SEI News: Meet 2017 Honours Research Fellow Andrew Brodzeli

Andrew’s research will investigate the feasibility and desirability of a consolidated ‘Smartgrid’ for Australia.

We are happy to welcome Andrew Brodzeli to the Sydney Environment Institute family.

Andrew is one of three students to be awarded an Honours Fellowship at the SEI  in 2017. He is undertaking Honours in the Department of Political Economy. Take a moment to get to know Andrew.

What are you researching for Honours?

I’m investigating the feasibility and desirability of a consolidated ‘Smartgrid’ for Australia. A Smartgrid is a decentralised energy generation infrastructure, which connects distributed household solar panel and energy storage units into a larger network. This enables households to produce energy, communicate with one another, and then sell it on when in surplus, or to purchase it when in scarcity. Whether Smartgrids at the local community level can be scaled up to regional or even state-wide scopes will be a central question in my investigation. Moreover, whether the political and economic factors specific to NSW and Australia will facilitate such a decentralised energy infrastructure, rather than merely transitioning from a highly-centralised fossil-fuel energy industry to a highly-centralised renewable industry, also remains to be seen.

What are the key environmental issues your research aims to address?

I am motivated to study this policy proposal because I believe that it harbours potential to be positively transformative for the shape of the Australian political economy, while concretely addressing the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions; our reliance on fossil fuels. Specifically, I am interested in the capacity for the materiality of solar energy, vis-à-vis capital-intensive fossil fuels, to facilitate an era of ecological democracy by vesting communities and households with greater control over the means of energy production. I see environmental issues as always being mediated through social outcomes, and so I believe that issues of access to energy themselves constitute a problem for ‘ecological justice’.

How did you come to this topic?

Technological innovations in photovoltaics and energy storage have, in the past decade, caused solar power to surpass the energy-returned-on-capital-invested of ‘dirty’ fossil fuels. Thus, in many ways, technical feasibility for a ‘solar revolution’ has already been reached.

However, the government, in both its state (NSW) and federal formations, remains deeply ambivalent about its commitment to overseeing such a far-reaching transformation to its energy infrastructure. Instead, it has tended to pledge an allegiance to the extractive industry sector at its federal level, and to the financial capital sector at its state level – the former admonishing Westpac for failing to provide finance for the Adani coal mega-mine, while the latter has most recently deregulated its energy grid network to mostly international financial actors, in the process servicing debts those state-owned utilities had accumulated.

Despite the reluctance of the state to support the industry, capital investors and actors from the extractive industry have begun to move to capture the market on household solar. And yet, a rapid transition toward renewable energy production demands the government’s involvement; without it, community-based renewables projects are doomed to remain just that – local, small-scale, disconnected.

Thus, I am concerned to investigate the contours of this market capture, and what its consequences will be on the prospects for an ecologically democratic political economy in Australia. Further, by investigating the horizontal and vertical integration of extractive industry, financial capital, and the NSW and Federal state governments, I hope to gain a greater understanding of the scope for democratically-owned solar energy to be supported by the government. This will also shed light on the multiscalar interactions of Smartgrids existing at local levels and region-wide planning regimes, prefiguring a pathway to a more large-scale transformation.

Apart from research, what are your other passions and interests

Apart from researching within political economy, I have a keen passion for contemporary philosophy, and read widely across critical theory and am particularly interested in the field of New Materialisms and Speculative Realism. I love independent cinema, and host a semi-regular local documentary screening program, ‘Cinema Politica Sydney’. I am also the vice president of the Political Economy society, a venerable student-run departmental organisation which seeks to maintain the uniquely cordial relationship between the department and its students. Additionally, to try and maintain a balanced mind throughout the stresses of honours, I play tennis and swim, and grow a vegetable garden in my share-house.

What about SEI made you interested in an Honours Fellowship with us?

The SEI is unique insofar as it brings together a wide variety of interdisciplinary researchers under the umbrella of environmental-social relations. I believe that a concerted effort to tackle the biggest challenges of political-economic organising in the ‘Anthropocene’ will require deep interdisciplinary collaboration, not least to better integrate the findings of climate science with adequate political responses. For this reason, I was excited to be a part of its team – to learn from the ways in which such interdisciplinary research is done, and to play a small role in contributing to its research output.

I am also very interested in bridging the divide between the academic world and the input and criticisms of the public, so I was motivated to participate in many of the SEI’s public forums, symposiums, and publishing for its blog. Finally, the SEI offers a research bursary, which I plan to use in travelling to carry empirical research that my thesis will involve, and to attend conferences to learn about the current state-of-the-art Smartgrid technology.

Andrew Brodzeli is an Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. He is undertaking Honours at the University of Sydney, in the Department of Political Economy. Andrew is currently researching the interdependencies of populist political movements and fossil fuel interests in liberal democracies.