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Solar technology is a Trojan horse—don’t be fooled by their promises of social equity

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Solar technology is a Trojan horse—don’t be fooled by their promises of social equity

Glover et al 2006 – *Policy Fellow at the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy, University of Delaware, **Directs the Urban Studies and Wheaton in Chicago programs, selected to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Emerging Leaders Program for 2011-2013, ***2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Distinguished Professor of Energy & Climate Policy at the University of Delaware, Head of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (Leigh Glover, Noah Toly, John Byrne, “Energy as a Social Project: Recovering a Discourse”, in “Transforming Power: Energy, Environment, and Society in Conflict”, p. 1-32, http://www.ceep.udel.edu/energy/publications/2006_es_energy_as_a_social_project.pdf, WEA)
The Sustainable Energy Quest¶ The problems of the conventional energy order have led some to regard¶ reinforcement of the status quo as folly and to instead champion sustainable¶ energy strategies based upon non-conventional sources and a more intelligent ideology of managed relations between energy, environment, and society consonant with environmental integrity. This regime challenger seeks to¶ evolve in the social context that produced the conventional energy regime,¶ yet proposes to fundamentally change its relationship to the environment (at¶ least, this is the hope). Technologies such as wind and photovoltaic electricity are purported to offer building blocks for a transition to a future in which¶ ills plaguing modernity and unsolved by the conventional energy regime¶ can be overcome (Lovins, 1979; Hawken et al., 2000; Scheer, 2002; Rifkin,¶ 2003; World Bank, 2004b).¶ While technical developments always include social, material, ecological, intellectual, and moral infrastructures (Winner, 1977: 54 - 58; Toly, 2005),¶ and may, therefore, be key to promoting fundamentally different development pathways, it is also possible that technologies, even environmentallybenign ones, will be appropriated by social forces that predate them andthereby, can be thwarted in the fulfillment of social promises attached to thestrategy. Indeed, if unaccompanied by reflection upon the social conditions¶ in which the current energy regime thrives, the transition to a renewable¶ energy regime may usher in very few social benefits and little, if any, political¶ and economic transformation. This is the concern that guides our analysis¶ (below) of the sustainable energy movement.¶ At least since the 1970s when Amory Lovins (1979) famously posed the¶ choice between “hard” and “soft” energy paths, sustainable energy strategies¶ have been offered to challenge the prevailing regime. Sometimes the promise¶ was of no more than “alternative” and “least cost” energy (Energy Policy¶ Project of the Ford Foundation, 1974a, 1974b; O’Toole, 1978; Sant, 1979),¶ but adjectives such as “appropriate,” “natural,” “renewable,” “equitable,”¶ and even “democratic” have also been envisioned (Institute for Local SelfReliance, 2005; Scheer, 2002: 34).¶ 16¶ The need to depart from the past, especially in light of the oil crises of the 1970s and the energy-rooted threat of¶ climate change that has beset policy debate since the late 1980s, united¶ disparate efforts to recast and reconceive our energy future.¶ Partly, early criticisms of the mainstream were reflective of a broader social¶ agenda that drew upon, among other things, the anti-war and anti-corporate¶ politics of the 1960s. It was easy, for example, to connect the modern energy¶ regime to military conflicts of the period and to superpower politics; and it¶ was even easier to ally the mainstream’s promotion of nuclear power to the¶ objectives of the Nuclear Club. With evidence of profiteering by the oil¶ majors in the wake of the 1973-1974 OPEC embargo, connecting the energy¶ regime with the expanding power of multinational capital was, likewise, not¶ difficult. Early sustainable energy strategies opposed these alliances, offering promises of significant political, as well as technological, change.¶ However, in the thirty years that the sustainable energy movement has¶ aspired to change the conventional regime, its social commitments and politics have become muddled. A telling sign of this circumstance is the shifted¶ focus from energy politics to economics. To illustrate, in the celebrated work¶ of one of the movement’s early architects, subtitles to volumes included¶ “breaking the nuclear link” (Amory Lovins’ Energy/War, 1981) and “toward¶ a durable peace” (Lovins’ Soft Energy Paths, 1979). These publications offered poignant challenges to the modern order and energy’s role in maintaining that order.¶ Today, however, the bestsellers of the movement chart a course toward¶ “natural capitalism” (Hawken et al., 2000), a strategy that anticipates synergies between soft path technologies and market governance of energy-environment-society relations. Indeed, a major sustainable energy think tank has¶ reached the conclusion that “small is profitable” (Lovins et al., 2002) in¶ energy matters and argues that the soft path is consistent with “economic¶ rationalism.” Understandably, a movement that sought basic change for a¶ third of a century has found the need to adapt its arguments and strategies to¶ the realities of political and economic power. Without adaptation, the conventional energy regime could have ignored soft path policy interventionslike demand-side management, integrated resource planning, public benefitscharges, and renewable energy portfolio standards (see Lovins and Gadgil,¶ 1991; Sawin, 2004), all of which have caused an undeniable degree of decentralization in energy-society relations. In this vein, it is clear that sustainability¶ proponents must find ways to speak the language and communicate in the¶ logic of economic rationalism if they are to avoid being dismissed. We do not¶ fault the sustainable energy camp for being strategic. Rather, the concern iswhether victories in the everyday of incremental politics have been balancedby attention to the broader agenda of systemic change and the ideas needed¶ to define new directions.¶ A measure of the sustainable energy initiative’s strategic success is the¶ growing acceptance of its vision by past adversaries. Thus, Small is Profitable was named ‘Book of the Year’ in 2002 by The Economist, an award¶ unlikely to have been bestowed upon any of Lovins’ earlier works. As acceptance has been won, it is clear that sustainable energy advocates remain¶ suspicious of the oil majors, coal interests, and the Nuclear Club. But an¶ earlier grounding of these suspicions in anti-war and anti-corporate politics¶ appears to have been superseded by one that believes the global economy¶ can serve a sustainability interest if the ‘raison de market’ wins the energy¶ policy debate. Thus, it has been suggested that society can turn “more profitwith less carbon,” by “harnessing corporate power to heal the planet” (Lovins,¶ 2005; L. H. Lovins and A. B. Lovins, 2000). Similarly, Hermann Scheer (2002:¶ 323) avers: “The fundamental problem with today’s global economy is notglobalization per se, but that this globalization is not based on the sun—the¶ only global force that is equally available to all and whose bounty is so great¶ that it need never be fully tapped.” However, it is not obvious that marketeconomics and globalization can be counted upon to deliver the soft path¶ (see e.g. Nakajima and Vandenberg, 2005). More problematic, as discussed¶ below, the emerging soft path may fall well short of a socially or ecologically¶ transforming event if strategic victories and rhetorics that celebrate them¶ overshadow systemic critiques of energy-society relations and the corresponding need to align the sustainable energy initiative with social movements to¶ address a comprehensive agenda of change.¶ Catching the Wind¶ To date, the greatest success in ‘real’ green energy development is the¶ spread of wind power. From a miniscule 1,930 MW in 1990 to more than¶ 47,317 MW in 2005, wind power has come of age. Especially noteworthy is¶ the rapid growth of wind power in Denmark (35 percent per year since 1997),¶ Spain (30 percent per year since 1997), and Germany (an astonishing 68¶ percent per year since 2000), where policies have caused this source to threaten¶ the hegemony of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Wind now generates more¶ than 20 percent of Denmark’s electricity and the country is the world leader in¶ turbine manufacture. And as the Danes have demonstrated, offshore wind has¶ the potential to skirt some of the land-use conflicts that have sometimes beset¶ renewable energy alternatives. Indeed, some claim that offshore wind alone¶ might produce all of Europe’s residential electricity (Brown, 2004). National¶ energy strategists and environmental movements in and beyond Europe have¶ recognized the achievements of the Danes, Spaniards, and Germans with initiatives designed to imitate their success.¶ What are the characteristics of this success? One envied feature is the¶ remarkable decline in the price of wind-generated electricity, from $0.46 per¶ kWh in 1980 to $0.03 to $0.07 per kWh today (Sawin, 2004), very close to¶ conventionally-fueled utility generating costs in many countries, even before environmental impacts are included. Jubilant over wind’s winning market performance, advocates of sustainable energy foresee a new era that is¶ ecologically much greener and, yet, in which electricity remains (comparatively) cheap. Lester Brown (2003: 159) notes that wind satisfies seemingly¶ equally weighted criteria of environmental benefit, social gain, and economic efficiency:¶ Wind is...clean. Wind energy does not produce sulfur dioxide emissions or nitrous¶ oxides to cause acid rain. Nor are there any emissions of health-threatening mercury¶ that come from coal-fired power plants. No mountains are leveled, no streams are¶ polluted, and there are no deaths from black lung disease. Wind does not disrupt the¶ earth’s climate...[I]t is inexhaustible...[and] cheap.¶ This would certainly satisfy the canon of economic rationalism.¶ It is also consistent with the ideology of modern consumerism. Its politics¶ bestow sovereignty on consumers not unlike the formula of Pareto optimality,¶ a situation in which additional consumption of a good or service is warranted¶ until it cannot improve the circumstance of one person (or group) without¶ decreasing the welfare of another person (or group).¶ 17¶ How would one know¶ “better off” from “worse off” in the wind-rich sustainable energy era? Interestingly, proponents seem to apply a logic that leaves valuation of “better” and¶ “worse” devoid of explicit content. In a manner reminiscent of modern economic thinking, cheap-and-green enthusiasts appear willing to set wind to¶ the task of making “whatever”—whether that is the manufacture of low-cost¶ teeth whitening toothpaste or lower cost SUVs. In economic accounting, all¶ of these applications potentially make some in society “better off” (if one¶ accepts that economic growth and higher incomes are signs of improvement).¶ Possible detrimental side effects or externalities (an economic term for potential harm) could be rehabilitated by the possession of more purchasing power,¶ which could enable society to invent environmentally friendly toothpaste¶ and make affordable, energy-efficient SUVs. Sustainable energy in this construct cooperates in the abstraction of consumption and production. Consumption-of-what, -by-whom, and -for-what-purpose, and, relatedly,¶ production-of-what, -by-whom, and -for-what-purpose are not issues. The¶ construct altogether ignores the possibility that “more-is-better” consumption-production relations may actually reinforce middle class ideology and¶ capitalist political economy, as well as contribute to environmental crises¶ such as climate change. In the celebration of its coming market victory, the¶ cheap-and-green wind version of sustainable energy development may not¶ readily distinguish the economic/class underpinnings of its victory from those¶ of the conventional energy regime.¶ Wind enthusiasts also appear to be largely untroubled by trends toward¶ larger and larger turbines and farms, the necessity of more exotic materials to¶ achieve results, and the advancing complications of catching the wind. There¶ is nothing new about these sorts of trends in the modern period. The trajectory of change in a myriad of human activities follows this pattern. Nor is a¶ critique per se intended in an observation of this trend. Rather, the question¶ we wish to raise is whether another feature in this pattern will likewise be¶ replicated—namely, a “technological mystique” (Bazin, 1986) in which social life finds its inspiration and hope in technical acumen and searches for¶ fulfillment in the ideals of technique (Mumford, 1934; Ellul, 1964; Marcuse,¶ 1964; Winner, 1977, 1986; Vanderburg, 2005).¶ This prospect is not a distant one, as a popular magazine recently illustrated. In a special section devoted to thinking “After Oil,” National Geographic approvingly compared the latest wind technology to a well-known¶ monument, the Statue of Liberty, and noted that the new machines tower¶ more than 400 feet above this symbol (Parfit, 2005: 15 - 16). It was not hard to¶ extrapolate from the story the message of Big Wind’s liberatory potential.¶ Popular Science also commended new wind systems as technological marvels, repeating the theme that, with its elevation in height and complexity¶ lending the technology greater status, wind can now be taken seriously by¶ scientists and engineers (Tompkins, 2005). A recent issue of The Economist¶ (2005) included an article on the wonder of electricity generated by an artificial tornado in which wind is technologically spun to high velocities in a¶ building equipped with a giant turbine to convert the energy into electricity.¶ Indeed, wind is being contemplated as a rival able to serve society by the¶ sheer technical prowess that has often been a defining characteristic of modern energy systems.¶ Obviously, wind energy has a long way to go before it can claim to have¶ dethroned conventional energy’s “technological cathedrals” (Weinberg,¶ 1985). But its mission seems largely to supplant other spectacular methods of¶ generating electricity with its own. The politics supporting its rapid rise¶ express no qualms about endorsing the inevitability of its victories on tech-¶ nical grounds. In fact, Big Wind appears to seek monumental status in the¶ psyche of ecologically modern society. A recent alliance of the American¶ Wind Energy Association and the U.S. electric utility industry to champion¶ national (subsidized) investment in higher voltage transmission lines (to¶ deliver green-and-cheap electricity), illustrates the desire of Big Wind to¶ plug into Giant Power’s hardware and, correspondingly, its ideology (see¶ American Wind Energy Association, 2005, supporting “Transmission Infrastructure Modernization”). The transformative features of such a politics are¶ unclear. Indeed, wind power—if it can continue to be harvested by everlarger machines—may penetrate the conventional energy order so successfully that it will diffuse, without perceptible disruption, to the regime. The air¶ will be cleaner but the source of this achievement will be duly noted: science¶ will have triumphed still again in wresting from stingy nature the resources¶ that a wealthy life has grown to expect. Social transformation to achieve¶ sustainability may actually be unnecessary by this political view of things, as¶ middle-class existence is assured via clean, low-cost and easy-to-plug-in wind¶ power.¶ Small-is-Beautiful Solar18¶ The second fastest growing renewable energy option—solar electric¶ power—is proving more difficult to plug in. Despite steady declines in the¶ cost per kWh of energy generated by photovoltaic (PV) cells, this alternative¶ remains a pricey solution by conventional standards. Moreover, the technology does not appear to have significant scale economies, partly because the¶ efficiency of PV cannot be improved by increasing the size of the device or itsapplication. That is, unit energy costs of large installations of many PV arrays¶ do not deviate appreciably from those for small installations comprised of¶ fewer arrays. Instead, the technology seems to follow a modular economic¶ logic in which unit costs neither grow nor decline with scale. Some have¶ praised this attribute, suggesting that PV’s modularity means there are no¶ technical or economic reasons for scaling its application to iconic levels that¶ conventional power plants now represent, potentiating a more robust system¶ of distributed generation and delivering clean energy to previously¶ marginalized populations (Martinot and Reiche, 2000; Martinot et al., 2002).¶ Small-Is-Beautiful Solar is attributed with social empowerment potential¶ by Vaitheeswaran (2003: 314) who notes that PV (and other small scale electricity generation technologies) can overcome social barriers through a “collision of clean energy, microfinance, and community empowerment,” three¶ properties that may lift the burden of poverty and promote democratic social¶ relations. “Micropower,” he argues (2003: 314), “is beginning to join forceswith village power.” Thus, it would seem that a Solar Society might depend¶ upon a different politics than Big Wind in displacing a fossil and nuclear¶ energy driven world economy.¶ Perhaps because PV has, so far, found wider social usage in rural contexts¶ where poverty (as modernly conceived) persists, discussions, in fact, crop up¶ about solar’s social project. For example, arguments have formed around the¶ gender interests of PV, at least as it has been diffused in rural life to date (see,¶ for example, Allerdice and Rogers, 2000). And criticism has surfaced aboutPV’s ‘capture’ by the state as a tool to quiet, if not mollify, the rural poor¶ (Okubo, 2005: 49 - 58). There has even been a charge that PV and other¶ renewables are being used by multilateral organizations such as the WorldBank to stall Southern development. By imposing a fragmented patchworkof tiny, expensive solar generators on, for example, the African rural landscape, instead of accumulating capital in an industrial energy infrastructure,¶ the World Bank and other actors are accused of being unresponsive to the¶ rapid growth needs of the South (Davidson and Sokona, 2002; Karekezi and¶ Kithyoma, 2002). A related challenge of PV’s class interests has raised questions about the technology’s multinational corporate owners and offered¶ doubts about successful indigenization of solar cell manufacturing (AbleThomas, 1995; Guru, 2002: 27; Bio-Energy Association of Sri Lanka, 2004:¶ 20). Regardless of one’s position on these debates, it is refreshing to at least¶ see solar energy’s possible political and economic interests considered.¶ But PV’s advocates have not embraced the opportunities created by its¶ rural examiners to seriously investigate the political economy of solar energy. The bulk of solar research addresses engineering problems, with a modest social inquiry focused on issues of technological transition in which solar¶ electricity applications are to find their way into use with as little social¶ resistance or challenge as possible. A green politics that is largely unscarred¶ by conflict is, and for a long time has been, anticipated to characterize an¶ emergent Solar Society (Henderson, 1988; Ikeda and Henderson, 2004). Likewise, solar economics is thought to be consensual as non-renewable options¶ become too expensive and PV cells, by comparison, too cheap to be refused¶ their logical role (see, for example, Henderson, 1995, 1996; Rifkin, 2003). It¶ seems that a solarized social order is inevitable for its proponents, with technological breakthrough and economic cost the principal determinants of when¶ it will arrive.¶ In this regard, ironically, Small-is-Beautiful Solar shares with Big Wind ¶ the aspiration to re-order the energy regime without changing society. Despite modern society’s technological, economic, and political addiction to¶ large-scale, cheap energy systems that solar energy cannot mimic, most PV¶ proponents hope to revolutionize the technological foundation of modernity, without disturbing its social base. A new professional cadre of solar¶ architects and engineers are exhorted to find innovative ways of embedding¶ PV technology in the skin of buildings (Strong, 1999; Benemann, Chehab,¶ and Schaar-Gabriel, 2001), while transportation engineers and urban planners are to coordinate in launching “smart growth” communities where vehicles are powered by hydrogen derived from PV-powered electrolysis to¶ move about in communities optimized for “location efficiency” (Ogden, 1999;¶ Holtzclaw et al., 2002). The wildly oversized ecological footprint of urbansocieties (Rees and Wackernagel, 1996) is unquestioned as PV decorates itsstructure.¶ These tools for erecting a Solar Society intend to halt anthropogenic¶ changes to the chemistry of the atmosphere, rain, and soil mantle while enabling unlimited economic growth. In the Solar Society of tomorrow, we willmake what we want, in the amounts we desire, without worry, because all of its¶ energy is derived from the benign, renewable radiation supplied by our galaxy’s¶ sun. Compared to Big Wind, PV may cost more but it promises to deliver an¶ equivalent social result (minus the avian and landscape threats of the former)¶ and, just possibly, with a technical elegance that surpasses the clunky¶ mechanicalness of turbines propelled by wind. In this respect, Solar Society¶ makes its peace with modernity by leaving undisturbed the latter’s cornucopiandreams¶ 19¶ and, likewise, poses no serious challenge to the social and political¶ structures of the modern era.¶ At this precise point, inequality and conflict can only be conceived in¶ Solar Society as the results of willful meanness and greed. While the solar¶ variety of technological politics guiding society may be relatively¶ minimalist—no towering new monuments or spectacular devices are¶ planned—it would be no less committed to the ideals of technique in shapingsocial experience and its self-assessment. Similarly, its economics would¶ warmly embrace a form of consumptive capitalism, although with cleaner¶ inputs (and possibly throughputs) than before.¶ While the discussion here of sustainable energy advocacy has concentrated on its wind- and solar-animated versions, we believe that strategies¶ anticipating significant roles for geothermal, biomass, micro-hydro, and hydrogen harvested from factories fueled by renewables anticipate variants of¶ the social narratives depicted for the two currently most prominent renewable¶ energy options. The aim of producing more with advancing ecological efficiency in order to consume more with equally advancing consumerist satisfaction underpins the sustainable energy future in a way that would seamlessly¶ tie it to the modernization project.¶ 20

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