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Solar Promises

Solar Promises1

Dr. Imre Szeman
University Research Chair
Department of Communication Arts, ML-241
Professor of Drama & Speech Communication and
English Language & Literature
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada


This essay examines the hopes, fears, and fantasies that accompany the future social and political projections of a transition to solar energy, with the aim of adding context and complexity to the principle energy narrative already emerging around this source of energy. Solar contains a double promise: energy without fuel and infinite energy. Despite the radical possibilities that might emerge from this fundamental redefinition of our relation to energy, solar also contains limitations, including the weight of the materials necessary to create solar power and the reality of existing forms of economics and politics that contain the changes solar might bring into existence. Against the tendency to imagine that solar energy will produce radical social change on its own, the essay argues for the need to articulate and struggle for “solarity,” a politics appropriate to the coming challenges of the solar era.

Keywords: Solar energy; energy humanities; environmental humanities; energy imaginaries; future

0. Solarity (sō′lərĭ-tē)
n. a state, condition or quality developed in relation to the sun, or to energy derived from the sun. Examples: i. At last, after millennia tarrying with other forms of being-in-relation to energy, they found their way back to solarity; ii. If communism = the Soviet + electricity, then solarity = the work of building the common + solar energy; iii. While fossil fuels are derived from the sun, they actively impede anything resembling solarity.

1.      Energy as Energy; or, Possibilities

When we commonly speak about “energy,” what we are really referring to is fuel: matter that can be made to release energy (see Pinkus 2016). Every form of fuel we currently use demands the production of physical infrastructures to create energy, from fireplaces to nuclear power stations; in the process, as fuel becomes energy, it always leaves a physical trace, from ash and carbon dioxide to spent nuclear fuel rods. Every form of fuel, that is, with the exception of solar power: with solar, we appear to have found a way to cut fuel out of the picture of energy production. At its core, the promise of solar is that we can access energy as energy—energy without the need for fuel, and so also without the creation of any trace of its use.

Solar names the promise of clean energy; it is also the promise of infinite energy. This is due to the sheer amount of energy produced by the sun. More energy hits the surface of the earth in one hour and a half (480EJ) than all energy consumed on the planet in a year. (This equation speaks as much to the reality of the Anthropocentric impact on the planet as it does to the volume of energy produced by the sun: we are already at a point at which human energy consumption can be measured in hours against the production of a star). And to add to the good news, there’s no need to worry about “peak solar” in the way that some have fretted about “peak oil”: we can count ourselves safe for the next five billion years, until the sun begins to transition into a red giant.

Solar thus contains a double promise: energy without fuel and an infinite amount of energy. Getting past the need for fuel opens up the possibility of using energy without environmental consequences. No fuel means: no spent fuel rods to bury; no carbon dioxide to manage; no flooded valleys from hydro projects to ameliorate; no torn apart and poisoned land to recondition. In the drama called “sustainability” (too quickly written and barely ever read with much attention to detail), solar plays the role of the hero that appears in the nick of time to save us from ourselves. Solar stands over the dead body of fossil fuels, sword raised to the sun, leading us forward into a future in which energy is energy, and in which fuel is left for history books for future generations to puzzle over and be amazed by.

But there is yet another promise contained in solar energy, one that threatens to unnerve the drama of sustainability. Another drama, this one called “modernity,” has at the heart of its narrative control over and ownership of fuel. In brief, this drama is organized in relation to property.  Fuel is finite and in a world that wants ever more of the stuff, control over fuel via the law of property undergirds relations of power, violence, and terror. Access to fuel has been the basis of modern geopolitics; wars have been fought over fuel, and, in an era of mechanized armies, the direction taken by war is often determined by the need to gain access to fuel. Ownership of fuel, whether by corporations or by nation states, generates money and power while externalizing (if not simply forgetting about) the environmental or social consequences of energy production. It is a system whose beneficiaries would forfeit sovereign rightonly under the most intense pressure, if at all. The power of fuel ensured this.

But how can one own what is infinite? What happens to property in a world awash with energy? And what is the impact of infinite energy on existing forms of geopolitics, which is defined by a competition over resources and which is assumed (at present) to persist indefinitely? Solar panels need to be located somewhere, of course. And yet, the infinite energy promised by solar can’t help but lead one to speculate about how else we might live once we have access to infinite, clean energy. Will we imagine different ways of being in relation to one another? To stop worrying about accumulation and possession because each of us will become Sun Kings, energy “prosumers” living in households able to generate their own energy (and even to make money by selling it to others) and so able to do whatever we want when we want, by capturing the energy of the sun?

Energy as (infinite) energy: However we might make sense of the social and political ramifications of this possibility, we have to begin with a startling realization. Until very recently, we have always used energy as energy, worrying little about the repercussions of the fuels we’ve used; and we have also always treated energy as if it were infinite. It is global warming that has caused us to reflect on the processes and practices by which we transform the energy of the sun into the energy we use, and which has caused us to think more seriously about the implications of using fuels as if they were infinite. When we think about solar we need to be alert to its ideological function, which is to erase fuel and finitude from the picture of energy use. To say that solar promises infinite, clean energy is to say that it allows us to continue to think of energy in much that way that we have been, while doing away with worries about how we have lived in relation to energy.

2.      Infrastructure, Matter, Scale; or, Limits

Right away it is important to be alert to the lie the solar promise makes to sidestep fuel. On a sunny day, light from the sun can allow one to read outside, and to enjoy the warmth of its rays on one’s skin—energy with both physical, psychological, and affective outcomes. But reading inside later that night (or, surfing the Internet; after all, who reads all day anymore?) and staying warm via electric heaters or cool via air conditioning requires the creation of an infrastructure to keep the energy flowing.

            What does this infrastructure look like? And what are the consequences of creating it?
            Solar requires the creation of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and the batteries needed to store the energy they generate.2 The process of creating photovoltaic systems is energy intensive. It also requires the use of poisonous and toxic chemicals, including cadmium compounds, hexafluoroethane, silicon tetrachloride, and lead. In typical descriptions of the solar production process, the link is usually made to the semiconductor industry, which uses a similar set of chemicals in the manufacture of computer chips. These toxins will need to be managed, especially as solar panels are produced at a larger and larger scale. Lithium ion batteries are the ones most commonly used in PV systems. There are a range of issues associated with using lithium, including the amount of water required in its mining process (half a million gallons per tonne of lithium), the generation of toxins in the process of lithium processing (including, in some places lithium is mined, hydrochloric acid), and the colonial displacements that nearly always accompany its extraction. The environmental and political implications of the large-scale use of other elements involved in battery production—cobalt and nickel—are as troubling as all the others listed here (and this is far from a complete list).

            PV systems generate direct current (DC). This means that each system also needs to include an inverter to turn it into the alternating current (AC) used by most appliances. Electrical grids need to be upgraded to manage two-way energy transfer between small, local sites of solar production and the broader, electrical network. Solarity is as much about turning toward the sun as it is about turning to our existing infrastructures and making commitments to reshape them in fundamental ways. Capital invested in such infrastructural developments is capital that will not be invested in other aspects of our social systems, which in most places on earth demand attention after five decades of neoliberal austerity and privatization.

            Solar power has implications for land and water use, too. Affixing solar panels on an already-built house might not have any land repercussions. Creating large solar farms certainly does. Depending on the system in use—utility-scale PV systems or concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) facilities—3.5 to 16.5 acres are required per megawatt generated. Land used for solar is land that can’t be used for other purposes, such as agriculture. CSP plants need water for cooling; the best places for such facilities are often in areas with dry climates. Just as with mining in South America’s Lithium Triangle (a region that includes Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, and which is estimated to hold more than half of the world’s supply), using water for one thing means that it is not available to be used for other purposes. Put simply, mining displaces farming.

            One could go on in this fashion, citing, for instance, the lifecycle emission rates for solar in comparison to natural gas (far lower, but not insignificant). My point here is not to suggest that we cannot or will not make a transition to solar. It is to say: solar, too, makes infrastructural demands and has a material weight (Overland 2019). Those who want to downplay or deny this in order to advocate for solar want to believe that we can obtain a state in which energy is just that: energy. A closer look offers a different narrative, one that cannot be passed off as simply a series of insignificant details.

            And what might happen to the total amount of energy consumed in a world powered by solar? If we begin to imagine solar as energy with little consequence—clean! infinite!—might we begin to (individually and collectively) use a lot more of it? Those communities in the world that have had minimal levels of access to energy could improve (and have improved) their quality of life through solar (Brennan 2017; Cross, Mulvaney, and Brown 2020); those parts of the world that have used far too much dirty energy can get cleaner, even if they, too, might end up using more energy per capita than they did in the fossil fuel era, and might also cause us to set aside other, equally important environmental projects (Buck 2019). Solar energy might give further speed to the Great Acceleration instead of slowing it down. Once we have access to free energy, the size of economies might balloon, rather than retract and retreat (as is typically imagined), with all the consequences that come with using up the planet’s resources.

3.      Solarity; or, Development

In the promise of solar also lies its major danger. A solar transition was first imagined as a technological problem, and is now nearly universally framed as an economic one (as of 2018 it is the cheapest source of new power everywhere in the world, except Japan).3 There is little else to be done with respect to climate change and the energies that power the globe, it would seem, than to continue to push fuel out of the picture and to adopt solar power as a universal condition of the globe. This century might have begun as the previous century did: powered by fossil fuels. The promise is that it will end very differently: it will be animated directly by the power of the sun, thus displacing dirty fuels that leave their toxic traces.

            Plus ça change. Varun Sivaram ends his book on solar power, Taming the Sun, by writing “for humanity to finally tame the sun, solar technology and the solar industry must become even more unrecognizable in the decades to come” (2018: 274). Technology? The industry!? The meekness of Sivaram’s call for change is but one example of many in relation to energy transition. The shift from fossil fuels to solar, from energy as fuels to energy as energy, is thought to require no change or shift other than what powers our extant systems (political, social, economic, and infrastructural). Indeed, it is imagined (indeed, hoped) that everything else can be left largely as it is at the present time. The economy would remain capitalist in practice and in its principles (which is to say, organized around growth, profit, and property); it would be managed by the governmental and technocratic apparatus of late liberalism, along with all its exclusions, divisions, and separations of groups and individuals; and legal, carceral, and military mechanisms would continue to dispel challenges to the privilege of the rich and powerful under the sign of “progress,” “reason,” or the good of the common (one now outfitted with ecologically acceptable electric police cars and military vehicles). While the whole system might remain unequal and unjust, it would at least be powered by a clean energy source—if, that is, as Sivaram tells us, solar technology and the solar industry can change enough to make that happen.

            Solarity, as I define it, is “a state, condition or quality developed in relation to the sun, or to energy derived from the sun.” From one perspective, this definition suggests that every condition of the human and non-human constitutes a condition of solarity, since all our energy ultimately originates from the sun. But this is the wrong way to understand what I want to imply here. It is the development of a condition on which the focus should be placed: the active, participatory, and conscious creation of a relation to the solar. This work of development—what we might as well name the politics of the solar—needs to attend to the largely unconscious relation that the human has had to energy over the course of modernity (Illich 1974; Illich 2001). To date, there has been little recognition of the role that energy has played in shaping the form and character of the modern, and in the deepest way possible. The field of energy humanities has done enormous work in exploring the core social import of fossil fuels (Szeman and Boyer 2017). The creation of solarity depends on the continuation and expansion of the critical work of uncovering energy’s unconscious operations, of making sense of the directions in which individuals and societies have been pushed and pulled by the infrastructures and social structures built up over centuries—and by those emergent structures now coming into view.

Jean-Claude Debeir, Jean-Paul Deléage, and Daniel Hémery argue in In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilization Through the Ages that “while there is no energy determinism there is a powerful energy determination at work in all societies […] the energy determination is itself determined: it is the result of the interplay of economic, demographic, psychological, intellectual, social and political parameters operating in the various human societies” (1991: 13). This energy determination has shaped us into fossil fuel creatures occupying the spaces and moving along the paths and ruts cut into the world (human, non-human) by the practices and principles enabled by this fuel. ContraSivaram, shifts in technology and industry alone aren’t likely to reorganize this energy determination; and they certainly aren’t likely to do so in a manner that attends to the inequalities and injustices of the fossil fuel era. Put another way: it’s not fuel that’s the problem of our moment (socially, politically, or environmentally), but the multiple sites of its innumerable determinations; sidestepping the materiality of fuel via the energy of solar does little to unnerve or refigure these determinations, especially if we prefer to remain unconscious about them.

            And so, development. Debeir, Deléage, and Hémery tell us that a genuine energy transition would also require “a radical change in the key economic choices which shape civilization over long periods. What is required is a decisive broadening of political and social democracy, a profound change in individual behavior and educational systems” (Ibid.: 237). Solarity means to undertake the task of development in relation to the sun, to the promise of clean, infinite energy and to the reality of it not being entirely clean. Solarity takes up and takes on the radical transformation of economic choices and of collective and individual behavior that must compliment energy transition. Another word for solarity might be the common, which Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval have recently characterized as “a political principle through which we are able to build the commons, maintain the commons, and sustain the commons. It is, as such, a political principle that defines a new system of struggles on a global scale” (2019: 28). What distinguishes solarity from such articulations of political change is the inclusion of and attention to energy of the sun, in a double sense. As important as the solar energy we want to introduce into our social and individual practices, behaviors, and infrastructures is recognition of the formative role of those other energies of the sun—fossil fuels—around which subjectivity and power have been shaped. Solarity is a form of solidarity that always already attends to the non-human and the earth, to the lightness of limits and the depth of responsibility that comes when we tarry with the infinite.

            The process of developing a relation to the sun and its energy will involve missteps as much as steps forward. To make it work at all, we need the ideas and insights of a collective that is willing to share its knowledge and be alert to the fact that they can get things terribly wrong, too. The advent of solar energy has been treated as a wondrous silver bullet, bringing about a resolution (in one step) to social injustice and environmental trauma: soon enough (or so we are told) we will all have ample energy and the powers that come with it and it will be clean! If only it were so simple. There are innumerable desires wrapped up in our understanding of the sun and its energies. These extend from hopes that we might adopt different ways of being in relation to one another—ethics and politics announced and described, often in the (ultimately limited) language of imperatives to do something differently—to fantasies of powering extractivist capitalism on the cheap. Solarity should be, has to be, the space in which ethics and politics are enacted today. It is a structure of desire in which energy, climate, and attachments to infrastructure converge in a contested space of imagined transition.4 The problems and opportunities that might develop as result of the advent of a solar world, are ones that need to be mapped, clearly and carefully. This is work still to be done.

End Notes

  1. A longer version of this essay is forthcoming in Stasis 9.1 (2020). See  http://stasisjournal.net/index.php/journal

2.       For an expanded account of the information included in this section, see data provided by International Energy Association and the US Energy Information Agency, and the United Nations Energy Programme.
The specific data included in this section is less important than the widely agreed upon infrastructural demands that will need to accompany a transition to renewable energy. 
3.       See Bloomberg NEF’s “New Energy Outlook Report” (2019).  The executive summary of this report can be accessed at https://about.bnef.com/new-energy-outlook/#toc-download.
4.       On the necessity of a truly revolutionary infrastructure, see Boyer (2018).

Works Cited

Bloomberg NEF (2019). “New Energy Outlook Report.” https://about.bnef.com/new-energy-outlook/#toc-download.  
Brennan, Shane (2017). “Visionary Infrastructure: Community Solar Streetlights in Highland Park.” Journal of Visual Culture 16.2: 167–89.
Boyer, Dominic (2018). “Revolutionary Infrastructure.” In The Promise of Infrastructure, ed. Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel, 174–86. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Buck, Holly Jean (2019). After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration. London: Verso.
Cross, Jamie, Dustin Mulvaney, and Benjamin Brown (2020). Capitalizing on the Sun: Critical Perspectives on the Global Solar Economy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Dardot, Pierre, and Christian Laval (2019). Common: On Revolution in the 21st Century. trans. Matthew Maclellan. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Debeir, Jean-Claude, Jean-Paul Deléage, and Daniel Hémery (1991). In the Servitude of Power: Energy and Civilization Through the Ages. Trans. John Barzman. London:Zed Books.
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Pinkus, Karen (2016). Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.          
Sivaram, Varun (2018). Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Szeman, Imre, and Dominic Boyer, eds. (2017). Energy Humanities: An Anthology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.