electrical Interconnection System (SIEPAC) and MedRing quite literally connect regions anew and envisage borderless energy flows, as we argue in an article recently published with Globalizations, these projects potentially prefigure politics: removing opportunities for democratic contestation, and fixing some specific energy futures in place and preventing others. The sustainability claims that accompany many large-scale transregional electricity grid interconnection projects open up a new means to push through highly contested projects.
SIEPAC and MedRing are two contemporary large-scale transregional energy infrastructure projects that seek to integrate Latin American electricity grids, and connect European and North African grids respectively. Their oft-repeated reason of being is that they (will) allow the integration of intermittent and variable renewable energy sources. As material expressions of specific visions of the future, these large-scale infrastructures shape how we imagine infrastructural politics, and enable, block, or contain attempts at transitioning towards sustainable futures.
In the article, we connect two sets of literature, which namely work on technopolitics and the recent practice-turn in research on authoritarian power. These allow us to explore how transregional energy infrastructures prefigure political outcomes. We contend that such infrastructures can actually set the pathways for authoritarian politics, by locking planning processes into technocratic practices that preempt contestation, by facilitating coercion in specific conjunctures (of contestation), and by partly shifting the potential for contestation into a transnational, seemingly actor-less realm without corresponding powerful publics.
It is one thing to plan large-scale projects. Once built, any infrastructure also contains political possibilities. In effect, large-scale transregional energy infrastructures (such as transnational pipelines) can preclude democratic energy futures. Their large-scale setup prefigures possible alternatives of energy, property relations, and the negotiation of basic services, such as electricity.
Transnational electricity grids are hardly discussed with the populations on-site that are affected by, for instance, land titling disputes and other localized effects of infrastructure construction. Their decision-making, planning and execution are highly asymmetrical: the rerouting of infrastructures via negotiation is an exception. People we have spoken to in our respective research contexts have sometimes phrased very harsh critiques of the process, stating that they were never asked, never consulted, and never heard by those promoting the projects. Some practices, which we might call technocratic, aim at ‘improving’ management, but really this talk of improvement gives a purpose (‘development’) to practices that are in essence authoritarian. Such discussion can also freeze and deepen inequalities by depoliticizing them.
Transregional electricity grids have not made statecraft superfluous, but rather, the global capital that materializes in these grids has facilitated and accentuated its coercive effects. The transnational electricity grids themselves become a field of struggle; the global privatization of essential infrastructures (such as electricity grids) boost the role of transnational corporations in managing and preventing public discontent. Local contestation has frequently become severely complicated. There is no public – to the extent that local actors could meaningfully influence decision-making processes – that really corresponds with the transregional spatial imaginaries (‘Mediterranean’ and ‘North and Central America’) the project brochures propose. Transregional electricity grids clash with the common imagination of politics as a realm of the state and illustrate how authoritarian power is transformed into something global and difficult to grasp, as actors as diverse as infrastructure planners, investors, and state institutions either employ authoritarian practices or facilitate them.
In our article, we discuss examples of how authoritarian practices and electricity grids may be connected. Increasingly, large-scale grid projects overlap with the migration containment infrastructures that separate precisely what the grids promise to connect, i.e. Central America and Mexico, or the European Union and Northern Africa. The connections produced are highly selective: governments and corporations promote the regional flow of electricity and energy as necessary for future ‘progress.’ Yet the containment of people is just as integral to these infrastructure expansions. In the case of the Central American grid SIEPAC, curbing movement of Central America’s racialized populations seems to have become a motive for electricity connectivity. The city of Tapachula at the Mexican-Guatemalan border, the site of the actual interconnection between the Mexican grid and SIEPAC at the Guatemalan town of Los Brillantes is simultaneously a major migration hub, and invariably accounts of the city describe ‘large numbers’ of migrants stranded there. Increased border policing forces migrants into more dangerous routes. The Development Plan for Central America, devised by the UN Economic Commission’s Mexico office, promises to reduce migratory flows by pushing for infrastructure-led development and growth, explicitly naming SIEPAC as one means to achieve this.
The relations between different sites of the chain are sometimes quasi-colonial, another aspect of highly unequal power relations around the grids, and an example of such uneven connections. Key providers of energy and its main consumers are often located at far distant ends of such electricity grids, replicating a North–South divide. Studies of transnational grids must recognize the – frequently invisible – grounding of infrastructure in racialized labor exploitation and occupation. While interconnections such as SIEPAC and MedRing might reduce electricity costs, border policing facilitates low labor costs due to the steady supply of exploitable illegalized immigrant labor. The Mediterranean electricity ring and the integration of North Africa into a Eurocentric energy politics prioritizes notions of European energy security, and benefits transnational corporations, such as Saudi ACWA and Spanish Acciona, and local authoritarian elites. In Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, power cuts, unequal energy distribution and discrimination along ethnic lines are deliberately used as a form of punishment, and contrast with the Moroccan regime’s, the EU’s, and private energy developers’ discourses of clean energy and global connectivity.