Renewing power : Including global asymmetries within the system boundaries of solar photovoltaic technology

Abstract: Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is one of the most favored means of mitigating climate change. At the same time, there is a growing concern over how this technology is both environmentally harmful and unevenly distributed in the world economy. Researchers and environmentalists differ on whether a global relation of power is inherent in solar technology. This thesis investigates to what extent the global, social and material conditions of solar PV technology contrast with conventional conceptions of it. Building on insights from ecological economics and the philosophy of technology, it offers an interdisciplinary approach to solar PV technology. Its central question is whether ‘ecologically unequal exchange’ is a necessary condition for large-scale solar PV development. The theory of ecologically unequal exchange explains how wealthier nations rely on net imports of resources to sustain their levels of consumption and technological development, while displacing much of their work and environmental loads to poorer nations. This theory is tested in an LCA-based account of ecologically unequal exchange between Germany and China during the emergence of the global solar PV market (2002-2018). It is also tested through an application of the concept of ‘power density’ to four leading solar nation’s PV ambitions (China, Germany, India, Italy). The findings demonstrate how large-scale development of solar PV technology may require global asymmetries as much as polysilicon, electrical components, engineers, or direct sunshine. To the extent that decision-makers disregard this, it may be a symptom of ‘machine fetishism,’ which masks the global asymmetries of the emerging energy regime while also preventing us from grasping what modern technology ultimately is.