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Fuel Poverty
Image: David Holt

When “Green” energy is a bad thing

Celebrating the deployment of just about any renewable energy technology is customary in left-/green-leaning circles… no matter how stupid.  But this speaks more to an uncritical tribal mentality equivalent to that on the climate change denial side of the argument.  It is more about a warm feeling of being on the right (i.e. affluent liberal) side of the environmental debate than any cold, hard examination of the very real and very dangerous predicament that we (in the developed world) find ourselves in.

Here’s the problem: We built a complex society on the back of cheap and abundant fossil carbon fuels; but we have now used up all of the cheap and easy to extract ones.  One of the things we used them for was to extract, process and transport all of the Earth’s cheap and easy to extract mineral resources – the ones we are left with require more energy than we can spare at a price that allows the economy to keep growing.  Indeed, we are fast approaching the point at which the metal content of our landfill tips is greater than the metal content of our mines.

What this means for future energy and the greening of the economy is that while we know in theory how to deploy renewable energy technology sufficient to maintain the best elements of a modern global economy, we lack affordable real world resources to do it in anything like the time needed to prevent severe economic disruption and/or environmental collapse.

If we are to have even the remotest possibility of preventing disaster on an unimaginable scale we need a serious, scientifically-underpinned and engineeringly-practical global plan (for any neoliberals among my readers, “leaving it to the free market” is not a plan).  By plan, I mean the global equivalent of the USA’s effort to land men on the moon or the Western Allies’ Manhattan Project during the Second World War.

Allow me to clarify why leaving it to the market is unacceptable.  First, as the cost of generating and refining energy increases – as it has been since crude oil production peaked in 2005 – individual businesses have a growing incentive to deploy renewables in order to cut costs.  This is precisely the kind of action that uncritical greenies welcome when they should be horrified at the potential “free market” consequences.  Consider Google’s recent announcement that they will run on “100% renewable energy from 2017.”  Isn’t that great news?  It would be, except:

“The company’s 100% renewable energy does not mean Google is getting all its energy directly from wind and solar power, but that on an annual basis the amount it purchases from renewable sources matches the electricity its operations consume.”

In other words, there will be times – like nights when the wind isn’t blowing – when Google will have to fall back on old fashioned fossil fuel energy delivered via the old fashioned National Grid that the rest of us use.  Google are far from alone in this.  As we reported last year, Sainsbury’s in the UK plans to generate electricity from gas produced from its food waste.  Again, the supermarket chain will also continue to depend upon fossil fuel energy from the Grid for times when it has insufficient renewable energy of its own.

Nor is it only business that is seeking to avoid increasing energy prices by going off grid.  Small businesses and affluent households have been taking advantage of tax breaks and generous feed-in tariffs by installing rooftop solar arrays.  These serve to cut Grid electricity consumption during the daytime; with any surplus being sold (at a relatively high price) to the Grid.  As with big business, however, affluent households also depend upon the continued operation of the Grid for those times when solar panels cannot supply enough energy.  But – here’s the key point – like big corporations, they no longer contribute to the maintenance of the Grid infrastructure.

Deployed in this way, renewable energy is essentially parasitic – those wealthy enough to take advantage of its benefits depend upon – and exploit – the much larger part of the population who lack the spare capital or the necessary credit rating to deploy their own renewable energy systems.  This group must pay the cost of maintaining the Grid infrastructure as well as meeting the cost of increasingly expensive Grid energy.  The result – inevitably – is that an ever greater number of the poorest households are plunged into fuel poverty; often having to make the hard choice between heating and food during the long dark winter nights.

The enforced opting out of energy use on the part of the poor provides the opposite jaw of the “energy death spiral” vice that is steadily destroying national Grids that depend on mass consumption to spread their operating and maintenance costs, and to provide a return to investors.  With the cost of maintaining the infrastructure falling on a shrinking squeezed-middle, and faced with ever rising fuel costs, the Grid and the energy supply companies are fast approaching the point at which they would make fewer losses if they simply stopped supplying household energy altogether.

Re-nationalisation or operating on a not-for-profit basis might slow the energy death spiral for a while, but it does nothing to tackle the underlying problem – an industrial economy built upon abundant cheap energy faces a future of shortages and much higher energy costs.  Continuing with business as usual can serve only to open up an energy inequality gap as pronounced and pernicious as the income inequality gap that is already producing economic, social and political volatility as those with nothing left to lose vote (Brexit, Trump, LePen, etc) to bring the whole rotten edifice down in preference to any more of the same.

We know – in theory – what must be done.  We need to put far more effort into saving energy rather than seeking greenwash technologies to enable us to continue wasting it.  We need national and international plans that involve funding the new energy infrastructure out of (progressive) taxation – with corporations like Google paying their fair share of tax – rather than (regressive) energy bills.  Like Google, we need to take a long hard look at all zero- and low-carbon energy generation, not just the cuddly (but inadequate on their own) wind and solar technologies.

With sufficient political will, we might even – just – secure the capital, resources and energy needed to do the job.  But we will not get there if the green movement carries on with a (failed) approach that places the cost of tackling climate change disproportionately onto the shoulders of those who can least afford it.  Not least because more of the same risks driving millions of people into the arms of climate-denying populists like Donald Trump.

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