Speaker: Tyler HARLAN
Tyler Harlan, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Geography, University of California, Los Angeles
Co-sponsored by China Project, Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Environment in Asia Series, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies
Abstract: Since the 1950s, the Chinese government has used small hydropower (SHP) to drive rural electrification and local economic development in the remote, resource-rich west of the country. More recently, however, this same technology has been re-framed as a renewable energy that generates electricity for the national green economy. In this presentation I argue that SHP represents a broader transformation of rural western China into a ‘low-carbon frontier’, characterized by the rapid growth of renewable energy infrastructure far from urban centers. I show how the frontier is simultaneously constructed as a site of ecological degradation and of untapped low-carbon value, both discursively and materially through preferential state policies for renewable energy expansion. This, in turn, enables energy firms and local governments to extract new profits from natural resources that may have competing uses. Drawing on policy analysis and twelve months of interviews with government officials, hydropower investors, and farmers, I argue that SHP on the ‘low-carbon frontier’ privileges renewable energy generation over other local resource needs. At the same time, I show how local governments employ new SHP infrastructure for their own uses, such as powering nearby mining and mineral processing facilities. This presentation thus highlights the importance of examining subnational geographies of low-carbon transformation, and the ways that resources and technologies can be re-purposed for local and national development goals.