Works in Progress - Summer 2012

Tough Questions About Clean Energy

By Ozzie Zehner | March 19, 2013

The author of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism, Ozzie Zehner is a visiting scholar at the University of California–Berkeley. He serves on the editorial board of Critical Environmentalism, an interdisciplinary journal on the social studies of environmentalism. We asked him to pose five provocative questions about energy and the environmental movement.

1. Coinciding with the effects of rapid industrialization, 19th-century fictionists created a handful of ghoulish immortals—including Washington Irving’s headless horseman and Bram Stoker’s Dracula—that still can haunt our imaginations. A British economist and logician named William Stanley Jevons also wrote about a persistent phantom. Jevons’s The Coal Question, published in 1865, starts out innocently enough, documenting how James Watt’s introduction of the steam engine greatly improved efficiency. But, Jevons explains, higher efficiency was making steam engines more popular, ultimately driving coal use ever higher. The effect he described, termed the Jevons paradox, arises again and again in various incarnations throughout the history of energy use: Increases in energy efficiency make energy services relatively cheaper, encouraging greater consumption.

What strategies can we reasonably institute to ensure that efficiency gains won’t be usurped by increasing overall consumption? Can we extend such initiatives globally?

 

2. There’s an energy production corollary to the Jevons paradox. For example, proponents of nuclear power point out that nuclear plants yield less carbon dioxide than coal or natural gas facilities do. There is, however, little precedent for assuming that building a nuclear power plant in the United States will displace a coal-fired plant. In fact, just the opposite occurred. As subsidized nuclear power increased, the supply of electricity correspondingly increased, energy prices on the consumer level eased, and greater numbers of energy customers demanded more cheap power—a demand that Americans ultimately met by building additional coal-fired power plants, not fewer.

Subsidized alternative-energy production may likewise expand energy supplies, depressing prices, spurring demand, and finally bringing us right back to where we started: high demand and so-called insufficient supply. We create an energy boomerang—the harder we throw, the harder it comes back to hit us on the head. More efficient solar cells, taller wind turbines, and advanced biofuels are all just ways of throwing harder. We humans have been subject to the flight pattern of this boomerang for quite some time, and there is no reason to suppose we have escaped its whirling trajectory today.

These technologies might hold more promise in a different context. What specific political, legal, and economic structures or backstops will work to ensure that energy alternatives directly offset fossil fuel use?

 

3. Phantoms and boomerangs aside, the United States currently extracts taxes from the working class to fund expensive photovoltaic installations high in the gold-rimmed suburbs of Arizona and California. Yet any number of conventional energy strategies promise higher dividends than solar cell investments do.

If utilities cared to reduce CO2, then for a fraction of the cost of the Million Solar Roofs Program, a government-funded solar initiative, they could avoid twice the greenhouse gas emissions by simply converting one large coal-burning power plant to natural gas. If toxicity is a concern, legislators could direct subsidies toward low-tech solar strategies such as solar water heating, which has a proven track record of success. Or for no net cost at all, we could support strategies to bring our houses and commercial buildings into sync with the sun’s energy rather than working against it. A house with windows, rooflines, and walls designed to soak up or deflect the sun’s energy in a passive way will to do so indefinitely.

Fragile solar photovoltaic arrays, on the other hand, are sensitive to high temperatures, employ numerous toxic materials, oblige owners to perform constant maintenance, and require very expensive components to keep them going.

Should we redirect costly solar cell subsidies toward more potent conservation strategies?

 

4. It’s unlikely that citizens of industrialized nations will willingly part with their high standards of living. It’s even less likely that the world’s poor will cease pushing to increase their own. As a result, Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin argues, humans will continue to gravitate toward the least expensive energy options available.

Like it or not, Laughlin envisions that humans will eventually deplete oil and gas resources. Attention will shift to coal and the various fuels that can be synthesized from it. Finally, humanity will be left to draw on the planet’s nuclear energy resources. Solar and wind power will remain on the sidelines, unable to compete on price.

Is Laughlin right? What interventions might prove him wrong, or perhaps lessen the risks that such a scenario would bring about?

 

5. We increasingly trust alternative energy technologies to solve our environmental challenges even though we might alternatively view the roots of these challenges as social, economic, and political. The technical character of the modern environmental movement often limits citizen involvement. Most people aren’t trained as technicians. This leaves environmental enthusiasts, activists, students, educators, and others to passively drink the green Kool-Aid—driving the green car, buying the green product, or consuming the green energy. These green solutions play into conceptions of productivism and growth that conflict with the stated goals of the environmentalists themselves.

Before the technological turn, environmentalists couched their solutions in terms of governance and social fundamentals. How can we reintegrate environmental discourse into fields such as sociology, human rights, economics, ethics, international affairs, humanities, and other domains infrequently associated with environmental work?

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