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Electric Stories: Contributions to the history of electricity in Sweden
Linköping University, The Tema Institute, Technology and Social Change. Linköping University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
2011 (English)Book (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

In this e-book I have collected some papers written for and presented at conferences and seminars during the latter years. Together with Working Papers published at the Department of Thematic Studies–Technology and social change, Linköping University, they were all part of a larger scheme of writing a history of the Swedish electricity system circa 1880–2010. That project sought to fulfil three aims: A discussion around Hughes’ theory of “system” and “momentum”; A critical focus on deregulation; A critical study of the role of electricity in the conversion of the Swedish energy system towards “sustainability”. As that book was intended to be written in Swedish, and papers have been written in English, it seems as a good idea to collect the English papers in one volume. So, the following texts can be seen as a draft of a book yet unwritten, but they are too disparate to be completely integrated. Therefore, papers are still individual papers in this volume.

The first two papers deals with the long-term development of Swedish electricity production and the advantages and short-comings of Hughes’ theory on sociotechnical systems: Did the electricity system become an unstoppable and growing force in society? Well, yes, but it met resistance. The following two focuses on deregulation: What happened when expectations of homo economicus hit real consumers? And: Can theory become reality? In short, my answer is that institutions changed, but people did not, at least not very much. The last one focus on total energy use and the role of electricity in that: Are improvements in energy efficiency useless? No, energy use has stagnated since the 1970s. After the papers I have added some afterthoughts.

The main points of the first paper is that I present the many different meanings Thomas Hughes put into the concept of “momentum”. Here I suggest that one of these is the most promising, but also that optimization through the pooling of power resources is based on fundamental characteristics of power production which I call “coping with variations”. Another aspect on investments in electric power facilities, especially during the early period, was the heavy prime costs for the network, which explains why cables were laid out first in densely populated areas. I try to explain why these distribution costs fell dramatically from the 1920s to the 1950s. This has implications for the diffusion of the use of electricity outside big consumers like large industries, but also for pricing and purposes of pricing.

The second paper is quite close to the momentum-discussion of the first paper, but here I suggest a distinction between “system growth” on one hand and “capacity growth” on the other. The basic idea is simple: The former refers to extensions of the electricity network from local to regional to national and international levels, the latter refers to the growth in size and capacity of power stations. While the network has continued to grow through interconnections without interruption, capacity growth met resistance from the environmental movement, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. This calls for a change in Hughes’ idea of momentum as a purely internal mechanism leaving the relation to the political environment aside.

The third and fourth papers discusses deregulation of the electricity industry in Sweden. The third has a focus on households as customers, and their propensity to act as the homo economicus expected of them. This analysis is done in terms of transaction costs. The result is, of course, a contrast to the abstract consumer in the liberal economic and neoclassical vision. There are always transaction costs, this is no surprise really, but it is still necessary to point at this fact as liberal and neoclassical economics has no room for such costs. However, I also point at the possibility of householders adapting to homo economicus. As this abstraction is necessary for the alleged self-regulating mechanisms of the perfect market, learning to act on the deregulated market opens for the neoclassical market to be realized despite its unrealistic character.

The fourth paper takes this idea further. In discussion with the concept of “performativity” I point at facts supporting the notion of implementation of neoclassical ideas into the real market. There was close interaction between the practice of pricing electricity within the industry and academic economist’s ideas of pricing principles. However, interactions does not necessarily lead to complete integration, there seem to be a fundamental difference between a preference for stable prices among “engineer-economists” and the preference for fluctuating prices in the short term among academic economists.

The last paper is focused on the problems of energy efficiency. Improving efficiency is often mentioned in policy documents and research reports as one of the most important areas of action to solve environmental problems of today. Let me remind the reader here that I do not reduce environmental problems to the problem of global warming as “sustainable” energy sources also have negative environmental effects, albeit of a milder kind. In this paper I point at the role of all those energy-converting gadgets that we use daily, at least in the Western world, such as cars, dwellings and lamps. This study has its origin in my project on efficient lighting and the phase-out of the incandescent light bulb. The phase-out solves the problem of lock-in to a preferred and low-cost technology, and directs the change of the lighting stock to low-wattage alternatives. The paper is an effort in generalization to cars and heating of dwellings of this focus on a changing stock. The reason for doing so is that data on energy intensity falls in many countries from the 1970s onwards, at a time when environmental problems became prominent in policies.

After the fifth paper follows a few afterthoughts brought to mind when papers were put together: On the character of sociotechnical system; On the role of the environmental movement and policies; And on the alleged importance of householders’ “behaviour” when improvements in energy efficiency is discussed.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press , 2011. , 100 p.
Keyword [en]
Electrical power production
Keyword [sv]
National Category
Social Sciences
URN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-70080ISBN: 978-91-7393-078-9OAI: diva2:435314
Available from: 2011-08-18 Created: 2011-08-18 Last updated: 2015-01-08Bibliographically approved

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