Energy insights atop Mount Diablo, California

Student Mike Westrom finds new perspectives in the Bay Area of California:

Mike enjoys the view at Mount Diabolo

After finishing my MSc in Energy & Society Programme at Durham, I decided to stop by the Bay Area of California to visit some family before returning to my hometown in Chicago. We drove up to the top of Mount Diablo to take in its breathtaking views. I saw something on the top of that mountain that I wouldn’t have seen a year before. The surrounding energy infrastructure, usually hidden away and unnoticed, was—for me—in the foreground of this stunning view. My camera lens was not wide enough, nor am I a skilled enough photographer, to capture all three sites in one picture, so I’ve included two. In the first, you see the remains of a mineral extraction site.

a mineral extraction site in the Bay Area of California

This sits to the left of a gas power plant on the water (in the second photo), which sits directly across a huge wind farm that appears to be on an island or peninsula. Wow. Can you imagine a better combination of structures that would annoy liberals and conservatives, alike? While the lefties shake their head at the skeletons of our resource and fossil fuel intensive lifestyles, those to the right scuff at those noisy, ugly, money sucking wind turbines. All this disappointment in one view! Aside from these emotionally charged interpretations of which types of infrastructures destroy the landscape, lead to economic development, and resemble American values and which don’t, some very important questions arise from this vantage point. For me, these questions are about control, something way beyond what I can see on top of Mount Diablo.

a gas power plant is dwarfed by the turbine array seen from Mount Diablo

However, we can use this holistic view to start to formulate the sort of questions we need to ask when thinking about how energy arrangements reflect and engender different forms of control. The Park Ranger told me that back in the day, people used the vantage point on Mount Diablo to survey that area of California. Today, standing on that same mountain, connections become a bit clearer when you zoom out of neighborhoods, expressways, and wind farms and follow the electric wires that link these places, organizations, policies, resources, and ideas together. Studying this kind of stuff at Durham for the past year gives me a starting point, at least. For instance, let’s stop using the word, ‘they’. ‘They put up those wind turbines, they use gas to power that plant, and they closed the extraction site awhile back’… In each case, ‘they’ are very different collections of people, at different levels, with very different interests. We should start out, instead, by asking ‘who?’. Who owns these different sites and under what arrangements? Do organizations lease land, from whom, and what does that empower owners and government organizations to do? Why were these particular sites selected? Why, on the outskirts of one of the most expensive areas in the US, is there a wind farm? From this view, I wonder how these infrastructures are connected, if at all? Most importantly, I learned from my MSc program that answering these questions is not an easy task and takes a lot of time and digging. At the very least, I’ve learned to see energy infrastructures not as merely technical pursuits or symbols for political values, but mechanisms of political control that enable different people to exert different forms of influence tied to sources of energy provision.

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