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Nouvelles énergies pour la ville du futur

Eva Boxenbaum
Brice Laurent
Annalivia Lacoste

Partie II - Réorganiser la production et la distribution d’énergie ?

The Garabi energy plant’s (im)material structuring of international energy markets

Jessica Crivelli

Note de l’éditeur

Jessica Crivelli is a political scientist at the University of Zurich from where she also holds a PhD on the governance of transnational energy systems. In this text, she discusses the Garabi energy plant project at the border between Argentina and Brazil, focusing on the fluidity of the practices of international collaboration relating to energy issues. She describes transnational energy markets as outcomes of processes that engage sociotechnical re-compositions.

Texte intégral

Energy transitions as competition or cooperation?

1With the acceleration of societal and technological developments, the general interest in energy policy has gained renewed power: public media, academia and public institutions are constantly engaged in raising awareness that the current ‘globalized’ lifestyle is not sustainable and that some form of energy transition is either ongoing or needed. From the vantage point of political science, the discussion is mainly framed in terms of two predominant academic discourses that emphasize either the competition over natural energy resources between states or cooperation, that is, their intention to establish some form of new international governance that will allow for a better management of these natural resources. In both types of discussions, the development of further renewable energy resources is frequently evoked as a key factor for a successful transition.

2Binational initiatives are believed to play a significant role on the international arena for energy transition. A key question is whether two or more countries should be joining forces on technical expertise, knowledge, and financing in order to more rapidly achieve a larger renewable share in their energy matrix, or whether this a strategy that in the end only exacerbates the sovereignty of the national state leaving it more vulnerable to external threats. Put differently: should the state preserve its authority over national resources or join binational governance initiatives to protect itself against the risk of a future bottleneck of energy supply? Whether the competition or the cooperation perspective informs the answers to these questions, they both imply a set of assumptions that are not at all innocent. Most importantly, assuming a game of competition or cooperation over energy resources among states is only possible if one assumes a clear divide between the individual state units, i.e. between what is national and what is international. However, to implicitly assume such a divide without prior examination of the issue at hand is misleading.

  • 17 Smil, V. (2010), Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects. Santa Barbara (California), (...)

3To illustrate some of the implicit dynamics at play, I draw on my case study of the Garabi hydroelectric power plant, which is an initiative of cooperation between Argentina and Brazil (but it could be situated anywhere in the fast changing energy landscape of Europe, too). This project represents one of the many instances of energy transition that Vaclav Smil describes in his account of energy transitions taking place every day over several decades17. The binational plant is not yet producing power, let alone built, but it is nevertheless alive and kicking. A vast array of project teams, documents, utilities and sites are interacting in an attempt to successfully discuss and ultimately plan the project of building and operating this power plant. This planning phase testifies to the complexities involved in the overall world system when a change in one point of the electricity network (i.e. a new plant to be integrated) is sketched out.

The complex interactions at play

4Linear, functionalist perspectives on how to relate existing and future energy resources to future energy policy still dominate the discussion of energy in the field of politics, economics and engineering. However, there is a growing awareness of the need for a more encompassing and above all multidisciplinary approach to contemporary energy issues. So far, only little research has been dedicated to develop knowledge on how different areas are interconnected and dependent on each other, for example planning, financing and operating energy infrastructure, the management of technological innovation and renewable energy sources, the spurring of economic growth, energy security and integration. The Garabi case study illustrates that energy policy is characterized by a multitude of simultaneous and interconnected relationships between heterogeneous elements from different social, political and technical areas. From this vantage point, the current energy challenge does not so much reflect an unexpected transition (which includes new divides as e.g. old/new, from/to) as a re-composition of the energy market that simultaneously links together old and new elements from the technical, the social and the political realms. In a nutshell, the project that becomes ultimately realized is an emergent property of the interplay between all of the (specific) actors that converge around the utility at hand and not one that can be ascribed to well-known, that is, traditional, modalities of bureaucratic cooperation.

Negotiating and stabilizing new governance arrangements for energy

  • 18 Graham, S. (2010), “When infrastructure fails”, in S. Graham, ed., Disrupted Cities: When Infrastru (...)

5Starting the analysis at the material entry point of a new hydroelectric power utility in South America, a myriad of material contingencies becomes spontaneously visible. These material contingencies can enable or hinder certain project developments. The specialized literature on the built environment suggests that infrastructures can be regarded as “processes that have to be worked towards”18.

  • 19 MacKenzie, A. (2002), Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed, New York, Conti- nuum. p. 104, e (...)

6The type of utility as well as the type of service delivery is the result of a joint effort of actors who negotiate among themselves matters of wealth distribution, cost estimates, electoral calculations etc. In other words, a focus on materiality helps us to understand that technical artifacts, specifically large technical infrastructures, play a pivotal role in constructing, modulating, and stabilizing new collectives; to quote MacKenzie19: “They are mediators of history and time”. Thus, as the realms of energy and energy policy-making are currently being re-composed, a wide range of roles and relationships are in the process of being renegotiated. This negotiation takes place in a dynamic process of (non-linear) interaction among actors, during which different windows of opportunity for the planned technical infrastructure emerge according to which definitions of actors, identities, interests and discourses are momentarily fixed by the participants as part of a contested road to a potential mutual agreement. These deliberative definitions are continuously modulated by the material circumstances in which the energy project is embedded and they are eventually stabilized through the implementation of the plant.

How the meaning of the power plant changes over time

7To sum up, there is no such thing as an essential definition of a power utility. Instead this object needs to be exercised in a specific event or practice to become visible and meaningful. In this conception, thus, materializations and meanings (and thus also plans for a specific utility) need to be perpetually applied in order to persist. Without the effort to continuously sustain the selected meaning by e.g. keeping certain routines or commissioning maintenance work it, it will inevitably deteriorate. This fluidity of material infrastructure is relevant for the Garabi plant, which is staged and restaged as something different at different points in time by the involved actors (e.g. when inaugurated, during operation, or eventually in hindsight) and also by the future generations who will use it. The following interview extract illustrates how the meaning and significance of a utility morphs depending on the time and space where it is discussed.

8Conversation with the head of one of the regulatory departments in Brazil’s largest regulatory agency on June 24th, 2011. The interview extract focuses on the importance of the Garabi substation for the Argentine-Brazilian cooperation on the hydroelectric power plant.

I: ‘‘The history of Garabi was… It started… I guess it was in 1997 because of the necessity of Brazil to buy energy from Argentina. Brazil needed energy and Argentina had an overcapacity. Thus the Brazilian government promoted a call for tenders, an international bidding procedure for an individual entrepreneur to come handle the commercialization of this energy and as a function of the commercialization would be responsible for investing into the utility.”

Jessica: “But the plant I am talking about does not exist yet?”

I: “Oh, I see you’re talking about Garabi the power plant, on the frontier.”

Jessica: “Yes, the hydroelectric plant.”

I: “What I can talk about is about the existing Garabi, the converter station. The power plant also needed a study of course, which existed at the time already, I mean before we implemented Garabi the converter station. The complete study encompassed the generation station on the frontier of Brazil and Argentina, at the basis of this plant, and the convertor station. Because, I guess that Brazil and Venezuela work their system with 60Hz but the other countries with 50Hz. Thus there was the necessity for all the connections here to be converted. But the idea that I have, the one that I know is that both were planned: the implementation of the hydroelectric power plant and of the converter station. But only one was implemented at that point in time – Argentina had overcapacity and Brazil needed capacity and thus the tender was promoted in a way for the investor to be responsible for the implementation of the utilities.”

I: “Thus the problem I see [with international infrastructure planning] is this one: it’s the disposition of governments to fulfill the contracts that they agree to. Something that may happen. I consider that historically the contract was signed in a specific political period, of the whole region. And then we had a change in terms of government, the new decision-makers deemed that that specific contract shouldn’t have been signed.”

9We can discover several things in the extract quoted above. Most importantly, we can recognize that the fixation of meaning regarding the Garabi hydroelectric power plant has changed several times over the years. In a condensed way the interviewee expresses how the (hi)story of the converter station of Garabi is linked to the previously planned power plant of Garabi (first inventory studies where carried out in the 1970s, A.N.) and that a gas crisis in the end of the 1990s in Argentina led to the emergence of a different planning scenario between the two countries. Whereas the need had been earlier to standardize the frequency between Argentina and Brazil to allow for energy trading, the focus later shifted to allow energy trading altogether (during period of gas shortage) and at last to allow joint production of trading (during energy shortage in general).

10The shifts have emerged as a result of many interacting factors. One of these factors is the material proximity of the converter station to the location of the energy plant, which promoted friendly relations between Argentina and Brazil; some years before, it would not have been possible. It became possible in part because one of the parties to the trading agreement was prevented from discovering gas.

The impact of fluid conceptualizations of energy transitions

11What are the implications of this flexibility in meaning for the current debate on energy transition and the practice of international cooperation? First of all, it shows us that the planning of new energy infrastructures between two or more states is a dynamic and fragmentary issue: no matter how proficient the actors that participate in it, the planning of a large technical utility is inevitably characterized by significant degrees of uncertainty that cannot necessarily be improved by including more documents in advance. Often, challenges emerge on the spur of the moment and must be tackled on the go.

12Secondly, the changing meaning shows us how unfruitful it can be to frame the current energy debate around a transition from national to international demarcations. The question is one of a re-composition of both expected and unexpected actors across spatial and temporal divides rather than of an overall reformation. For example, while the cooperation at hand is still one between Argentina and Brazil, the leaders of both countries have changed over the years and so have (probably) parts of their staffs (while others have remained) as the interview extract shows. Thus, while we may still act on the assumption that these countries are involved in the cooperation, we must take a closer look at who represents them and how they do so at every singular moment in time. The same question holds true for other involved collectives from the public and private arena. This more open conceptualization of a re-composition (vs. a transition) invites us to look at the contingency of cooperation for every single case.

13Third, and last, the extract illustrates how technical infrastructures stabilize new social and political collectives. Although the power plant Garabi was not built during the period of study of the nineties, the converter station of Garabi laid an essential foundation for further political collaboration between Argentina and Brazil on energy. It was influential in getting the parties used to collaborate with one another and it may also have minimized some costs related to establishing a new connection between the two countries. Socially, the converter station linked up the everyday life of two (otherwise) distinct national populations, as it is frequently used for the exchange of energy between the two countries during the winter months. This exchange is possible because the two countries display complementarities in energy needs.

14In short, the analysis of utility planning processes on the basis of the interactions that take place around the materiality of the Garabi power plant is potentially more productive than relying on conventional approaches to international collaboration. This orientation stimulates the production of the creative and innovative solutions that are needed to constitute a sustainable energy market.


17 Smil, V. (2010), Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects. Santa Barbara (California), Praeger.

18 Graham, S. (2010), “When infrastructure fails”, in S. Graham, ed., Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails, London, Routledge, p. 9, emphasis original.

19 MacKenzie, A. (2002), Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed, New York, Conti- nuum. p. 104, emphasis added.

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