Drawing on recent research with NGO-driven projects in rural Cajamarca, Peru, we examine the paradoxes of relying on wind, solar and micro-hydro generation of electricity for rural community development. In spite of cost, vagaries of these energy resources and limited material benefits, especially with wind and solar systems, villagers are eagerly invested in these projects. While still desiring the power of grid electricity, local electricity is valued for how it illuminates shops and dwellings, extends the workday for children's studies and women, and powers TV/DVD players and cell phones connecting households with the wider world. Electrification with small-scale renewable technologies blurs the urban/rural binary, tied as it is symbolically with 'progress', modern consumption styles and the trappings of urban life, even as these technologies paradoxically reinforce rural autonomy with electricity that is locally produced, with local resources.
Keywords: rural electrification; renewable energy; Peru; solar energy; wind energy
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. …