Monday, March 14, 2011

Renewable energy - problem or potential

The earthquake outside Japan has got me thinking about genuinly clean and renewable energy sources. Regardless of your view on the risks of meltdowns in the Japanese powerplants, it should be obvious that nuclear powerplants aren't entirely safe - not to mention the dangers of uranium mining and disposal of nuclear waste. In addition to being environmentally hazardous, nuclear power - just as fossil power - is finite, localized and therefore controllable. As has been shown through numerous national and international conflicts, non-renewable energy is a constant potential source for geo-political strife and tension - but I believe it is also an obstacle we need to overcome if we are to achieve economic, social and ecological sustainability. There are also parallels with problems surrounding "intellectual property rights", the impact of mp3 technology on the music industry and WikiLeaks.

Nuclear and fossil energy are associated with several problems. There is the issue of pollution, as a result of mining, usage and disposal - a problem which is aggravated as the respective resources become increasingly sparse, resulting in increasing prices and increasing environmental and social risks in mining. The issue of deep-sea mining of oil is a recent example, as are the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Nigeria.

Our reliance on these kind of energy sources is also an ever present financial risk, as our entire manufacturing and consumerist economy is based on access to increasing amounts of energy. This is yet another source for escalating conflict, as has been shown in the recent North African uprisings - where both the EU and the US have taken a passive role, being dependant on a "stable" trading partner in for example Libya.

The unprecedented economic growth in (mainly) the Western world of the past century, can to a large part be ascribed to our use of oil. And while one side of this growth is an equally unprecedented rise in living standards and life expetancy in the West, the other side is increasing economic inequality on a global scale. It has also made us almost oblivious to the environmental and social dangers of our current way of life.

During the last 50 years or so, there has been a dawning realization that this cannot continue - yet we have not made nearly enough progress towards a shift to renewable energy. Given our advances in other areas this might seem odd, but looking at how our economic system works I suspect it is only all too logical.

The simple truth is that there isn't enough money to be made from genuinly renewable energy.

When you get down to it, renewable energy is essentially solar energy - in the form of solar power (or solar cells), water power or wind power. It is all various ways of harnessing the massive amount of solar energy which the Earth is bombarded with every day. Of course, fossil fuels such as oil or coal is also a kind of solar energy - but they are more like batteries, solar energy stored over millennia on the Earth in various forms. Unlike fossil fuels, the source for direct solar energy cannot be controlled. And unlike fossil fuels, it is not really subject to scarcity either.

Yes, it is true that the amount of incoming solar energy which can be harnessed today is limited. While we might develop our technology further in the future, we cannot switch to renewable energy at present and still maintain our current energy consumption. This is often given as an argument against renewable energy. But that argument overlooks the fact that we cannot maintain our current energy consumption using fossil or nuclear fuels either - since we are running out of both fossil and nuclear fuels. And of course there are still the environmental and social hazards to take into account as well.

We need to reduce the amount of energy used, which begs the question of fair distribution. Are the "developing" countries not be allowed access to the "Western way of life"? The short, and perhaps disheartening answer is "no". But this also means that we in the West cannot maintain our way of life. This falls back on the "pyramid scheme economics" currently employed, which I've written about in here, here and here. Essentially, we need to stop living on credit.

As I wrote above, renewable energy once fully developed is not subject to control or scarcity. What this means is that renewable energy cannot be assigned monetary value in a market economy. You can't make enough money from it to make it an interesting investment from a strictly financial point of view - and, in fact, it threatens the entire economic system. I believe this might be its biggest problem, but also its biggest potential.

Compare with the issues of "intellectual property rights", the impact of mp3s on the music industry and the phenomena of WikiLeaks. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that with the advent of information technology, information can no longer be controlled. It is possible to spread and duplicate at staggering speeds. Yes, it is true that the infrastructure can be controlled - it is a physical medium. But the source content is not bound to any particular medium. What this means is that information is increasingly slipping out of the market economy. At the moment the music industry, intelligence communities and patent holders are fighting a losing battle against "pirates" and "spies" - but eventually we as a society need to come to grips with and adjust to the situation, unless we impose strict control of all information.

For the intelligence communities I would say openess is the answer. It might be utopian, but I believe that were we to move away from our current social structure, we might not need covert operations - at least not in the same way.

When it comes to intellectual property rights and musicians, I believe the necessary shift from an economics of scarcity and control will provide a solution. Precisely how, I don't really know. If I did I guess I'd be a Nobel Laureate. But perhaps some form of citizen's pay might be a viable route.

Coming back to the question of renewable energy, what has traditionally been seen as a problem I believe can actually be turned into a promising potential. Renewable energy is basically free. Yes, there is the infrastructure and maintenance costs but the infrastructure is basically a one-time expense and maintenance I can't see as much of a problem - it is not a new cost at any rate, but one which we have today for our current energy sources. This leaves the question of initial development investment. And herein lies the problem. Since there is no promise of future returns, under a market economy there is no incentive to invest. Yet we constantly hear politicians place their trust in the "free market" to bring forth a shift to renewable energy. This makes no sense. Especially when you consider the long term.

Because what would happen if our basic source of energy was, for all intents and purposes, free? Energy companies make for a vast part of the economy, directly but also indirectly in that a large part of what we pay for goods is the energy cost. If, as we have to, we start recycling rather than exploiting new resources the main cost of production will be energy. The prices of consumer goods would plummet, with a disastrous effect on GNPs worldwide. Removing energy from the economy would make drastic changes, with enormous consequences for the "free market" which our politicians expect to bring about that same change.

Still, were we to make this shift, and I believe we must - we would open up for an entirely new way of life and an economy based not on scarcity and control but rather on mutual, sustainable development.

This collapse of our economic system might be considered a problem by some people. To me, it looks like the potential for a very bright future.


  1. Thanks for the article Mats,

    I have heard in recent media publishings that whilst solar panels can be a great advanatge for the future, for the environment, and from an economical point of view, that large scale projects can actually cause more damage to the earth than we first realised.

    I just wonder what obstacles we may run into over the next few years because of this.

  2. The licenses needed to start a solar power system, vary from state to state. You will want to work with an electrician to make sure you don't have a problem when doing installations. The panels are easier to install on a new house or building although if you know what you are doing, they can be installed on an existing structure.

  3. That's an interesting point you bring up "solar panels florida" - at the same time it's a technical issue and I have to admit I'm not anywhere near an expert. But I would imagine that large scale manufacture of "traditional" solar panels could prove problematic. I think a viable route would be trying to emulate natural photosynthesis or something like that.

    I'm mostly interested in the broader political consequences and implications though.

    Another point is how we, at least in Sweden, have regulations against feeding back electricity to the grid from personal solar/wind power. I'm kinda worried that there will be attempts by power company lobbies to get further regulation in order to ensure they keep control over any electricity production.

  4. Uh. I just realised that "solar panels flordia" might be an ad-bot. But still.

  5. Solar energy, even as we get better energy, will remain far from free. Solar panels have a limited lifespan. As do solar plants. At current, at the market cost of solar power, the total production of energy from solar panels over their average expected lifespan is about half of what a similar outlay would produce in power from other sources.

    The idea that corporations would be loathe to work on solar power is silly. If there appeared to likely be money in it, they'd invest. They invest in all sorts of other 'infrastructure' items, like refrigerators and cars. Because that's what solar panels are, they are an appliance.

    I'm very, very anti-corporate, and very in favor of heavy regulation of the market. So please take this into account when I give my opinion that corporations are -not- one big giant Leviathan that makes collective decisions. Sure, they'll come together when it is in their favor, but when it is between one industry and another, they fight like cats and dogs.

    The simple fact is that no one is investing too heavily in green tech solutions because no one has seen any obvious way to make it pay off. And that includes folks who haven't got a stake in fossil fuels, who'd -love- to snag some market share away from big coal, if there was a way to make it pay. There just isn't. Not without changing the game at the government level either by subsidies(like in China, who's leading the world in solar research), or by a surcharge, a tax, on dirty power, to make it more expensive by comparison.

    If either of these things happen, you will see the solar industry boom. And corporations of various stripes will play a big role in that. This isn't a conspiracy. Except in that such drastic changes are unlikely in a governmental system ruled by lobbyists. There's no lobbies for industries that don't exist yet.

  6. I'm not so sure that we are really in disagreement here, other than about how to interpret solar power as being free. The way I see it is that the energy source itself is free. The sun, and "raw solar power" cannot be claimed or controlled - unlike coal, uranium or oil which are localized physical resources. That's really my main point.

    Of course the infrastructure - power-grids, individual solar cells, "wave plants" or "wind mills" - are resources which can be owned, but that the energy source itself cannot be claimed I believe is an important difference.

    And as to corporations being loathe to work on solar power being a silly idea: you yourself say that they won't do it because the heavy investments can't be justified since there's not enough guaranteed returns. This is precisely one of my points to. I am not saying there's a conspiracy here - merely that the way the economic system is set up, the built-in rationality of a capitalist market economy makes a transition to genuinly renewable energy difficult.

    As you say - without changing the game at government level we won't make any headway. I would like to take it a step further than subsidies and surcharges though (even if I think those could be useful tools as well). Energy, I believe, shouldn't be a market commodity - just as I don't believe air or even food, water and perhaps information should be.

    This is not to say that I think we should do away with the market economy in its entirety, but not everything is suited to be traded on a supposedly "free" market.

    It's not the solar/power industry or market per se I have a problem with - it's a) the values which currently govern the market and b) the idea that everything should be traded on a market.