12 Min Read
December 8, 2022
With thanks to Gretchen Bakke and Rhys Williams
In June 2021, the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (OEERE), a division of the United States’ Department of Energy, announced a project investigating the practical potential of the concept of “energysheds.” The project aims to examine “how locally generated renewable energy sources can offer communities energy independence, security, and resilience.”
Quoting an early treatment of the concept by John C. Evarts, the OEERE defines an energyshed as an “area in which all power consumed within it is supplied within it.” Similar to a watershed, an energyshed names the proximate geography from which a resource is drawn and to which its associated wastes return. Thus, the idea of an energyshed contrasts with the reality of most modern power systems which, whether they are fuelled by renewables or non-renewables, supply electricity from sources located at considerable distances from the point of consumption, and cast their wastes (e.g., emissions) across distant places and planetary scales. The question the OEERE is exploring is whether organizing power systems regionally on the energyshed model might increase citizen awareness and capacity surrounding energy provision and use, and redistribute political control and responsibility for energy systems and their effects in a democratic direction.
These are good questions. As Imre Szeman observes, referring here to oil and gas pipelines, the infrastructures that transport fuel and electricity to global and national markets “obliterate the spaces and environments that exist between oil source and its end users. They cut straight lines across landscapes, indifferent to the specifics of geography.” According to Szeman, these infrastructures “generate indifference not only of a spatial kind, but also of an ethical or political one: extraction zones and networks of transport have little impact on the majority of those who use fossil fuels, for whom the stuff of energy appears, as if by magic, in their furnaces or at gas stations.” The national and global scales at which energy systems currently operate do not map well onto the regional and local scales at which their effects are most keenly, and unevenly, felt, and opportunities for democratic political engagement at these levels are largely symbolic. And so, Szeman asks, “Might region allow us to understand anew the connections of space, belonging, and environment needed to take on the political challenges of our era?”
This is the prospect to which the idea of energysheds seems to point. The most recent literature on energysheds explicitly positions the idea at the intersection of environmental sustainability and energy democracy. In contrast to definitions that limit the concept to power plants and transmission infrastructure serving a bounded region, Thomas and Erickson define an energyshed as “the geographic area that contains the land, infrastructure, people, profits, and environmental impacts connected to final energy consumption.” Understood in this way, the concept of energysheds opens space in discussion, planning, and implementation of energy system transitions for issues and forms of engagement largely absent from energy transition strategies conceived and operationalized at other scales. As these authors observe, “incumbent energy systems [are] relatively unresponsive to the preferences and priorities of local governments and communities. The principles of energy democracy and the extent to which they are embraced or excluded in energy system decarbonization efforts are therefore a crucial component of energyshed-based assessments.”
As an organizing concept, the energyshed (like its more pragmatic cousin, the Positive Energy District) also has potential to orient energy transition discussions and projects away from narrowly conceived goals of power optimization and towards more ecologically responsible relationships with energy and the effects of its procurement. As Evarts writes in his early account, “The purpose of an energyshed is to provide the functions and structure to harvest and dissipate energy to support life, activity, and productivity throughout the energyshed without polluting the environment above its capacity to assimilate those pollutants.” For Evarts, the energyshed is the “fundamental land unit of energy,” a unit that contains multiple constituents and relations, which the unit is inherently inclined to sustain, even as local or regional energysheds nest into sheds at larger scales. Evarts describes this as the land-energy and water nexus: “The conditions for securing the land-energy, and water, nexus are: understand the linkages between land, water, and energy supply; small-scale level site-specific solutions are best, especially for biomass energy; plan at the landscape level; promote natural solutions; deliver appropriate levels of connectivity, and consider mini-grids; engage local people, promote ownership, protect rights, and be inclusive; and, achieve land degradation neutrality.” According to Evarts, the energyshed has the potential to fill a practical role as well, a role with specifically political attributes: “its function, and organization will increase local capacity for energy governance, planning, and citizen participation.”
As an organizing concept, the energyshed...has potential to orient energy transition discussions and projects away from narrowly conceived goals of power optimization and towards more ecologically responsible relationships with energy and the effects of its procurement.
Szeman calls for critical attention to region as a site of citizenship under conditions of ecological distress and energy transition. He writes: “Against the abstraction of the nation-state and other political boundaries, regions demand that we be alert to the innumerable ecologies that constitute the lives of individuals and their communities…The necessary multiplicity of ecologies, each environment linked in an essential way to the organisms that dwell there (people, animals, plants, fuel, minerals, non-humans, forces, processes) asks that we undo the abstract mechanisms of power, which pay little attention to the planet’s ecologies.” Instead, we require regional and practical modes of energy governance that are “deeply attuned to the realities of the shifting ideas and realities of being there.”
Could the energyshed be the unit according to which energy infrastructure, politics, and governance are reconstituted on a regional, democratic, and environmentally just basis? Might it name not only the fundamental land unit of energy but also the fundamental material unit of radically reconfigured post-capitalist, decolonial, and ecological polities? The prospect is appealing, but also reminds us of a defining characteristic of the fossil-fuel era: most cities draw their energy from sources located at great distances from the point of consumption, and disperse their energy wastes atmospherically. The availability of fossil fuels as highly potent, portable stocks of energy has supported a condition whereby modes of life, particularly in large urban settings, need not be constrained by the limited affordances of a city’s regional energy supply, or the capacity to absorb wastes locally. In effect, for most contemporary cities, the energyshed is planetary.
It seems unlikely that conversion to regionally available sources of renewable energy could ever supply the equivalent to fossil fuels procured at a distance. Transition to an energyshed-based system would require not just reorienting supply to regional sources of renewable energy and to regional capacity to absorb waste, but also revising demand in light of the limitations of those sources and capacities. Social and economic practices, modes of living, and myriad relationships between humans and non-humans would need to be adjusted to the affordances and limits of energysheds that are organized to exclude the energy-deepening influence of fossil fuels. Or, would the boundaries of energysheds be drawn in relation to practices, needs, and relationships that are considered fixed and non-negotiable? Which practices, needs, and relationships would those be, and how would this be determined? It is here that the political character of energysheds emerges. Energysheds will be made, not found; the category is political, not merely technical or geographical. This is not only because changing habits and relationships is hard and people are resistant, but because the distribution of ease and difficulty, advantage and disadvantage, power and powerlessness, both within and between newly constituting energysheds would surely be a matter of justice and injustice, and therefore, struggle.
This essay was originally published by the Grierson Research Group. Read the original here.
Darin Barney is the Grierson Chair in Communication Studies at McGill University. He is the co-editor (with Ayesha Vemuri) of the After Oil Collective’s Solarities: Seeking Energy Justice (Minnesota, 2022).
 Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “Energysheds: Investigating Community Power Supply and Consumption through a Geographical Lens” (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy, 30 June 2021). Online at www.energy.gov/eere/articles/energysheds-investigating-community-power-supply-and-consumption-through-geographical.
 See John C. Evarts, “Energyshed Framework: Defining and Designing the Fundamental Land Unit Of Renewable Energy” Master’s Thesis, Dept. of Environmental Studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada (April 2016).
 Imre Szeman, “On the Politics of Region,” e-flux Architecture (May 2018). Online at www.e-flux.com/architecture/dimensions-of-citizenship/178284/on-the-politics-of-region/.
 Austin Thomas and Jon D. Erickson, “Rethinking the geography of energy transitions: low carbon energy pathways through energyshed design,” Energy Research & Social Science 74 (2021) 101941.
 Ibid, 1. Compare to DeRolph et al: “An energyshed is the network of power plants and transmission.
infrastructure required to supply electricity to a given point or zone of consumption (for example, neighbourhoods, cities and states) on the electricity grid.” Christopher DeRolph et al, “City energysheds and renewable energy in the
United States,” Nature Sustainability 2 (May 2019) 412–420.
 Thomas and Erickson, 1.
 See Siddharth Sareen, et al., “Ten questions concerning positive energy districts,” Building and Environment,
Vol. 216 (2022); and Erkinai Derkenbaeva, et al., “Positive energy districts: Mainstreaming energy transition in urban areas,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Vol. 153 (2022).
 Evarts, 18.
 Ibid, 11.
 Ibid, 12.
 Szeman, “On the Politics of Region.”