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, September 6, 2008

Idiocracy and the Sneeches and the Bimini Baths

The Los Angeles Eco-Village, where I performed all of my first experiments in disaster preparedness and off-the-grid living at the turn of the millennium (2000), occupies a beautiful building at 249 Bimini Place near downtown Los Angeles that was once the hotel for the famed "Bimini Baths".

The Bimini Baths, built at the turn of the last millennium (1902), where Edgar Rice Burroughs, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin and other pioneers of Hollywood frolicked in the curative thermal spring waters that freely bubbled up from down below (and of course still exist under most of La-la land), were right across the street, on a site that is today just an asphalt parking lot.

The story of how Los Angeles turned its back on abundant, free, geothermal energy that used to provide for its "public baths" (although access was usually just for the elite and for Hollywood Celebrities) is tangled up in the same convoluted mentality of power and prejudice that is driving the upcoming election for America's coveted Presidency and subtends most geopolitics:

It's the Energy, stupid.

And as any reader of the economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen knows, Energy is the Economy, stupid.

And Politics is how people go about directing energy flows and amassing wealth and privilege, and transforming themselves into "the elite".


Stupid me -- for thinking this fall's election for the person who will put his or her finger on the button, the button that can release enough energy to destroy the world as we know it, or can set the policies controlling which energy source runs our factories, cities and transportation -- and even our farms (weren't they supposed to run on sunshine?) -- was really about other issues: right to carry a gun in my handbag or shoulder a rifle (these primitive firearms are so passe - what about my right to bear "the Silent Guardian", the Raytheon ray-gun now being deployed by the military?)... my right to interfere with what happens to the fetus in some other woman's body (without thinking about my right to interfere with the practices of companies spewing chemicals into our environment that hurt fetuses?) ... my right to vote on whether same-sex couples can sign pieces of paper saying they can file joint tax returns... my right to allow or disallow simultaneous discussion of mystical and scientific concepts in a "class-room" dedicated to creating class divisions (between people as well as between subjects).

Stupid me for thinking the election was about whether or not a VP candidate being described as "a babe" or whether a guy with a "funny sounding name" was better qualified to lead the free world based on those as defining characters.

Stupid me would think those were the crucial issues in the election. Smart me knows they aren't. Smart me knows it is mostly about energy, stupid.

We are at a pivotal point in our planet's history, with fresh water supplies and food supplies strained to the gills, and an ever growing population of humans with large ecological footprints displacing and driving to extinction our fellow life-forms, and it is the way we use energy, and what form it comes in, that determines who gets rich and who stays poor, who wins and who loses and what the future habitability of this planet will be for us and whichever animals and plants survive the way we transform our ecosystem.

So the election for the highest position in the "most powerful" country in the world is all about energy.

We know that.

But we are going to be wooed into voting as if we didn't. We are going to be wooed into voting as if the election was about race, gender, rights and class.

And that is where the story of the Bimini Baths comes in and provides an illustration.

The Bimini Baths were "powered" by the geothermal resources of the city of Los Angeles. As in all Earthquake prone regions, "there is gold in them there hills" -- or rather, magma under them there hills, that creates steam that can be used to create electric power and hot water that can be used directly. Under Hollywood there is enough hot water and steam to provide much of the city with both heat and electricity without the need to burn one gallon of gas or fuel oil or tap into the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant (what a nuke is doing in an earthquake prone region is beyond me!)

At the time when Charlie Chaplin was making Modern Times and City Lights, this inexhaustible clean energy source could have been keeping the city lights going, but the modern times of the time saw the area around the Bimini Baths turned into a massive field of oil-derricks. "The Gold Rush" of early Hollywood was all about Oil. The kind that made the Beverly Hillbillys rich.

But the geothermal power was there too, and the fact wasn't lost on the elite. They built opulent baths, like the Bimini Baths, and invited the Hollywood aristocracy to come and party in the naturally heated waters.

To attract and serve people flocking to the coastal paradise, city planners built light-rail lines covering all of Los Angeles -- the famous "Red Line" public transit service -- three of whose routes terminated at the Bimini Baths themselves.

We've all heard about (or indirectly learned about, from watching Disney's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit") how the oil and auto industries killed the red line electric rail-car system. Few have heard about how Hollywood's geothermal energy solution was also quietly dismantled and thrown away.

The Bimini Baths, and others like them, that could have served as a thriving public reminder that just under every Angelino's feet lies an energy source that is nearly free (but for infrastructure costs) and certainly carbon free, were razed to the ground, the pipes that carried the hot water and steam capped, and the entire area paved over to make a parking lot without so much as a plaque or a sign to remind people of the resource below.


The excuse used, of course, had nothing to do with energy. It was about race politics.

In the late 1940's black civil rights activists finally began to win some rights. Prior to that, "colored people" were forbidden to use the baths. By 1950, over a decade before the time of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, blacks successfully picketed in front of the Baths for their right of entrance, and could no longer be denied access to this popular location, which was supposed to have been a "public bath" anyway. The right for anybody, regardless of race, creed or religion, to share hot water, was as inanlienable as the right of anybody, regardless of race, creed or religion, to share the same cold water fountain.

The owners and operators, however, claimed that if colored people started bathing with white folk the baths would lose their clients and would no longer turn a proft. So they shut down the whole operation.
Notice nobody shut down drinking fountains or public lavatories for that reason.

Since the operating costs of a public bath system that has free hot water are nil, and the infrastructure had long been in place, claiming that lost revenue from "white flight" would detroy business was not a good economic argument -- any reasonable Willingness to Pay or Contingent Valuation study could have shown that the blue-collar workers of color of Los Angeles, at a time of the booming aerospace industry, could have made up for any loss of bigot revenue by sheer numbers.

But people rarely listen to well thought out economic arguments. If we used the economy, stupid, to make our decisions, stupid, we wouldn't make so many stupid decisions, stupid. Instead we let special interests dictate policy using pseudo, voodoo economics . And when the government isn't run by people who understand real economics, and no longer protects the public from the excesses of the market, the potential for keeping a healthy environment and healthy economy erodes. One wonders what an Obama government, run by a man who apparently really does understand economics, would have done in the case of the Bimini baths.

Such a government could have jumped in, declared the Baths a landmark, taken eminent domain, preserved them and opened them up to even a non-paying public through subsidy transfer. Today those baths could be helping keep the homeless and the poor and the unemployed clean and healthy and able to look and feel their best for the difficult job market.

But none of this happened.

Instead, the baths were buried, and almost nobody knows they even existed. Certainly you hear nothing during this period of energy crisis and climate change about tapping L.A.'s geothermal reserves, even for providing hot water for the buildings in the neighborhood or for showers in shelters for the poor, whose running costs are so high in an era of energy price hikes.

The geothermal resources of Northern California, shown in this photo, have been providing power for decades, but Hollywood, which has greater cultural influence in the world, has ignored its heritage. Of course Los Angeles is the same city that tore down its fantastic electric light rail system and turned down Disney's offer to build a Monorail to solve its transportation problems, pandering to big oil and big auto instead!

La-la land politics: What happens when the Robber Barons control the American Dream

Ignoring the contribution of urban geothermal power isn't surprising in an America with an oil-lobby leadership. Los Angeles, for all its sunshine, isn't considered the solar capital of American either, even though it is one of the cities with the most sunshine - one has to go up to the cloudy, rainy but intellectually progressive Bay Area to find a robust solar culture. For that matter, you have to go up to Northern California to find utility connected geothermal power (mostly around Geyser, California, where "'ole faithful" puts on a regular show for the public every day proving the promise of geo-thermal resources and where a bus tour leaves several times daily to visit the clean steam power plant.) And one of the few wealthy enterprises in America investing in geothermal power around the U.S. happens to be Google, a Sausalito company. If there was a lesson for American Politics in the spatial geography of development it would be that where intellectuals gather, good things happen. Where Gold diggers gather, you get business as usual.

Down in Hollywood alot of creativity and talent goes into the movie industry to tell fictional stories, but the stories that are told by the built environment, stories that can be seen by the naked eye outside of the cinema on the world stage, show that with all its influence and wealth and propaganda power, the Los Angeles power elite has done and is doing nothing about promoting its own geothermal reserves, apart from scaring people with films like "Volcano" with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche. That film may have informed the public about L.A.'s vast underground renewable energy potential but suggested it would be more likely to destroy the city than help it!

We are in the same situation with Solar Energy: With the exception of San Diego, where councilmembers Donna Frye and Michael Zucchet have done a great job of pushing a renewable energy agenda, Los Angeles and Southern California are still more or less only "flirting" with renewable energy instead of being married to it and leading the nation. There are a few celebrities, like Edward Begley Jr. and Leonard DiCaprio, who are fighting the uphill battle of promoting efficient clean technology, but the vast majority are more interested in promoting themselves through last centuries sport cars and conspicuous consumption. If you want to find a majority of celebrity champions of clean energy solutions you have to visit smart folks like Robin and Marsha Williams in their home in San Francisco or their Ranch up in Sonoma. L.A.'s good thinkers are overwhelmed by the vapid rich. I've been to record company executives and film producers' mansions in Beverly Hills and Beach Houses in Malibu where the owners told me gleefully about their regular weekends in Las Vegas where they drop "fortunes" having fun, and have been to parties they have thrown at home that cost tens of thousands of dollars for a single evening. But when I proposed they put solar energy on their roof they told me with a strait face, "Solar? Too expensive."

So there is clearly no leadership there.

Among the rich it takes a certain level of culture to understand the wisdom of long-term investments and the importance of full-cost-accounting in economics. That level of culture requires a certain level of education. Just being rich doesn't make you smart. And an Idiocracy cannot make wise decisions.

Among the poor and the middle class, on the other hand, even a high level of education will do little to help implement the kind of changes we need to stop degrading our environment and altering our climate. We need leadership from the centers of political power to help us tap into and make use of clean, inflation-resistent forms of heat, electric and motive power.

Even the Los Angeles Eco-Village at Bimini Place, which has quite an assemblage of well-educated, well intentioned residents fighting for change, little can be done to make the necessary investments in the current political climate. The building that now houses the Eco-Village apartments was once actually covered with solar thermal panels providing hot water for its 40 some apartments (installed during the Jimmy Carter administration era of tax credits before it became a designated member of the Global Eco-Village Network). But the building owners had them removed decades ago and installed a filthy oil burner that residents have been using ever since. The claim was that "solar didn't work" -- the truth is that they were part of an industry scam to destroy confidence in solar energy. The panels were installed facing East by irresponsible contractors and were built with inferior materials so that somewhere in the system a leak inevitably occured. Rather than simply fixing the leak and reorienting the panels to face south, the entire system was trashed. Talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water!

The expensive infrastructure -- the hot water storage tanks in the basement and the pipes to the roof, are actually all still there and are in good shape. But for almost 20 years the residents have not found a way (or the collective will) to fix the solar hot water system; when their oil boiler failed in 2003 they simply replaced it with another, because there were no incentives to go solar and a new oil burner was "cheaper."

The problem is that in Los Angeles only home-owners qualify for solar rebates; renters get no no tax credits, rebates or incentives, and only if building owners decide to make such an investment will a apartment complex switch to renewable energy. But since tenants pay the gas, oil and electric bills, there is no incentive for a building owner to do this.

In the case of the Eco-Village it would take complex collective action to decide to invest in re-deploying the solar hot water system, and there isn't enough political consensus; the residents are mostly low-income, not all moved in to the place because of a commitment to energy issues and most of the daily struggles still revolve around perceived issues of race and gender equity and individual tenants rights and freedoms. They are committed to consensus building, but think it will take years before they can convince everybody. Such is the problem of underfunded community organizations without institutional support trying to make expensive decisions. It is easier to spend time discussing social relations than implementing engineering solutions.

It is common in America to keep everybody thinking about race and gender and individual rights issues so that when it comes to investments that require broad based consensus that transcends identity politics no collective action can be taken.

You don't hear an awful lot about energy politics being behind all of this; to a certain extent things like the closure and erasure of the Bimini Baths and the dismantling and non-replacement of solar hot water systems at Bimini Place really are about people's feelings about the way they and society have constructed their identity and what being a member of a given class says about rights to access and exercise individual utilities and freedoms. But that is because the deck is stacked against those who want to organize for meaningful change.

As Noam Chomsky points out in "The Prosperous few and the restless many", "Society is very much structured to try to drive you toward the individualist alternative." We are caught in what game theorists call "the prisoner's dilemma", Chomsky tells us, wherein "It's only if we all do something a different way that we'll all benefit a lot more. The costs to you - an individual - to work to create the possibilities to do things together can be severe. It's only if lots of people begin to do it and do it seriously, that you get real benefits."(p. 83).

Somewhere on top in this hierarchical society there is leadership that has the luxury to take a bird's eye view, and it is a true leader who knows when to say "okay y'all, quit your petty in-fighting -- we have a larger destiny to pursue, a greater fight to fight, and we need to do it together." But that leadership is lacking in America.

The city or the government should have stepped in when the Bimini Baths were being closed and said, "hey, the importance of inflation-resistent, safe, clean energy sources for steam and hot water, and the importance of public baths for public health and for increasing worker productivity, is every bit as important as safe, clean streets, public libraries and public shools, and we cannot let race politics and bigotry interfere with their preservation and provision."

The city and the government should have stepped in when criminally negligent companies improperly installed badly built solar hot water systems and said "combatting the energy crisis and pollution through the use of solar energy is too important to let misconceptions and a lack of consumer confidence interfere with. We have studied the issue, we know better, and we know that we must make it easy for all people, renters and owners, to get high quality, certified systems with warranties and maintenance guarantees."

When such interventions by our elected officials do NOT occur, we know that they are not concerned with protecting us, but are pandering to lobbyists interested in making money off of us.

Since the time when de Toqueville warned against the "tyranny of the masses" and Jefferson was arguing for a democracy led by elected representatives of the people who used their fiat to study the issues hard and make good decisions for the masses (who didn't have the time to become experts) we have assumed that the people we vote into office are qualified to make decisions because they have educated themselves and trained themselves to be above the fray.

We expect an educated official to say, "the most important thing right now is to get us off of our dependence on oil (not just "foreign oil" -- any educated person can tell you that in a global economy it doesn't matter where the oil is drilled. The notion of a nation-state is pretty much passe in the world of business) and other centralized power sources.

As Chomsky famously points out, "If you want to create a humane world, you change the circumstances."

But only the people whom political economist Samir Amin calls "the ruling class" or "the ruling crass" (because he feels the term "elite" confers too much dignity upon them) can change the circumstances. And Chomsky notes, again, "Until you get to the source of power, which ultimately is investment decisions, other changes are cosmetic and can only take place in a limited way. If they go too far, the investors will just make other choices, and there's nothing much you can do about it." (p. 19).

And here is where the current election for the "White" House gets even more interesting (and disturbing). The Republican Party calls Barack Obama "elitist". But Obama doesn't come from the ruling class. He was never connected with the source of power or with investment decisions. The son of a white Kansas welfare Mom and a black Kenyan foreign student of modest origins, Obama has no family ties to the elite. His wife, Michelle, has lived the struggles of the American-American diaspora. Both have pursued the much touted American dream and climbed the social ladder the hard way. They are hardly elite, and thus can't be said to be elitist by any stretch of the imagination. The policies they propose serve the non-elite.

The elite are, and always have been, the historically rich. Not the flash-in-the-pan rich like Michael Jordan or Tupac Shakur or working class heroes turned celebrities like the Beatles. Their money is more of a temporary transfer of funds that will eventually wind up right back in the hands of the truly rich families once again. The elite are the beneficiaries of the old set of policies that preserved "sharp differences in power which in fact are ultimately rooted in the economic system", says Chomsky, " You can talk about the masters if you like, It's Adam Smith's word and he's now in fashion. The elite are the masters, and they follow what he called their 'vile maxim' --namely, 'all for ourselves and nothing for anyone else'." (p. 70)

McCain is married to the heiress to a large Budweiser distributorship fortune. He thus became a member of "the ruling crass". He is of the elite. But somehow he can use the mere word "elitist" to suggest that Obama's prodigious academic and intellectual achievements make him a bad choice to govern the masses.

Overqualified to Govern?

We've all heard about Ph.D.'s driving taxi cabs when teaching jobs are scarce. But now we have a couple of vacancies in the White House, the global center of governance, and we are considering a choice between candidates with heads full of education and heads that are... vacant.

What does this say about our educational system?

It is baffling to think that having struggled hard to get a good education and perform well in the difficult game of academia (set up by the elite with tremendous hurdles and roadblocks to confuse, frustrate and discourage the masses), Obama is now being put down for his achievements!

It reminds me of the Dr. Seuss book "The Sneeches" wherein you have two classes of people -- those with stars on their bellies and those without. Those with stars, of course, are the elite. When a man comes to the land of Sneeches with a machine to put stars on the bellies of the starless, the elite simply go to the same man and hire him to use another machine to remove their stars. From then on NOT having a star on your belly becomes the symbol of the elite.

So now Obama, a man from historically disenfranchised origins, comes to the threshold of the White House, displaying the star on his belly that getting a law degree from Harvard confers, and we are suddenly told this is no longer the qualification for governing. Now we are told the nation needs "war heros" (whose "decision-making" skills are really decision taking skills -- soldiers are taught to take orders unthinkingly from a military-industrial machine whose agenda is set by the power elite -- did McCain ever think to ask WHY he was shooting SouthEast Asian peasants?) and beauty-queen hockey moms.

If the Republican ticket wins again, I wonder what signal this will send to the rest of the world.

Would we be admitting that getting a good education and struggling to succeed is not worth the effort? Will people suddenly decide that our system of rewards is bankrupt and false, that our academic institutions and the degrees they confer in subjects such as jurisprudence, governance, political economy etc. are worthless for those trying to put what they learned into practice?

Chomsky warns us, "There's virtually no functioning left intelligentsia (intellectuals viewed as a distinct group or class). Nobody's talking much about what should be done, or is even available to give talks. The class warfare of he last decades has been fairly successful in weakening popular organizations. People are isolated.(p.17) "

Meanwhile the business community is consolidated:

"Herman Daly and Robert Goodland, two World Bank economists... point out that received economic theory -- the standard theory on which decisions are supposed to be based -- pictures a free market sea with tiny little islands of individual firms. These islands, of course, aren't internally free -- they're centrally managed. But that's okay because these are just tiny little islands on the sea. We're supposed to believe that these firms aren't much different from a mom-and-pop store down the street. Daly and Goodland point out that by now the islands are approaching the scale of the sea. A large percentage of cross-border transactions are within a single firm, hardly "trade" in any meaningful sense. What you have is centrally managed transactions, with a very visible hand -- major corporate structures - directing it... the sea itself bears only a partial resemblance to free trade... we often don't rely on the market where powerful interests would be damaged. Our actual economic policy is a mixture of protectionist, interventionist, free market and liberal measures. And its directed primarily to the needs of those who implement social policy, who are mostly the wealthy and the powerful."
"It's been understood that a system of private enterprise can only survive if there is extensive government intervention. It's needed to regulate disorderly markets and protect private capital from the destructive effects of the market system, and to organize a public subsidy for targeting advanced sectors of industry..." (p. 11)

And this is precisely what makes highly educated human beings who come from the ranks of the non-elite so dangerous to the historically wealthy. During the Clinton administration The Wall Street Journal cautioned against "what might happen if the administration gets any funny ideas about taking some of their rhetoric seriously -- like spending money for social programs." Or curtailing the ability of industry and developers to profit at the expense of our health and environment. Or making investments in renewable energy and environmental technology.

The death-knell for the Clinton-Gore governance effort came about, as far as I'm concerned, when Clinto said these words in his last state of the Union address:

"I am grateful for the opportunities the vice president and I have had to work hard to protect the environment and finally to put to rest the notion that you can't expand the economy while protecting the environment. As our economy has grown, we have rid more than 500 neighborhoods of toxic waste and ensured cleaner air and water for millions of families. In the past three months alone, we have acted to preserve more than 40 million acres of roadless lands in our national forests and created three new national monuments.

But as our communities grow, our commitment to conservation must grow as well. Tonight, I propose creating a permanent conservation fund to restore wildlife, protect coastlines and save natural treasures from California redwoods to the Everglades. This Lands Legacy endowment represents by far the most enduring investment in land preservation ever proposed.

Last year, the vice president launched a new effort to help make communities more livable -- so children will grow up next to parks, not parking lots, and parents can be home with their children instead of stuck in traffic. Tonight, we propose new funding for advanced transit systems -- for saving precious open spaces and for helping major cities around the Great Lakes protect their waterways and enhance their quality of life.

The greatest environmental challenge of the new century is global warming. Scientists tell us that the 1990s were the hottest decade of the entire millennium. If we fail to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, deadly heat waves and droughts will become more frequent, coastal areas will be flooded, economies disrupted. Many people in the United States and around the world still believe we can't cut greenhouse gas pollution without slowing economic growth. In the Industrial Age that may have been true. In the digital economy, it isn't.

New technologies make it possible to cut harmful emissions and provide even more growth. For example, just last week, automakers unveiled cars that get 70 to 80 miles a gallon -- the fruits of a unique research partnership between government and industry. Before you know it, efficient production of biofuels will give us the equivalent of hundreds of miles from a gallon of gas.

To speed innovations in environmental technologies, I propose giving major tax incentives to businesses for the production of clean energy -- and to families for buying energy-saving homes and appliances and the next generation of super-efficient cars when they hit the showroom floor. I also call on the auto industry to use available technologies to make all new cars more fuel-efficient right away. And on Congress to make more of our clean-energy technologies available to the developing world -- creating cleaner growth abroad and new jobs at home.

In the new century, innovations in science and technology will be the key not only to the health of the environment but to miraculous improvements in the quality of our lives and advances in the economy."

At this point the old guard oil men had to hijack the elections. The world was about to pass them by.

Clinton and Gore made reasoned arguments based on intelligent study of issues, and suggested a new direction for industry. Unfortunately this direction, based on the standard economic efficiency argument, undermines the profit potential of the old guard. And the old guard have always had the military on their side.

As Chomsky pointed out, the Pentagon has always been the "method by which the government could coordinate the private economy, provide welfare to major corporations, subsidize them, arrange the flow of taxpayer money to research and development, provide a state-guarenteed market for excess production, target advanced industries for development, etc. Just about every successful and fluorishing aspect of the US economy has relied on this kind of government involvement." (p. 11)

The problem is that the "advances in the economy" that thinking people without ties to the old guard always seem to promote are precisely the things that will rob the current powerholders of the subsidies they depend on to maintain their profits. So the old guard has to do everything it can to preserve their grossly subsidized "way of life" so that what they have to sell will always seem cheaper and more attractive.

Take for example, the claim that solar and wind are "uneconomic" because they require subsidy to be cost competitive. Nobody points out that coal, oil and nuclear power are only as cheap as they are not only because they don't internalize the cost of their "negative externalities" but because they have always recieved the Pentagon-based government subsidies. Without subsidy, oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy would not be competitive in an economic sense.

George W. Bush's 2005 energy bill alone guaranteed the following subsidies to the non-renewable energy sector:
$6 Billion Subsidy to Oil and Gas
$9 Billion Subsidy to Coal
$12 Billion Subsidy to Nuclear Power

Only a fraction of those amounts went to "renewable energy" ($2.7 billion) and the lions share of that budget went to large scale centralized hydroelectric power and corn fed ethanol, leaving nothing for solar and wind and waste biomass.

The Obama-Biden ticket would challenge those subsidies and shift them. So of course the VP pick for the Republicans is not only careful crafted to have appeal to poorly educated women, but is a panderer to the oil and gas lobbies who get the government to give her state its hand-outs.

McCain has been a major supporter of Nuclear Industry Subsidies, pandering to lobbyists who fear that the nuclear industry would not be able to compete without them -- this is a point Amory Lovins, former energy advisor to Carter, has made time and time again. The Economist observed in 2001 that “Nuclear power, once claimed to be too cheap to meter, is now too costly to matter”. Lovins points out that it was once thought that though nuclear power plants were expensive to build they would be cheap to run, but "Since then, it’s become several-fold costlier to build, and in a few years, as old fuel contracts expire, it is expected to become several-fold costlier to run. Its total cost now markedly exceeds that of other common power plants (coal, gas, big wind farms), let alone the even cheaper competitors [such as wind, solar, biomass, micro-hydro, cogen, microturbine and cogen]".

Lovins has shown that "small is profitable" and that distributed resources are much more economically efficient and profitiable than centralized resources. But renewables have never gotten the same amount of subsidy as Gas, Oil, Coal and Nuclear, or anything near it, as these graphs from Friends of the Earth Show (keep in mind that 'renewables' includes hydroelectric and farm subsidies for ethanol'):

Smart people in office can read graphs and do the math and understand economics well enough to question all these troubling inconsistencies. But McCain has admitted economics is not his strong point!

It is as though we are doomed to being ruled by an "Idiocracy", and perhaps that is the point -- the status quo apparently doesn't need thinking men and women to operate it. It needs only soldiers who follow the orders of the corporate robber barons and their trophy wife heiresses and compliant beauty queen VPs who do what their men tell them!

With such people in power, cities like Los Angeles, despite abundant clean, inflation resistent geothermal and solar energy supplies, will continue to drill for offshore oil and build nuclear power plants in earthquake zones. And the movies made in such tinsel towns will convince the rest of the world to do the same.

And that is the world our children will inherit, a world they will recognize from their books and films - a world of Sneetches ruled by an Idiocracy -- a world where only the rich can afford to take a nice long hot bath... an America that looks more and more like the slums of Cairo. Egypt every day.


For those who want to know more about government subsidies for energy, it is worth copying Jeff McIntire-Strasburg, director of Green Options, to make the arguments because he says it better than I can:

"Hopefully, many of you taken a look at the great conversation going on between my old friend Bobby (we've known each other since the 9th grade), sustainablog's favorite celebrity activist Tod Brilliant, and myself about Sir Nicholas Stern's report on the economic impact of climate change. You'll figure out quickly that Bobby's a climate change skeptic... he's also been completely courteous (appreciate it, man). The debate between us has been really interesting, and I thought I'd use tonight's post to address one of the issues I feel the most comfortable with: climate science... HA! Just kidding... I pointed him to Real Climate for that. I feel much more comfortable with some of the economic issues Bobby raises, and did a little digging around today on US government subsidies to various energy recovery or generation technologies.

I took particular notice of Bobby's statements that "I also honestly believe that pseudoscience is being employed to ... market technologies that have proven themselves utter failures," and

I mentioned failing technologies above. Solar water heating has been around for over a century and photovoltaics for 3 or 4 decades, but they still cost at least ten times more than carbon based energy sources. Electric cars are nothing new and are still not competitive. The hydrogen economy is plagued with high energy production issues and is an infrastructure nightmare. Is increased subsidization of these questionable technologies via changes in the tax code really the answer? No matter how you slice it they still hit the pocketbook harder than carbon based or nuclear energies. You would think that if they want to offer the same old solutions, they could at least find a cheaper way to produce their products.
With all due respect, I think this is a common perception among our conservative-leaning friends who distrust the environmental movement: a product didn't make it on the market, so it must be deficient. As regular readers will know beyond a shadow of a doubt, I don't agree with the "failed technologies" characterization, and I think what we see happening in the market isn't "the invisible hand" pointing us to the best technology, but rather the workings of something conservatives otherwise criticize: subsidies.

I know better than go into an argument with Bobby without my facts in order, so I did some hunting and found my way back to EarthTrack, a site that deals with these very issues. Author Doug Koplow does a very thorough analysis of the 2003/2004 energy bill that shows that most subsidies for energy go to already mature industries: oil & gas, coal and nuclear power. Doug's writing for a policy audience, so I also looked around and found this summary of the energy bill from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. In short: "Big energy companies are flush with so much cash, they don't know what to do with it. That didn't stop Congress from showering the electricity, coal, nuclear, natural gas and oil industries with $8.5 billion in tax breaks and billions more in loan guarantees and other subsidies." As for renewables,

The final legislation dropped a provision that would have required utilities "to generate at least 10 percent of their electricity through renewable fuels by 2020." The proposal, championed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) was "was a low-cost, market-driven approach to cutting demand for fossil fuels and easing air pollution." On this issue, we are officially less progressive than China.

These examples come from only one (major) bill, but I they serve to illustrate my main point: there is no "free market" in terms of our energy supply. Of course fossil fuels and nuclear power have fared better on the market, because massive subsidies bring down the costs. On the other hand, despite these inequities, renewables have grown by double digits in recent years, despite the relatively paltry subsidies they receive. I read just the opposite here: renewable are viable technologies that can compete, but they're currently playing on a very uneven field.

The point here isn't to cry "unfair"; rather its to question the purpose of subsidies for energy technology. At their best, they're investments in promising technologies that haven't reached a point of development to compete with established industries. At their worst, they suppress these newer technologies. It isn't the technology that's failed -- it's a corrupted political process that keep funding industries that don't require it to compete. Until there's some remedy to this situation, we simply can't talk about failed technologies..."


Actve said...

Suggest you to provide link to

and encourage your readers to use the
Energy Environment Forum !

T.H. Culhane said...

Thanks actve, I checked out the site and put the link in my sidebar. I enjoyed the article about using the fisher-tropf process with wind power to reclaim CO2 and store energy as hydrocarbon fuels. Makes sense to me -- it could bring an age of carbon-neutral hydrocarbons without having to use "food for fuel". Cool stuff.

Andy said...

T.H., I am reading your post at a very propitious moment. I am currently reading "The Foundation Trilogy" by Isaac Asimov, and am therefore full of thoughts about the broad sweep of history and the forces that pull it one way or another. I am also, of course, quite excited by your post, because it lays out so clearly and co convincingly the nature of the forces at play in this election. I have always struggled with the question of what the role of great individuals in history is. After all, War and Peace seems to suggest that the individual is but a rivulet in the river of history, a rivulet whose importance is washed away by the waves surrounding it. Yet you seem to suggest that great leaders alter history; and I am inclined to believe that. Indeed, even if I lacked evidence to bolster my belief, I would believe it all the same: for life would not seem worth living to me were there no room for heroism on the part of enlightened individuals. . .

In short, your post is greatly appreciated, and leaves me thinking. After all, this election is FAR, FAR too close for comfort, and far close than it should be. Will we see another Gore V Bush in the Supreme Court? For the sake of the world, and the goodness of life and biology, I hope not. . .