Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Big Solar: Coming Soon to A Planet Near You!

World Of Wonder Magazine, January 2008: "What Comes After Oil? The world war for new energy sources".

(The "Energy Wars" map on pages 24 and 25 of the article. The author, Mirko Herr, suggests that the Western Energy Companies, by letting oil prices stay above 100 dollars a barrel, are poised to demolish the OPEC oligarchies. Herr's argument is that the greedy OPEC consortium are so bedazzled by their windfall profits that they can't see that consumers will rapidly shift to other sources of energy that are now cost competitive with Middle Eastern Oil for the first time. By investing in alternative energy sources and technologies, BIG ENERGY can shift away from foreign hydrocarbons faster than the Sheikhs and dictators in the world, who can't see the forest for the fossilized trees. Meanhile, recognizing that North Africa, Australia and Western South America have a comparative advantage in insolation, BIG ENERGY is working to make win win deals with governments in sunny countries so they can bring competitively priced sunshine derivatives to cloudy climate but prosperous countries).

In my rough concept sketch for a song I want to produce called "Running on Sunshine" (not to be confused with "I'm walking on Sunshine, whoa-oh!" by Katrina and the Waves - a party favorite of ours in SingStar on the PS2) I wrote the following lyrics:

(Spoken intro)

"Hello Sunshine! Look what we're up to... installing a sharp looking Solar System, uh-huh. No more filthy fossil fuels for this family... we're doing our part to fight climate change, saving money and saving the planet at the same time... say "hello sunshine... "


"I've found a simple way to get us clear blue skies in no time -- hello sunshine! 'Cause last time I checked nobody owned the sun, and now I expect to make my whole house run on sunshine... we're running on sunshine, yeah, in this way we're changing the world."

The chorus then had a choir singing "Another Sunny Day with Sharp Solar, Another Sunny Day with Sharp Solar", reflecting the fact that we were, at the time I wrote the sketch, installing Sharp Solar Panels, one of the industry's best products -- simple, easy, convenient and reliable.

I admit that the recording of Running on Sunshine that I posted on youtube to share the concept with my friends was atrocious -- and I sympathise with the person who left the comment " The solar panels are cool... but someone please shoot whomever is singing" -- that is what we artists get for using a public medium to share works in the rough and forgetting to toggle off the "public viewing button". My bad!

But as many theorists and futurists (like neuroscientist Susan Greenfield in her book "Tomorrow's People") say, we will soon be living in the age of "the public ego" where every facet of our live's will be accessible to a global audience, warts and all. Be careful what you write on your wall in Facebook, every photo equipped cell phone belongs to the e-public paparazzi, big sister is watching (and laughing) while big brother reports your latest escapades and your bad taste in music and movies to your potential employer AND your insurance company... Andy Warhol is regretting urging us all to seek our 15 minutes of fame while Dennis Danvers (Circuit of Heaven, End of Days) predicts we may have to face an eternity of infamy once we turn our individual personalities over to "the Bin".

But today's blog isn't about my atrocious singing on that cue and the terrible recording I uploaded to the digital and all too public bin as I rushed to get a concept of a new solar energy song out to my friend's at Solar CITIES (they at least appreciated the EFFORT! Better musicians and recording engineers than me can now run with the concept -- what we are trying to do here is come up with new material for our next solar powered "musical goodwill ambassador tours" of the Middle East that use festivals to introduce solar energy to remote communities. Read about them here.)

Today's blog is about the cartoon that we use to start our website and this blog ("Solar Power? We own the... er... , solar energy isn't feasible!") and the clever Sharp company slogan that I used as the key line in "Running on Sunshine" which says "last time I checked nobody owned the sun".

Well, check again.

Fact is that while posession may be "9/10's of the law" (the other 10th allegedly being proof of posession) ownership also involves use-value and exchange-value. And while anybody can USE the sun, only companies willing to invest in land and products that can commodify sunshine as a deliverable can own its exchange value. Ergo, those companies that set up in particularly sunny regions and create ways of getting that potential energy to the kinetics consuming public will OWN THE SUN. And that will be a good thing, I argue!

From Aristotle to Adam Smith, the concepts of value, use value, exchange value and price have obsessed economic thinkers. Marx added the dimension of theorizing labour's contribution to use-value and its transformation into exchange value, saying, at the beginning of Das Kapital,

"The utility of a thing makes it a use value. But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use value, something useful. This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities. When treating of use value, we always assume to be dealing with definite quantities, such as dozens of watches, yards of linen, or tons of iron. The use values of commodities furnish the material for a special study, that of the commercial knowledge of commodities.[5] Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society we are about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value." ([1])
"A thing can be a use value, without having value. This is the case whenever its utility to man is not due to labour. Such are air, virgin soil, natural meadows, &c. A thing can be useful, and the product of human labour, without being a commodity. Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values. (And not only for others, without more. The mediaeval peasant produced quit-rent-corn for his feudal lord and tithe-corn for his parson. But neither the quit-rent-corn nor the tithe-corn became commodities by reason of the fact that they had been produced for others. To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use value, by means of an exchange.) Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value." (Capital Vol. I, end of Section 1, Chapter 1)

In the Marxian sense quoted above, there is an obvious truth to the statement "nobody owns the sun" -- it is a thing, like Marx's "air, virgin soil, natural meadows etc." that has use value but not exchange value -- until made into a product that can participate in some exchange. But when businesses get property rights to sunshine, the logic of economics dictates that they will invest ever more heavily in putting this tradeable on the market, and our market infatuation with filthy fossils will subside. Let the oil be used for manufacturing carbon composites. As Sheikh Yamani famously said in 1973 "The stone age did not end because we ran out of stone!" Burning oil is for troglodytes.

When the court of public opinion and the seats of consumer power declare sunshine to be the hottest commodity on the market, big players will rush in to bring it to our shopping carts.

It is true, as the economist Paul Craig Roberts points out, that "the comparative advantage principles developed by David Ricardo do not hold where the factors of production are internationally mobile". And because solar collectors and concentrators can be moved around the globe, and because all of the earth receives solar energy that can be exploited by these technologies, one can almost believe the conspiracy theorists who think "big oil" is interested in suppressing solar energy technologies lest they wipe out their comparative advantage in energy commodities.

But we at Solar CITIES we think this is naive. Unrealistically and dangerously naive

I had dinner with friends in the Sinai who work for "Big Oil" last week and they said, "we aren't threatened by renewable energy technologies. We see them as part of a portfolio to satisfy customer demand for energy. But we don't feel they can replace hydrocarbon fuels fast enough to make oil products superfluous in the near term. So we continue exploring ways to use what is available here and now."

Would big oil be threatened by renewable energy if the technologies of capture and storage were efficient, economical and available today? My friends reply, "I suppose one could conceive of such a competitive position, but if that were the case, we would simply do as we are doing -- mergers, acquisitions, patents, research and development -- after all, British Petroleum is now calling itself "Beyond Petroleum", Shell Oil is now "Shell Energy" with a "Shell Solar" Division... we are Energy Companies, and we always expand our portfolios."

Though you may be skeptical of globalization and rightly worry about the power of multinationals, one benefit of international commercial operations is their mobility -- they aren't tied to the land, and they would as soon exploit sunny desert surface areas as the oil wells beneath the sand. The logic of "buy low, sell high" suggests that exploiting sunshine would be a clear profit maximizer -- the overhead is rather low, considering that the source of energy is.. well.. OVER HEAD!

My oil company friends and I laughed in retrospect about the naivete of some middle managers in the U.S. Embassy in Egypt who turned down BP's offer to sponsor one of our "Circus Guy Musical Goodwill Ambassador Tours" of Egypt in 2004 because of a perceived "conflict of interest".

Middle management said at the time, "we felt we had to reject the money and sponsorship from the oil company because you were advertising your tour as a "solar powered tour, using photovoltaics to run the amplifiers and educating common Egyptians about alternatives to oil. We thought they wouldn't like that."

By the time upper management heard about this it was too late. But upper management said, "I wish this had come up to our level before decisions were made -- it turns out that the solar panels that the Circus Guy Solar Band uses are BP Solarex panels -- in other words, the band was promoting British Petroleum Products on their solar energy tour!"

Indeed most big oil companies manufacture and sell photovoltaic panels and are leaders in research and development.

So where is the disconnect?

I've written before about what I call "The Zeitgeist Conspiracy" -- groups of people get an idea in their heads and operate as if it were true without any substantiation and without investigating the reality of the situation, or working through the logic. The Zeitgeist notion (the spirit of the times) for the past century has been that business is inhumanly competitive and ruthless, and that big industry acts like George Orwell's boot in 1984 "stomping on the face of humanity for all eternity." The tribalist binary logic of "us vs. them" makes us assume that we are running a zero-sum game and that the big players are easily threatened by the slightest deviation from the game plan that favors their profits. Rarely do people want to lay down their swords and break bread and find out WHY people make the economic decisions they do.

I agree that history gives us plenty of justification for paranoia, but I think that when this logic is applied to renewable energy it is dangerously misguided and shortsighted. I think that the Zeitgeist Conspiracy, to which we all fall prey, is the largest barrier to effectively stopping climate change and the environmental degradation that comes from burning hydrocarbons.

We are all in this boat together, and we are all dependent on solar energy. We all have a stake in finding ways to make its use (whether stored in oil or in batteries) as clean and safe as possible.

As I've stated many times, it is not "oil" per se that is the problem. It is the burning of oil and the concomittant release of hydrocarbon combustion by-products that is the problem. It is the release of VOC's (volatile Organic Carbon Compounds) and crude oil into the air and water during drilling, transport, refining and end-use that is the problem. Not the oil itself.

I guess that is kind of like Charleton Heston (RIP) and the gun lobby's old saw, "guns don't kill people, people kill people" ( which Eddie Izzard brilliantly aped adding "and monkeys do too... if they have a gun! ... I think the gun helps, don't you?")

But think about it -- oil is stored solar energy that has been concentrated into a most useful form -- a wonderful solar battery when you think about it. You would imagine that with all our genius as a species we could easily find ways to use these stored hydrocarbons without releasing toxins and greenhouse gases into our collective environment, no? In fact WE HAVE.

And we might all be using them already if we consumers took their heads out of the tar sands and took responsibility for our actions and started demanding clean technologies and indicated to "big business" that we were WILLING TO PAY. Because business people all seem to say the same thing "we are in the business of selling. If you want to buy something, we'll sell it to you. Doesn't much matter what." Ah, the people of the bottom line...!

But the bottom line is that we have to demand it. And we have done a bad job at that.

Ask them, "can we please have solar now?"

And they will reply...


And that friends, is tantamount to "owning the sun".

And for my money, "Big Solar" is nothing to fear. It means business as unusual: clean, clear blue skies, clean water, lower cancer rates, a reversal of dangerous climate change patterns...

(Please note however that I am not suggesting all energy companies are equal in their vision, in the intelligence of their CEOs and shareholders, in their ability to understand full cost accounting, or in their responsibilities to their and our children -- see the article "It's the Profits Stupid" by Nomi Prins on how Exxon and Chevron in particular (as opposed to Shell and BP) are ripping us off and squandering our heritage in dangerous and irresponsible ways. Also, check out this article on how the increased flow of speculative funds into oil futures and other financial market developments are driving up all prices to a level where, instead of helping sensible energy sources like solar get developed by making them cost competitive, production of new infrastructure suddenly becomes cost prohibitive and leaves us stuck where we are. As we can see with speculators getting involved with food markets, which has raised prices so high it has caused hunger and rioting around the world , this same kind of criminal behavior -- letting the volatility of investors' market games rule basic commodity prices -- is causing pain not only for people at the bottom but for organizations and struggling companies trying to buy materials -- steel, copper, glass, cement, iron, special plastics, machinery etc.-- to invest in a renewable energy future. In our own case the price of copper and aluminum have risen so high we can no longer afford to build all the solar hot water systems for the poor our budget was allocated for. And so forth...).

Because the stakes are so high for us and for the high-minded energy companies who become Big Solar, we must encourage them to act fast, to act now!

Look at the map from Welt Der Wunder again (click on it for a large version).

Notice that North Africa (including Egypt) Northwest Australia and the West Coast of South America have the highest potential solar energy assets. In comparative advantage terms, they are in much the same position England was in terms of wool and Portugal was in terms of wine when David Ricardo made his famous example about the economics of trade. Sure, England could make wine, and Portugal could make wool, Ricardo argued, but the greatest benefits would go to the countries that exploited their natural comparative advantages and then engaged in trade.

According to the map accompanying Mirko Herr's excellent article, the US and Brazil rule the roost when it comes to Wind Power potential (red areas), while North Africa wins hands down in solar resources (yellow areas). The purple colored oil exporing states include those governed by all the worst dictators and fanatics. Energy company executives have told me these islands of instability and corruption are among the worst to work in and investors are reasonably worried about continuing to pour billions into infrastructure in these powder kegs.

So why are we still relying on the combustion of oil as our main energy source?

I believe that part of the answer is that we as citizens don't really talk to our political and industry leaders. Nor do we talk to the "man on the street" in areas ruled by oligarchs and dictators. Part of the Zeitgeist conspiracy is that there is an "us" and a "them" and we must be sworn enemies. This polarization, and a belief that "they are out to get us" dashes hopes of making progress and innovating solutions before we've even gotten out the gate.

When we started our Solar CITIES project, some people told us "big oil is going to shut you down. Those vested interests are going to see your project, building solar hot water and biogas facilities in the urban poor area and teaching photovoltaics to the masses, as a direct threat."
Ironically, when I discussed our project with the VP of Exploration at BP, he said, "this is fantastic work, really admirable. In fact we have about a million dollars in funding for such projects, but we haven't found people who we think we can rely on to give it to. Alot of people doing environmental work think they would be "working with the enemy". It is sad. But we in the energy industry are interested in finding creative ways to reduce domestic energy consumption. Solar and biofuels and other renewables are obvious candidates. If domestic consumption could be reduced, Egypt and our companies could export gas and oil and electricity at full market price for hard currency. Egypt needs hard currency. Right now we are all losing because of the subsidies for energy."

Egypt now subsidizes gas, oil and electricity to the tune of over 50 billion L.E. (nearly 10 billion dollars) per year, which is between 8 and 10% of GDP. This is placing an enormous strain on the economy. Gas bottles are sold to the populace at an average of 7 LE per bottle while they cost 35 LE to produce. So Egypt and the gas companies are losing 5 times what they could get to use as an infusion into the economy. The problem (as the near bread-riots and protests of the past few weeks clearly indicates) is that any attempt to raise prices now could spark severe civil unrest.

But if the urban poor of Cairo could immediately be given solar hot water, solar electricity, small scale wind electricity and biogas (which could easily be implemented within a year or two) the government could then remove the subsidies on energy products without having any negative impact on consumer behavior and lifestyle. There would neither be loss of comfort nor loss of life.

This is the vision that my friends in the oil companies embrace. This is the vision that my friends who work for the Egyptian Government embrace. Nobody is against us. Nobody is trying to shut us down. But everybody feels that this eutopian vision is fanciful because "nobody believes it could happen enough to roll up their sleeves and start working on it."
What they mean is "NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE" believe in it enough. So while they are proud of us and our work, few people are going to risk pouring money and effort into a larger initiative, and business will go on as usual.

This is how the Zeitgeist Conspiracy works. We lose confidence in ourselves, we decide we can't trust the "others" out there, we retreat to our dreams and the catharsis of our complaints, and hope that one day, somebody out there with power and influence will take a bold step forward and reach their hand back to the rest of us saying, "come on and join us, won't you?"

I can only say this, in closing:

To those of you in the business community: You CAN own the sun. And the Wind. And all the Clean, Safe Energy Sources God has provided us with. And we will buy it from you at full market value. So start investing, now, and help build your loyal customer base.

To those of you in civil society: there are very very very few people against you, and almost everybody else on the planet, the vast majority, is for you, and those who seem against you will embrace your vision of a win-win world when you show them that you aren't against them . Stop hiding your head in the sand, and stop pointing fingers, roll up your sleeves and get to work. It's not a zero-sum game. Help turn "Big Oil" into "Big Solar" and bring clean energy to this planet now, before the curtain call.

All of us: Look at this cartoon whenever you feel there is an unbridgeable gulf between "us" and "them", and start bailing...



wagner said...

Superb graphics,..... especially the cartoon - perfectly describes the problem of equitable burden sharing between rich and poor countries for climate change mitigation.

Unknown said...

If you have a really good solar energy system, one that produces even more energy than you use, your utility company can buy it from you.

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