Engaging Science, Technology, & Society

Epistemic Turbulence in Renewable Energy Engineering on the Chinese “Belt and Road”

ZHUO CHEN
UNIVERSITY OF HELSINKI
FINLAND

BRYAN TILT
OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY
UNITED STATES

SHAOZENG ZHANG
OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY
UNITED STATES

Abstract

Energy issues constitute a nexus of technological, political and economic challenges, particularly in light of the global climate crisis. Chinese banks and corporations, guided by a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure investment program called the “Belt and Road Initiative,” now account for one-third of global investment in renewable energy. In this ethnographic study, we explore the professional knowledge and practices of Chinese, Israeli and European engineers working on a pumped-storage hydropower project in Israel with financial and technical backing from Chinese energy firms. We examine how these experts construct and maintain a set of epistemic cultural practices within transnational flows of capital, technology, materials and expertise. Situating our findings within Science and Technology Studies (STS), we use the hydrological engineering concept of “turbulence” as a metaphor for the rapid transnational movements of engineering concepts and personnel in the renewable energy sector.

Keywords

engineer; energy infrastructure; epistemic culture; standards; belt and road

Introduction

In a meeting room in central Tel Aviv during the summer of 2019, three Israeli and three Chinese engineers sat at a roundtable discussing a highway project to service a hydropower station that their companies were designing and constructing. A satellite map of the road was hanging on one wall. On another wall was a large whiteboard full of structural drawings, numbers and dates, some of which had been blotted out and rewritten in another font, indicating the intense discussion taking place regarding the project plan, cost and schedule. All of the engineers spoke English, though none of them spoke it as a native language. Communicating about technical subjects was one of many obstacles they commonly faced. One of the Israeli engineers, taking a sip of coffee, asked in a worried tone about how they would solve communication problems, particularly when they arose on the hydropower project’s busy and hectic construction site, located about an hour outside the city. “You know,” he said, “Not every engineer speaks English as well as we do. Remember the Tower of Babel?”

Before any of the Chinese engineers could respond, one of his Israeli colleagues turned to him and said, “How could they know about the Tower of Babel? They don’t read the Bible!” After a moment of confusion, one of the Chinese engineers, with a look of enlightenment crossing his face, said, “The Tower of Babel? We know the story in the Bible.” Then, turning to the whiteboard, he added, “Don’t worry, my friend. Keep in mind what we discussed over the last several hours: money is our common language!”

Energy issues constitute a nexus of crucial technological, political and economic challenges, particularly in light of the global climate crisis. In many Asian, African, and Latin American countries, a variety of renewable energy projects—including wind, solar, hydropower and marine energy—are under development to meet the rapid growth of energy demand without continuing to overburden the natural environment of our planet (International Energy Agency 2019). Building on a long tradition of social studies on energy, researchers have recently called for adopting an ethnographic approach to shed light on energy infrastructures that often remain invisible to energy consumers and under theorized by scholars (Smith and High 2017; Goodman 2018). Energy ethnography thus helps to contextualize the ontological positions and subjectivities of people connected through new kinds of infrastructures; in the process, it can help elucidate the relations between technology, society and environment.

In this context, understanding the knowledge and practices of engineers and other professionals working on energy infrastructure is a crucial step toward understanding humanity’s possible energy futures. Differences in language are a surface manifestation of deeper epistemological conflicts within the increasingly transnational renewable energy sector. Understanding the ways in which engineers implement professional standards and produce knowledge in an emerging industry within a novel geopolitical context may shed light on new energy futures, particularly in an era of climate crisis. Our ethnographic study explores the professional knowledge, practices and experiences of engineers working on a multinational energy production site—in this case, a pumped-storage hydropower (PSH) project in Israel constructed under the auspices of the country’s National Infrastructure Committee.

PSH, which we describe in detail below, is a rapidly growing industry that complements other forms of renewable energy such as solar and wind by storing energy and allowing it to be distributed during times of peak demand. To meet the need for increased system flexibility and stability aligned with wind and solar capacity expansion, PSH projects are forecast to experience the highest decadal growth in history (International Energy Agency 2021), accounting for almost 30% (65GW) of global hydropower capacity expansion during 2021–2030.

In this article, we don’t take a position on whether hydropower, or PSH in particular, should be considered renewable energy sources, which is a topic of some scholarly debate. Instead, in adopting an ethnographic approach, we aim to capture project engineers’ native perspectives, in this case, including their view of this emerging energy technology as renewable. This methodological approach is essential to gaining an understanding of engineering knowledge and practice within the context of this project and within the broader context of the global energy transition.

This particular project has major financial and technical backing from Chinese energy firms and is linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure investment program designed to export Chinese technology and expertise around the globe through a network of transportation, logistics and energy infrastructure, thereby presumably bringing countries more firmly into China’s sphere of geopolitical influence. While there is a rich literature on the BRI in terms of large-scale geopolitics, few ethnographic studies have analyzed how BRI institutions and personnel operate in specific local contexts (Sidaway et al. 2020). Scholars have pointed out that BRI is better understood as a bundle of intertwined policies and projects rather than a monolithic program, and that it must be examined empirically in specific places (Oliveira et al. 2020).

Sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina critically examined the processes of knowledge-making in two scientific fields, high-energy physics and molecular biology. In her analysis, “epistemic cultures” consist of “sets of practices, arrangements, and mechanisms bound together by necessity, affinity, and historical coincidence which, in a given area of professional expertise, make up how we know what we know” (1999, 363). In the present paper, we explore a series of questions about how renewable energy engineers from China, Israel and Europe construct and maintain a set of epistemic cultural practices, especially related to the implementation of professional standards, within transnational flows of capital, technology, materials and expertise. How do renewable energy engineers employ “objective” knowledge such as engineering standards and codes, while also drawing on their subjective experiences to solve day-to-day technical problems? How do they conceptualize safety and risk amid challenging and uncertain conditions? How do historic and contemporary geopolitical relations, including China’s Belt and Road Initiative, shape knowledge hierarchies and practices on site? When epistemological differences arise, particularly along the fault lines of nationality or cultural background, how are these differences negotiated and managed?

We draw inspiration from the scientific and technical concepts these engineers work with on a daily basis—in particular, the idea of “turbulence.” In fluid mechanics, a field that is foundational to hydrologic engineering, a turbulent flow is driven and characterized by chaotic changes in pressure and velocity. In contrast to “laminar flow,” which occurs when a fluid flows in parallel layers with no disruption between those layers (Batchelor 2000), turbulent flows are inherently stochastic and unstable. Similarly, the engineers working on the pumped storage hydropower project—Israeli, European and Chinese nationals—dealt daily with turbulent conditions shaped by their divergent backgrounds and training, by differences in technical standards and codes, and by a rapid development paradigm driven by China’s geopolitical rise and the imperative for renewable energy to mitigate the climate crisis. We argue that the concept of turbulence captures the unstable but creative qualities of the epistemic differences in such transnational engineering projects.

Developing renewable energy is one of the defining challenges of our time. Global investment in renewable energy is growing exponentially, with major backing from the Chinese government, banks and corporations. Understanding the emergent epistemic cultures of the engineers and experts within this sector is thus a crucial step toward understanding the present and future of this geopolitically vital field.

Methods And Research Site

Pumped storage hydropower is a type of renewable hydroelectric energy storage used by electric power systems for what is often termed “load balancing.” The technology is essentially a hydrologic battery. It works by constructing two reservoirs at slightly different elevations, generating power at high-demand (and high-price) times by moving water downward through a turbine, then pumping the water back up at low-demand (low-price) times. In Israel, PSH is used as a backup power source, with the potential to generate 1.1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, constituting more than 50% of the country’s emergency power. This project, and others like it, are thus of great strategic significance to Israel’s national security and for maintaining the stability of the local power system.

Our research site is the largest pumped storage hydropower project in Israel, with an installed capacity of 344 megawatts. It is located in the Jordan Valley, near the Sea of Galilee (see figure 1). The first author, who was responsible for fieldwork, carried out several months of ethnographic research in 2019, both in Tel Aviv and at the construction site. It was the dry season, with average high temperatures reaching 44 degrees Celsius. The engineers came and went from a series of one-story temporary office buildings located near the hydropower station’s lower reservoir in a dusty valley, their faces red and windblown beneath their hardhats. In one sense, time seemed to stand still amid the constant noise of clanging steel rebar, excavators, trucks, cutting machines, and other heavy equipment. In another sense, however, the passage of time was evident: with any delay threatening the project’s financing, the engineers were under enormous pressure to bring their work to completion as quickly as possible.

The PSH project was initiated in 2017 and was scheduled for completion in late 2021, but has since been delayed to 2022. Approximately 160 engineers regularly work on site. These engineers come from different national and professional backgrounds, including local engineers from the Israeli government and project developer; German and British engineers from the banks financing the project; and Chinese, French, Italian, and local engineers from contracted construction companies.

China’s economic and technological ties to Israel are part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive global infrastructure development program that began in 2013 (see figure 2). The Chinese government describes the Belt and Road Initiative as a strategy “to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future together” (Xinhua 2015a). The history of this policy initiative is significant, marking China as a major geopolitical player capable of shaping international relations through the exercise of soft power. During a visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the establishment of what he called the “Silk Road Economic Belt” (Xinhua 2015b). One month later, in Indonesia, Xi called for the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB) and the construction of a “Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road.” These proposals collectively came to be called the “One Belt and One Road Initiative,” later shorted to the “Belt and Road Initiative,” or BRI (Huang 2016). In November 2013, the BRI was written into the comprehensive reform blueprint adopted by the Chinese Communist Party leadership as a key policy priority in the years leading up to 2020 (Central Committee of the Communist Party of China 2013), which would shape the priorities of key government agencies for years to come.