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The burdens of benchmarking on abundance: towards a relational ontology of electricity systems

Authors: Veronica Jacome*, University of California, Berkeley
Topics: Geographic Theory, Energy, Political Geography
Keywords: critical geography, energy infrastructure, political economy, critical theory
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Critical electricity infrastructure literature leans on an old global dichotomy: infrastructure in the global north is taken-for-granted and largely invisible, while in the global south, access is highly unreliable, problematic, and a source of every-day scrutiny and precarity. This tension between the visible and invisible underscores the very nature of energy development today. Electricity’s long history of capitalist development, nation-building, and colonial interrelations have produced what I call “abundant” systems, those characterized by cheap, constant, plenty, invisible access, and “constrained” systems, those characterized by costly, intermittent, uncertain, visible access. Moreover, while electricity infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa is largely understood through its failures, it is a so-called successful, abundant infrastructure that needs reevaluation. In this work I leverage this energy dichotomy in an attempt to move beyond it and develop a relational ontology of postcolonial energy infrastructure. I explore African cities’ unreliable electricity systems not only through what renders it visible—its erratic and dynamic nature—but through its relationship to invisible infrastructure. Here, I see theoretical and practical merit in scrutinizing abundant systems, which benchmark constrained systems, but often ignored. Ultimately, I argue it is the bias of abundance in infrastructure that shapes our understanding of, and relationship to, constrained systems.

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