The first part of this article dealt with the supply of energy by renewable electricity generation or by nuclear power. This second part focuses on how electricity networks are changing.
2.1. Is it really technologically possible to base electricity networks on renewables, since they produce electricity intermittently? Could there even be advantages?
There are already big electricity networks based on renewables, and more are on their way. Denmark generates 61% of its electricity from wind and solar, and a further 23% from modern biofuel use. Three of the largest European economies – Germany, the UK and Spain – generate 41%, 40% and 35% of their electricity from wind and solar, respectively, and that share will surely keep rising. Within these countries, variable renewables’ share of electricity generation is much greater in some places: in Scotland, a nation of 5.5 million people, it averaged 60% in 2019-21 and is growing. While variable renewables only contributes 16% of the USA’s electricity, their share in the state of California (which uses more electricity than most countries) is 43%, balanced with another 24% from hydro, 10.5% from nuclear and 22.5% from gas. And then there are nations such as Norway and Paraguay, where hydro power, a non-variable renewable resource, accounts for 88% and 99.5% of electricity generation respectively.
|A dispatch centre in Beijing that controls most of China’s ultra-high-voltage lines and |
monitors renewable electricity inputs. Photo from State Grid Corp of China
The growth of renewables is forcing two big changes to electricity networks: they are becoming less centralised, and bi- or multi-directional. The networks installed in rich countries in the first half of the 20th century, and across much of the global south in the second half, were designed to carry electricity in one direction: mostly from big coal, gas and nuclear power stations, to users. Peak centralisation was in the 1970s; combined heat and power plants, and power stations using combined-cycle gas turbines (CCGT) built in the 1980s and 90s, were smaller. As for wind farms, only the largest, with 100 or more turbines, are comparable in scale to coal-fired plants. Solar power mostly operates at still smaller scales: only about half of the world’s supply is from utility-scale solar farms; the rest is from rooftop panels. In China and Europe, the leading installers in recent years, more solar is being added as rooftop panels than as solar farms.
The physical decentralisation of electricity generation is accompanied by growth of centralised operational coordination. As the number and type of electricity generators increases, networks – i.e. the “grid” of transmission lines, storage facilities and the computers that regulate flows – adapt to manage their inputs. This is part of the “third industrial revolution”, analogous in some respects e.g. with changes made by a committee that uses video conferencing (geographically disparate people using centralised operational technology to work), or a newspaper (geographically disparate reporters, editors and managers who in the last century produced a physical product distributed from one physical location, and now coordinate digitally to produce multiple digital products).
Another consequence of physical decentralisation of generation is disruption of markets through which electricity is sold. The number of sellers rises. Typically, owners of solar panels (mostly, richer households, public entities or co-ops in rich countries) not only supply most of their own electricity, but have some to spare. Fierce battles are raging over the terms on which they sell it back to electricity companies.
In the global south, a different shake-up is underway: off-grid systems are being set up in areas that previously had no electricity access. The IEA estimated that by 2019, 39 million people’s homes had been electrified this way. Capital is turning even this provision of electricity to some of the poorest people in the world into a market. While some projects are managed by NGOs and development agencies, it is private sector monopolies, including mobile network operators, mobile banking platforms and first-generation utilities, that are consolidating their power in this market.
Struggles over who controls what, and who pays who, will continue, but the technological trend towards decentralised generation and multidirectional grids can only accelerate, in my view.
Network development has trailed behind renewables expansion. More than a decade ago, the Global Energy Assessment’s authors noted the “supreme irony that computers, sensors and computational ability have transformed every major industry except power generation”. The underinvestment characteristic of capital’s treatment of socially vital infrastructure continues. One sign of this is regular curtailment, e.g. some wind farms are compelled to stop operating when it is very windy, because the network operator is unable to deal with the sudden increase in electricity flow. In the US, UK and Germany this is cutting wind power generation by 2-5%; in the mid 2010s, China was curtailing almost one-fifth of its wind power but by 2019 had brought curtailment down to similar levels.
Still more serious, though, are the long delays facing new wind and solar generators that want to provide electricity to the grid. In the US, waiting times for the four largest electricity grid operators grew on average from 2.1 years in the 2000s to 3.7 years in the 2010s; in the UK, projects connected in 2022 were doing so four years after the date they had requested, and a supplier asking for a connection in 2023 can expect to be offered one between 2030 and 2038. An investigation by The Economist concluded that a key factor in the delays is speculation, i.e. companies filing paper projects with a view to selling their place in the queue. Planning and permitting procedures are also alarmingly slow – 3-9 years for onshore wind projects in the EU.–
2.2. Can the technological challenges be overcome?
Re-making electricity grids to cope with high levels of renewable generation is a challenge on which electrical engineers have been working for years. In 2015, a US government research group listed the key problems renewables would create for networks as: (1) variability (i.e. the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow); (2) uncertainty (it’s difficult to predict exactly how much electricity they will produce and when); (3) location specificity (sun and wind are not necessarily strongest where electricity networks are now); (4) nonsynchronous generation (i.e., roughly, lack of alternating current (AC) generation, particularly for inertia); and (5) capacity factors (how often a generator can run at maximum capacity – which is far lower for solar (about 25%) and wind (about 36%) than for combined cycle gas plants (about 56%) or nuclear (about 93%)).
The solutions include:
Storage. Electricity grids are complex systems, in which inputs and outputs have to be the same at all times. Storage is a key to regulating flow, but is also very tricky: electricity has to be turned into another form of energy to be stored – either chemical energy in a battery, heat energy or motive power. Much mainstream, technology-centred commentary assumes that lithium batteries, particularly in electric cars, will play a huge role in storage – which brings us back to the constraints on lithium mentioned above. There are large-scale storage methods such as pumped hydro (use the energy to pump water up a hill, and drive a turbine with it as it comes down), or heat storage. Other options involve turning the electricity into an energy-intensive gas, e.g. compressed air or hydrogen, for reconversion later.
Flexibility. Apart from storage, grids can be balanced by adjusting the level of inputs or outputs. Most wind-heavy systems now use gas plants to balance supply; as gas is phased out this can be done by hydro and other non-variable renewables. Adjusting outputs is potentially a much greater source of savings, in the first place by “peak shaving”, i.e. moving demand away from the busiest times. Environmentalists have long argued that electricity corporations calculated peak demand too generously, resulting in over-construction of power stations. Now, “smart” grid technology makes “peak shaving” technologically straightforward. Where electricity is delivered as a paid-for commodity, this is a market adjustment.
The UK National Grid recently tested price incentives to customers to use appliances at non-peak times: a basic approach secured a 12% reduction of peak demand, a more ambitious “Big Turn Down” offer, 64%. You do not have to buy into the corporate rhetoric about “empowering customers” to understand the potential for flexibility. Nor do you have to be a hard-line anti-capitalist to see that household flexibility would be dwarfed by that achievable in industry: The Economist, pointing to the example of industrial freezers, says much industrial demand is “not particularly time sensitive” and will respond to price signals; and the Energy Transition Commission, a corporate-backed “green” think tank, points to the “great potential” of flexibility from big industrial consumers such as aluminium smelters.
Changes to system stability provision. A big engineering challenge in the transition to renewables-dominated grids is that fossil-fuelled, nuclear and hydro plants have historically provided inertia, which is essential to protect the system from failure. The specialists’ take on this is, first, that as grids shift towards renewables, the amount of inertia available will go down, but so will the amount needed; and, second, that inverters (which convert DC to AC and are used to supply renewable power to the grid) can be developed to take on a “grid forming” function and replace the old “spinning reserve”.
Information technology. Improved weather forecasting and data analysis, made possible by developments in information technology, address the uncertainty issue.
Integration. The more supply options available, the more effectively variability can be dealt with. Greater interconnection between regional grids helps, and high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines, a relatively new technology, can do that with lower losses in transit. More significant in the long term is, first, integration between electricity, heating/cooling and transport (via electric vehicles), and, second, the spread of decentralised renewables, which reduces the need both for utility-scale generation and for transmission. The International Renewable Energy Agency recently published a study of the potential for such sectoral integration together with hydrogen storage and decentralised renewable energy resources with “self consumption” (i.e. the household or community that produces the energy also uses it). A corporate consultancy in the US recently published a report projecting very hefty reductions in total throughput if decentralised renewables are used widely.
New combinations of direct current and alternating current. Continuing the theme of reducing throughput, some engineers see potential for this in microgrids, using direct current (DC) electricity.
The direction of technological change is clear. Where renewables already dominate the grid, gas-fired power stations (where output levels can be moved up and down quite easily) are usually used for balancing. As time goes by, larger, varied ranges of generators, greater interconnection and integration, and storage, will replace them; managing the multiple changes in flows is already much easier thanks to the revolution in information technology. Decentralised generation (firstly, rooftop solar) will surely always be combined with larger generators, be they solar and wind farms, hydro or other non-fossil-fuel plants.
2.3. What are the starting points for a socialist view of this?
Not only is the shift to renewables well underway, but electricity corporations and their political allies are putting together narratives to guide it. In an interview given the best part of a decade ago – representative of these narratives, in my view – Steve Holliday, then chief executive of the UK National Grid, commented that “the world is clearly moving towards much more distributed [i.e. decentralised] electricity production and towards microgrids”, and that “the idea of baseload power is already outdated”. In future, the market would be “turned on its head”; a consumer’s solar and heat pump would be the baseload; the electricity industry “based on meeting demand” would be superseded by one balancing supply and demand.
A socialist response to such narratives must be based not on a rejection of renewables or of decentralisation, but on a rejection of corporate power and of the dictates of capitalist expansion and capitalist markets; and on an assertion of the need to decommodify energy, to take energy infrastructure into public ownership and to make energy provision a public, or common good.
The technological changes to which we need to respond have been outlined above (2.1): the more decentralised generation supercedes large-scale generation, the more electricity flow will be multidirectional, and the more the grid will function to match flexible use with flexible supply. In my view, this is no less welcome to socialists than the growth of the internet or mobile telephony: we don’t have to accept the form of ownership to acknowledge the technology’s potential. In the case of the internet, that potential has been choked and smothered, but not yet extinguished, by the corporations that control so much of it. In the case of decentralised renewables, the potential for new forms of common or public ownership and control of energy supply stares us in the face.
This potential has as yet only been realised in a limited way, in co-ops and municipal projects that operate, at best, as islands of common ownership and control in a sea dominated by corporations. Perhaps the most important issue is whether, and how, such small islands can join together and become part of a generalised challenge to capital; whether, and how, they can be brought together with political change at national level – social democratic footholds in the capitalist state, or other more far-reaching changes that can push back capital.
Struggles for common forms of ownership will always be limited without linked struggles to decommodify energy and supercede markets by public provision – that is, for public control of networks, not just nationalisation of them to serve corporations. A group of academic researchers in Europe have over the last several years developed proposals for commons-based peer production, under which “smart” technology is used not to trade electricity as a commodity, but to share it as a common good.
The group have analysed the technical requirements for commons-based peer production, which are broadly divided into digital technologies to manage energy flows on one hand, and raw material and physical components on the other. The two main software technologies are software-defined energy networks (SDEN) and packetised energy management (PEM). These “align with the existing liberalised market with ancillary and balancing services”, the group wrote in a 2020 paper. “However they also open up the possibility for democratising electricity if governed as a commons.”
Here I quote from a paper published by the group last year, of which Chris Giotitsas of the university of Tallinn, Estonia is the lead author:
Our proposed commons-oriented Energy Internet builds on the concept of microgrids. In a software defined energy network, multiple microgrids (small local, often independent, grids) connect with each other to share electricity as a commons. These interactions are optimised and managed through packetised energy management via a communications network infrastructure, based on similar principles as the Internet. The technological expertise for the digital infrastructure is already largely available, albeit with primary attempts to be applied in market-based relations whereby energy is treated as a commodity amongst distributed producers and consumers.
Applying this infrastructure in a commons framework, i.e. treating energy and energy infrastructure as a communal resource rather than a commodity, simplifies several structural difficulties associated with current proposals around distributed energy production. The commons framework removes the complex financial considerations that sit on top of an, already, complex network of decentralised energy transfer. It also makes the value of energy sharing more transparent and accountable for citizens, avoiding an overwhelming complexity of market dynamics and equilibria that shallowly represent citizens as rational selfish agents.
For those fighting to expand those commons islands, accessing hardware elements of energy systems is harder than developing software. Sharing knowledge of design and construction techniques is one avenue. Giotitsas et al discuss the experience of two projects – a micro-hydropower plant in Nepal and an electricity microgrid in Brazil – in getting their hands on equipment. It is a work in progress. They conclude that the two projects are currently “reliant upon infrastructure produced in this [capitalist] world economy” – but also show how these existing material components and infrastructure can be “used, repaired or reshaped” to form the basis of commons-based peer production.
These valuable papers do not map a path for the transition to a commonly owned and controlled energy system. That is not a criticism of the papers: mapping that path is a huge common task, synonymous with challenging and superceding capitalism, that faces all of us, and in my view recent decades of struggle have shown that we are collectively, inevitably, uncertain about which routes we will take. However, I suggest that these proposals are a good starting-point for discussion about the transition towards a socialist energy system.
2.4. Are decentralisation and public ownership mutually exclusive?
Matt Huber and Fred Stafford claim that decentralisation and public ownership are mutually exclusive for two reasons. First, they construct a false opposition, that does not exist in the real world, between public/centralised electricity and private/decentralised/renewable electricity. Second, they claim that their imagined public/centralised system is threatened by variable renewables.
The false opposition is underpinned by what Huber and Stafford call a “deep materialist understanding” of electricity networks. This points toward:
[T]he importance of centralised, large-scale reliable power generation like hydroelectric dams and nuclear power, as opposed to decentralised, small-scale and intermittent forms of power like rooftop solar panels.
Firstly, not all small-scale power generation is intermittent (e.g. small dams, geothermal, modern biofuel plants and small gas plants are not) and, while large-scale generation is not intermittent, over longer periods it also comes and goes (e.g. for repairs and maintenance, or if fuels supply is disrupted).
But secondly and more substantially, the whole function of centralised electricity networks is to manage the endless changes in levels of supply, along with the changes in levels of use. Right now, centralised operational coordination of networks is necessarily expanding, as electricity generation tends towards decentralisation, and is being revolutionised by the changes in communication technologies (see 2.1, above).
Any materialist understanding of the electricity system, “deep” or otherwise, surely needs to grasp the dynamics between the decentralising trend in generation and the changes in centralised operational coordination. Huber and Stafford never even acknowledge the distinction between the two.
Huber and Stafford also present a completely distorted picture of how decentralised generation is developing in reality, focusing on off-grid solar in the global north, which is a tiny part of the whole picture:
While the Elon Musks of the world hawk the benefits of “delinking” from the grid through the individual purchases of rooftop solar equipment and battery storage, we must fight for the expansion of electricity as universal public infrastructure.
Yes, Elon Musk is a dangerous clown, and, yes, a small number of rich households in e.g. the US and Australia surely see rooftop solar as the road to a reactionary, isolationist, off-grid existence. But in the big picture, they are irrelevant. The overwhelming majority of rooftop solar, whether household, municipal or corporate, is connected to the grid.The boom in rooftop solar installations in recent years has been led by Chinese state-owned or state-supported companies, followed by European electricity companies, often with state support. All these solar panels are already part of a universal infrastructure; the barriers to that infrastructure being public is not that the panels are decentralised, but that they – and some networks too – are not publicly or commonly owned and controlled.
Huber and Stafford’s article is full of warnings about the supposed threat presented to centralised electricity systems by decentralised renewables. Intermittency gives renewable energy “limited use value” that “creates unavoidable problems for grid planning”, they write; when there is too much wind and solar power, that leads to curtailment, and when there is too little wind, electricity prices go up.
They make no reference to the centralised operational coordination by electricity networks – not only in Scotland, Denmark and California with majority-renewables supply, but in many other countries with significant electricity generation by variable renewables – and no mention of how this coordination has been transformed by computer technology over the last two decades.
|Electricity pylons in West Sussex, UK. |
Photo from Geograph / Wikimedia Commons
The cause of curtailment, as detailed by the Renewable Energy Policy Network and a bundle of research articles, is the shortage of transmission and storage capacity; that in turn is caused by underinivestment, which in turn is rooted in neoliberalism.
As for electricity prices rising when less power than expected comes from wind – well, that’s how (pending improved weather forecasting) markets regulate supply and demand. The problem is not intermittency, it is markets. (Note that the example used, of too little wind in Europe in December 2022, is factually incorrect, pointing to a problem with Huber and Stafford’s research methods.)
On these shaky foundations, Huber and Stafford base a claim that it is “still not clear how [renewables] can provide reliable power for the entire grid the way centralised power plants do today”, passing over all real-world experience and research (see 2.2. above). They highlight the dangers of blackouts to “the very survival of the system”, ignoring the reality that blackouts historically have occurred in fossil-fuel-dominated systems for reasons that have nothing to do with renewable generation.
Huber and Stafford summarise their view of intermittency by quoting Mark Nelson, who said: “claiming cheap renewables are a viable solution for our grid system is like claiming flimsy tents are a viable solution for the housing crisis”. Absurdly, they describe Nelson, a consultant and vociferous public advocate of nuclear, as an “energy analyst”. This is symptomatic of an unsatisfactory approach: in support of polemical goals, they present a distorted view of electricity systems, strewn with errors of fact and illustrated with sound-bites such as Nelson’s that have no place in a discussion which, given climate change, may legitimately be called a matter of life and death.
2.5. Are there principled (rather than pragmatic) grounds to oppose decentralisation?
There are two reasons to welcome decentralised renewables, in my view – one basically technological, the other basically social and political.
The growth of decentralised renewables, and the corresponding development of centralised network coordination, is best understood as part of the “third industrial revolution” of the 1980s-90s that started with the transformative development of the micro-processor. This is not only because of the importance of post-Einstein physics for the development of solar panels (to understand the photovoltaic effect and the p-n junction in silicon chips), but more because of the crucial role of the latest generations of computing in electricity network development. All this has produced the potential for renewables, including but not only decentralised ones – notwithstanding the serious problems with their use at scale (see 1.3, 1.4 and 2.2 above) – to play a part in decarbonising the economy and thus tackling the threat of dangerous climate change.
Given the conditions of 21st century capitalism, and capital’s extreme corrosion and misuse of technologies, does it mean anything to define the “third industrial revolution” in a Marxist sense as a “development of the forces of production”? I think it does, although with major qualifications – not least because of the terrifying speed at which new forms of labour exploitation are spreading, enhanced by these new technologies. (In his book Climate Change as Class War, Huber suggests that “centralisation” is inherent in the development of the productive forces, and that Marx thought it was somehow inherently progressive. Perhaps this misunderstanding informs his one-sided view of electricity networks. See Note. Marx and centralisation at the end.)
Socialism surely mean seeing past the corrosive effect of capitalism on technologies, and on labour, and on the human relationship with nature, and fixing our sights on the potentials of technologies, renewables included, for human cooperation and democracy, and for new social relations of production, not only of electricity but of much else. It is these unrealised but visible potentials that, in my view, constitute a reason for socialists to welcome the spread of decentralised renewables.
The second reason to welcome decentralised renewables is the social and political one mentioned above (see 2.3 above): they open up possibilities for public and collective forms of ownership; they have a prefigurative function (showing us how post-capitalist society can be different), and can play a part in broader movements around climate policy.
Huber and Stafford are opposed to this vision of public power in principle, dismissing it as “localist utopia”. They claim that there is a “split within the capitalist class” between “historically embedded investor-owned utilities” who claim a commitment to reliability, and “industrial consumers of electricity” who seek flexible supply contracts and “emphasise their green credentials”. This split, they say, is replicated in “the Left”: “traditional labour unions” are siding with utilities, and therefore with centralised generation, while “environmentalists and ecosocialists” are with “renewable energy producers, Google and increased marketisation of electricity”.
This is a contrived argument. The division between US utilities and industrial electricity consumers is not one of principle, it is simply sellers vs buyers. And the identification of more renewables with “increased marketisation” is a myth: the fastest expansion of renewable generation is in China, one of the most heavily regulated electricity markets on earth. As for the supposed alliance between “environmentalists and ecosocialists” with “increased marketisation”, “Google”, and so on, this is simply a declaration of guilt by association.
For Huber, opposing the “localist path” is a matter of principle: it is “deeply at odds with the traditional Marxist vision of transforming social production”, he writes. And to drive the point home: “Duke Energy does not care if you set up a locally owned micro-grid.”
This betrays a very narrow view of socialist politics. Huber and Stafford appear to believe that the only forums worth fighting in are the national political space associated with the capitalist state, and the traditional workplace. But in real life, the class struggle is much bigger and more complicated than this, and – without exaggerating the potential of co-ops – it is hard to see what is “Marxist” about dismissing them with such bitter invective.
In a practical sense, dismissing co-ops and community projects in the energy sector can only obstruct a real assessment of their progress and limitations. A vital contribution to such an assessment was published in 2020 by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. The authors reviewed the experience of such organisations in Europe over the last quarter of a century. While they vigorously question those community energy advocates who bought in to market liberalisation narratives, they concentrate their main fire – rightly in my view – on pro-business EU market regulation, designed to reinforce capital’s role, and call for “a comprehensive reclaiming of energy systems, anchored in a public goods approach”.
Co-ops and community projects, for all their importance, particularly in pioneering renewables in Denmark, are only one type of owner of decentralised renewable generation. Much of it is owned by corporations.
Another significant form of ownership is by municipal government, where, together with insulation and heat pumps, decentralised renewables will surely figure more and more in battles over working people’s housing. This is another arena of struggle that Huber and Stafford seem to think is a waste of time – while in New York, legislation directing the public power company to plan, build and operate renewables projects has just been passed, thanks to a lengthy campaign by socialists and trade unionists.
Probably the most significant expansion of renewable generation, though, is at the household level. In the US, for example, the number of households with rooftop solar passed 2 million in 2019. Controversies over “net metering” – the terms on which these households should sell excess electricity back to the grid – rage in many states.
Research has shown that it is the most well-off households that invest in panels. They end up saving their owners money on electricity bills, although under current rules in many places the payback time can be many years. Surely the socialist political response should be not to oppose the expansion of solar power, but to demand that municipal and central government supply panels for free, and tightly regulate bills to households’ advantage. Such demands would continue naturally from campaigns already in progress to curb electricity companies’ profiteering from retail price hikes.
In the first part of the article, I asked whether renewables could play a role in pushing fossil fuels out of the economy. One important conclusion is that, while they definitely could, the really decisive issues are the resistance to capital, and in particular to its regime of overproduction and overconsumption in the global north. Progress in such a struggle would result in a reduction in the total throughput of energy through big technological systems. Further, I made the case against those who claim that labour movement support for nuclear power would help in some way.
I also discussed the constraints on renewables development, the most serious of which is the problem of materials that are currently accessed in unjust, extractivist relations inherent in 21st century capitalism. The challenge here will be to bring together fights against that extractivism with initiatives that tackle dangerous climate change.
In this second part of the article, I have discussed the developments needed in electricity networks to accommodate renewables, including decentralised renewables, and argued against the false claim that decentralised generation is somehow inherently antithetical to public and common forms of ownership.
I have offered a view of technologies that are conditioned by capitalism, and suggested that we need to hold together an awareness not only of the way that capital corrodes technologies, but also of their potential to support common ownership and democracy.
Under capitalism, dangers are written into these technologies: dangers that they will be used to supplement, instead of to supplant, fossil fuels; dangers that the supply chains will be every bit as exploitative and extractive as those for fossil fuels and nuclear; dangers associated with corporate control and greenwash. But every solar panel or wind turbine, even if installed under private ownership, has the potential be assimilated into publicly or collectively owned systems, and the potential to play a role in decarbonisation.
15 September 2023
🔴Both parts of this article can be downloaded as a PDF here. The first part of the article is here.
Note. Marx and centralisation
Karl Marx’s ideas about the tension between the development of the productive forces and the social relations of production are among his most important, but also most misunderstood, insights, in my view. The momentous struggles of the early 20th century, when the Russian revolution brought into government Marxists who faced unenviable decisions about rapid industrialisation, had a distorting effect on these ideas. On one hand, Marxists wrote about the “productive forces” not as the ensemble of humanity’s productive interaction with nature, with labour at its centre, but as a purely quantitative expansion of machines and techniques – which, with regard to the Soviet Union, looked like a super-urgent task. On the other hand, some Marxists adopted a mechanical understanding of how the tension that Marx had written about would be resolved, hoping – against the mounting evidence – that the progress of machinery and technique would be a fundamental force pushing society past capitalism. (I have written more about this elsewhere.)
Matt Huber is influenced, I think, by this mechanical understanding. Polemicising, as usual, against “the localist path to social change”, he writes:
From Marx’s perspective, capitalism produces the material basis for emancipation through the development of large-scale and ever-more centralised industry. He explained how capitalism tends to centralise capital through the “expropriation of many capitalists by a few”. But through this centralisation process, production itself becomes more and more socialised.
But when Marx wrote about the “expropriation of many capitalists by a few”, he was referring to the centralising effect of money capital and the development of corporations. Marx also wrote at length about the bringing-together of workers, previously dispersed in small workshops or home working, in factories. But in Marx’s view, what laid the basis for social ownership and control (socialism) was the increasingly socialised nature of production under capitalism, not centralisation.
Huber’s claim that Marx’s descriptions of the physical bringing-together of workers in factories, or of the development of financial capital, implied some sort of principled approval of “centralisation” makes no sense. To then transpose this to a 21st century context, and claim that Marxism embraces a third type of centralisation – the physical centralisation of electricity generation – makes even less sense.
 Data from Our World in Data (Denmark, Norway and Paraguay); the Energy Institute (formerly BP) Statistical Review of World Energy (UK, Germany, Spain); the UK government web site; and the US Energy Information Administration web site
 Walt Patterson, Transforming Electricity (Earthscan, 1999), pages 68-70, 72-75 and 114-116; IRENA, Renewables 2023 Global Status report: Energy Supply module, pages 17-18 and 64-66; Solar Power Europe web site
 On off-grid solar in the global south, see: Lucy Baker, “New frontiers of electricity capital: energy access in sub-Saharan Africa”, New Political Economy 28:2 (2023), pages 206-222; Kirsten Ulsrud, “Access to electricity for all and the role of decentralised solar power in sub-Saharan Africa”, Norwegian Journal of Geography 74:1 (2020), pages 54-63; and Eberhard Rothfuss and Festus Boamah, “Politics and (Self)-Organisation of Electricity System Transitions in a Global North-South Perspective”, Politics and Governance 8:3 (2020), pp. 162-172
 Thomas Johansson et al (eds.), Global Energy Assessment (IIASA/Cambridge University Press, 2012), pages 1159-61, and S. Pirani, Burning Up, page 36
 REN21, Renewables 2023 Global Status Report: Renewable Energy Systems & Infrastructure, pages 11-12; Hao Chen et al, “Winding down the wind power curtailment in China”, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 167 (2022), 112725
 “Hurry up and wait”, The Economist, 8 April 2023; “Carbon-Free Energy: how much, how soon?”, IEEE Power & Energy Magazine, November-December 2021, pages 67-76; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Queued Up: Characteristics of Power Plants Seeking Transmission Interconnection, April 2022; REN21, Renewables 2023 Global Status Report: Global Overview, page 18
 National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Flexibility in 21st Century Power Systems (2015); David Roberts, “Why wind and solar power are such a challenge for energy crids”, Vox, 19 June 2015. The capacity factors are for the US in 2022, from the Energy Information Administration web site
 This is my non-engineer’s summary, based on my reading of industry publications and academic research
 David Elliott, Renewable Energy: can it deliver, pages 65-73; and Energy Storage Systems (IOP Publishing, 2017)
 National Grid ESO, CrowdFlex – Phase 1 Report (November 2021); ETC, Making Mission Possible: delivering a net-zero economy (September 2020), page 22; “Defying Dunkelflaute”, The Economist, 8 April 2023
 Paul Denholm et al, Inertia and the Power Grid: a guide without the spin (National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2020); B. Kroposki et al, “Achieving a 100% renewable grid”, IEEE Power & Energy magazine, March-April 2017, pages 61-73; Elliott, Renewable Energy, page 87
 REN21, Renewables 2023 Global Status Report: Renewable Energy Systems & Infrastructure, page 13
 IRENA, Sector Coupling in Facilitating Integration of Variable Renewable Energy in Cities (2021); C. Clack et al, Why Local Solar For All Costs Less (Vibrant Clean Energy, 2020); David Roberts, “Rooftop solar and home batteries make a clean grid vastly more affordable”, Volts, May 2021. See also Unlocking the potential of Energy Systems Integration (Imperial College, 2018), and my comments on it, “Memo to Labour: let’s have energy system integration for the many”, People & Nature, May 2018
 See e.g. D. Magdefrau et al, Analysis and Review of DC Microgrid Implementations (iSemantic / IEEE Explore), 2016; K. Shenai and K. Shah, “Smart DC migro-grid for efficient utilisation of distributed renewable energy”, IEEE Energy Tech (2011); Brock Glasgo et al, “How much electricity can we save by using direct current circuits in homes?”, Applied Energy 180 (2016), pages 66-75
 “Steve Holliday, CEO National Grid: ‘The idea of large power stations for baseload is outdated’”, Energy Post, 11 September 2015
 Chris Giotitsas et al, “From private to public governance: the case for reconfiguring energy systems as a commons”, Energy Research & Social Science 70 (2020), 101737
 Chris Giotitsas et al, “Energy governance as a commons: engineering alternative socio-technical configurations”, Energy Research & Social Science 84 (2022), 102354
 Vasily Kostakis et al, “From private to public governance: the case for reconfiguring energy systems as a commons”, Energy Research & Social Science 70 (2020); and Pirani, How energy was commodified, and how it could be decommodified, pages 9-11
 REN21, Renewables Global Status Report 2023: Energy Systems and Infrastructure module, pages 11-14
 Huber and Stafford write that in autumn of 2022, low wind speeds “plagued the European grid precisely at the time they needed wind power most”. Actually, European onshore wind electricity generation was 7% higher year-on-year in the third quarter of 2022 and 10% higher in the fourth quarter. In July, there was a day of negative wholesale prices (i.e. generators paid traders to take electricity off their hands) because of high wind speeds combined with weak demand. Soaring wholesale prices in the third quarter were attributed by Brussels analysts mainly to disruption of gas supply by Russia; they judged that a further price hike in December was due to “increased demand due to low temperatures, supported by outages of Norwegian gas assets”, not lower wind. Instead of looking at analysis based on an appropriate selection of information and statistics, Huber and Stafford seem to have based their wrong assertion on a report in the Wall Street Journal. But even medium-term market trends can not be understood from a single newspaper report. It is good enough if you are looking for a headline to support your already-decided argument. European Commission, Quarterly reports on European electricity markets 15:3 and 15:4 (3rd and 4th quarters of 2022); IEA, Electricity Market Report 2023, pages 75-82
 See Mark Nelson’s twitter profile
 See: Ursula Huws, Labour in Contemporary Capitalism (Palgrave 2019)
 Huber, Climate Change as Class War, page 250
 If Marx’s own attitude is relevant, it is worth re-reading the classic text, Socialism Utopian and Scientific, by Marx’s close comrade Friedrich Engels. While he lambasts the “eclectic, average socialism” that sees its principles of economic organisation as “the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice”, and shows the origin of those views among “utopian socialists” such as Robert Owen, Engels’s characterisation of those utopians was full of warm admiration for their theoretical insights and practice. Owen, “banished from official society” and hated by the bourgeoisie, was linked by his activity to “every social movement, every real advance in England [the UK and above all Scotland, actually!] on behalf of the workers”. The co-ops he formed, envisaged as “transition measures to the complete communistic organisation of society”, had throughout the early 19th century “given practical proof that the merchant and the manufacturer are socially quite unnecessary”
 Sean Sweeney et al, Transition in Trouble? The rise and fall of “community energy” in Europe (TUED, 2020)
 Ashley Dawson, “How to win a Green New Deal in your state”, The Nation, 11 May 2023
 Fereidoon Sioshansi (ed.), The Future of Decentralized Electricity Distribution Networks (Elsevier 2023), chapter 1. On “net metering”, see Leah Cardamore Stokes, Short Circuiting Policy: interest groups and the battle over clean energy and climate policy in the American states (Oxford 2020)
 “Technology and socialism. Do they fit together THAT easily?” (People & Nature, August 2013); “‘The instrument of labour strikes down the labourer.’ Marx on machinery is worth reading” (People & Nature, June 2015)
 Huber, Climate Change as Class War, page 250