What is it like to get electricity for the first time? With humanity at the peak of almost two-centuries of rapidly increasing dependence on fossil fuels to power civilization, this seems like an odd question. How easy it is for us in the industrialized nations to forget the large swaths of people, mostly poor, mostly rural, who remain energy poor (Sanchez, 2010). The one-time gift of cheap fossil energy has fueled the wonders of our modern world: getting humans to the moon, transforming night into day and enabling historically unprecedented mobility. Characterized by a kaleidoscopic, intersecting maze of spaces and 'scapes' (Appadurai, 1990), the fractured complexity of the globalizing world grips the imaginations and challenges the traditional cultures of the two-thirds of humanity in the 'developing' world. High-energy globalism, with its unequal terms of trade, is continually relegating the peasant and remnant tribal world to relative material and symbolic backwardness, even as it fosters whole cultures of desire for movement and 'progress'.
Electricity symbolizes this globalizing culture, and is particularly associated with urban ways of living and cultural forms. Centrally marked by its lack of electricity,1 rurality as a result is widely associated with poverty and isolation. Rural electrification upsets and blurs this urban/rural dichotomy (already a simplistic and problematic trope (cf. Nugent, 1996) because it: (1) facilitates rural economic options, counteracting poverty and thus quelling the lure of urban migration; and (2) allows for various forms of communication, urban consumption styles and connectivity, counteracting isolation. Such new economic options and enhanced connectivity strengthen ties to globalization forces, raising a tangle of new and unexamined issues and tradeoffs regarding cultural autonomy and change.
While grid and locally generated electricity in rural areas might seem to have similar social and cultural effects, under the assumption that electricity is always just electricity, technology is never neutral. Here we draw on ethnographic and survey research from 2008-2011 with members of four off-grid communities in Cajamarca, Peru, to examine how electrification with small-scale renewable technologies intersected local social fields and cultural understandings. In general, while rural electrification with small-scale renewable energy technologies has provided meaningful benefits for villagers' daily living patterns (e.g., lighting, communication and entertainment), it has not yet altered longstanding livelihood strategies nor basic social, cultural, political or economic relationships in the region. While villagers value decentralized, renewable energy because of these benefits and its strong connection with local natural resources, local production of electricity and off-the-grid autonomy, they continue to aspire for the material and symbolic benefits of 24/7 grid-quality electricity.
Within that general frame, however, specific alternative energy technologies (solar, wind and micro-hydro) offer villagers different opportunities and constraints, due to differences in the quantities and qualities of electrical energy these technologies produce and their particular intersections with economic, social, political and cultural circuits. It is these local complexities, connections and tradeoffs which we examine in this paper.
Peru has enormous energy resources: world-class solar incidence (especially in the desert southwest), wind (moderate by world standards, but good on the north and south-central coasts and at high elevations), substantial hydro potential (especially on the east slope and threatened by climate change, though there are no glaciers in the study region), oil (though Peru has likely already peaked) and natural gas (deposits of which are still in the early stages of being brought to the world market). The associated energo-politics are complex and dynamic, and there has been a dramatic quickening in the last decade or so in assessing and developing these resources and in extending the national grid (Ministerio de Energía y Minas, 2010). …