November 15-19, 2023, Toronto  

Panel Title: The Last Mile: Energy Dilemmas at the Edge of Infrastructure    

Organizer: Kristin Phillips (Emory University) 

In the parlance of shipping and transportation industries, “the last mile” is the last leg of a journey from a hub to a final destination—the leg that is typically the most expensive and the most difficult. The economic inefficiency of the last mile poses financial and logistical problems not only for postal services and supply chain managers, but is also a profound challenge to the extension of electricity networks. Around the world, people have constructed an astounding variety of political, technological, and economic forms to solve or overcome the problem of the last mile in electrification and to access and finance rural energy services on the margins of infrastructural networks. Such energy institutions—some in existence since the 1940s, others only nascent entities–include rural electricity cooperatives, mini-grid authorities, utility boards, village electricity committees, and savings groups.  The function of these groups is to mobilize capital for the extension of energy services, establish and enforce regulatory norms, oversee services, and distribute and redistribute their costs. In doing so, they serve not only vital economic and technological roles, but also often fraught social and political ones.    

This panel aims to advance anthropological conversations about energy, infrastructure, and the social construction of rural worlds.  Building on theorizations of infrastructure (Anand, Gupta, & Appel 2018; Harvey, Jensen, & Morita 2017; Simone 2012; Star 1999); energopower (Boyer 2014); cultures of energy (Strauss, Rupp, & Love 2013) and energy frontiers (Degani, Chalfin, & Cross 2020), this panel seeks to theorize energy practice and governance in the social space of “the last mile.” To this end, we seek papers that may address the following questions in diverse sites around the globe:    

  • What political, social, and economic forms and practices have emerged to contend with the challenge of the last mile? How have these changed over time?    
  • How do these Last Mile institutions mediate access to energy and distribute and redistribute its costs? To what effect?     
  • How do different social actors understand, explain, and justify selective energy service and/or differentiated pricing systems? 
  • How has climate change and/or the emergence of renewable energy technologies shaped the form and function of Last Mile institutions?    
  • How do they arbitrate or prompt social debates about inequality, consumption, citizenship, and/or rights?   
  • Who is involved in the governance of collective energy resources and how do people obtain or contest this authority?    

Themes and topics of interest include, but are not limited to: rural electric cooperatives; the interface of grid and off-grid systems; gender and rural electricity governance; transition to renewable energy; the politics of mini-grids and micro-grids; cultural logics of pricing; and racial and/or ethnic politics and disparities.  

If you are interested in participating in the panel, please send a short abstract to Kristin Phillips [email protected] by March 1, 2023. Panelists must be available to present in-person at the 2023 meetings in Toronto.