The case for clean energy

Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, debunks the claims that a transition to alternative energy sources is impractical.

A wind farm in Scotland that produces enough energy for 54,000 households (Steve Abraham)A wind farm in Scotland that produces enough energy for 54,000 households (Steve Abraham)

FOR NEARLY 40 years, since the first oil shock in 1973, the dream of a planet powered by clean, renewable energy has seemed just on the horizon.

Soaring wind turbines scooping up air, regiments of solar panels drinking in sunshine, schools of wave generators bobbing in oceans, sleek geothermal plants tapping terrestrial heat: these are the building blocks for constructing a society where all people can enjoy the benefits of modernity while preserving the sanctity of nature.

Nowadays, this dream seems more distant than ever in a world where undersea volcanoes spew millions of barrels of oil, coal fires choke the skies, and 5,000-degree puddles of molten uranium poison the land, air and water.

Perhaps the critics are right in dismissing renewable energy as mere fantasy. It must be true that wind, solar and geothermal energy sources are simply too scattered, too expensive and too intermittent to replace our hydrocarbon economy.

Can solar panels in the Southwest really power factories in the Midwest and tens of millions of homes and businesses on the coasts? Won't we need so many windmills that metallic giants will colonize every peak and plain? And what happens when the sun goes down at night or the wind stops blowing--won't we still need a robust back-up system based on the same dirty coal, oil and uranium we are trying to supplant?

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Hear Chris Williams at Socialism 2011 in Chicago, speaking on "Nuclear madness: Why nuclear power is not a "clean" option." Check out the Socialism 2011 website for more details.

It may seem hard to believe, but it is fully within our means today to make the alternative energy dream a green reality. All the technologies exist. The engineering is relatively straightforward, especially when compared to the epic size of our oil-powered, automobile-based societies. The need is obvious. Unless we want to consign humanity to a broiling, toxic swamp called earth, alternative energy is an imperative.

The tricky part, however, is society and politics. How our society and economy is organized; how wealth and resources are generated and distributed; which institutions have a vested interest in the status quo; and how to create radically different forms of decision making are the major obstacles to greening the global economy.

The first question is: Are there even enough alternative sources of energy to harvest? Different studies provide the answer.

Last August, Science magazine reported that 101,000 terawatts of solar energy strikes the ground each year. This compares to annual global energy consumption of 15 terawatts for everything: heating, electricity and transport. (One terawatt is a million megawatts, roughly equivalent to the output of 1,200 nuclear power reactors.) Therefore, we only have to capture a little more than 1/10,000th of incoming solar radiation to satisfy all of humanity's energy needs.

Wind energy is not so abundant, but still plentiful. A recent report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory put the total wind energy available in the United States was 37 million gigawatt hours of electricity, which is 12 times the demand. A 2005 study by Stanford University researchers found worldwide 72 terawatts of "sustainable class 3 winds," meaning they are highly efficient for generating electricity. This estimate, which researchers call conservative, is nearly five times global energy demand.

A comprehensive 2006 report by MIT, "The Future of Geothermal Energy," estimated that if the United States accessed just 2 percent of its geothermal potential, it would amount to 280 times our entire annual consumption. One recent study carried out at Stanford detailed how 100 percent of California's energy needs could be reliably met by 2020 with a mix of geothermal, solar and wind power alongside existing hydroelectricity.

The October 2009 issue of Scientific American featured another study detailing how to generate 100 percent of the world's energy from renewable sources by 2030. It would require manufacturing 3.8 million large wind turbines and 90,000 solar plants, and deploying geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations. The cost estimate was significantly less than if the same power was generated via fossil fuels and nuclear power. The construction of 3.8 million wind turbines might sound like a lot over a 20-year period, but as 70 million cars are manufactured every year, it is very feasible.

Clearly, the amount of energy available from solar, wind and geothermal sources, even without adding in tidal and wave energy, dwarfs current and foreseeable demand.

Now, there are two common arguments against supplying all of our energy from renewable sources.

Dispersion

Renewable energy sources are supposedly too diffuse to capture efficiently, even if it's technically free. Skeptics claim huge swaths of land would be gobbled up by the wind turbines and solar arrays needed to replace coal, oil and nuclear power. This raises another problem: the overall cost to build and maintain the new infrastructure and the resources required to do so.

At least in the U.S., dispersion is not an issue. High-quality wind power is abundant in the Great Plains and Texas and along the Eastern seaboard. The Southwest is bathed in sunshine that can be efficiently collected.

A considerable amount of space would have to be devoted to turbines, solar plants and the storage, transmission and distribution grid. But these would be located in sparsely populated areas, and would take up far less space than the existing infrastructure for oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power, without even including all the waste dumps and poisoned lands.

Intermittency

The second argument against renewables is because the sun and wind are somewhat unpredictable, we need carbon-based or nuclear power systems to smooth out fluctuations in supply or to account for demand spikes. Built-in redundancy to account for this problem is prohibitive in terms of cost, land and resource use.

The intermittency problem can be solved with a mix of renewables. First, wind and solar energy complement one another: wind is more prevalent and predictable at night, while solar is obviously limited to the day. Geothermal energy is highly predictable, as is tidal and wave-based energy. Second, if the mix of renewables is spread geographically, then there is a high probability that energy will be reliably available.

Third, to iron out any spikes, an electrical system based on renewable energy would require storage rather than redundancy--which in any case is already required with fossil fuel and nuclear plants. There are a number of proven technologies that can be used to store electricity. Solar energy can be stored for nighttime use by heating up salts during the day. And solar or wind power can stored by compressing air, pumping water uphill, or by employing flywheels.

Clean energy highway

To make this system viable, electricity grids must be upgraded. In the U.S., the antiquated grid is a hodgepodge of three semi-autonomous regions with little inter-connectivity and a morass of smaller lines zigzagging haphazardly across states. These grids are prone to costly accidents, power shortages and blackouts. High voltage power lines take up less land than those currently in use and are more efficient. Incorporating some high-voltage direct current lines--which lose far less electricity in long-distance transmission than alternating current lines--would also reduce energy usage.

Such a project would require federal intervention. However, when one looks at the interstate highway system--a huge subsidy to the auto industry--building a national super highway for clean-energy electrons is hardly unprecedented.

A 2009 publication, "Energy Self-Reliant States," found that 30 states could be entirely self-sufficient in energy without requiring long-distance power transmission. Therefore, a mix of decentralized and centralized energy is entirely possible.

Other advantages of renewable energy over fossil fuels and nuclear power include greatly reducing the possibility of breathing poisoned air, drinking polluted water and living on an irradiated and dying planet. Also, contrary to prevailing belief, wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels require far less downtime for maintenance than fossil-fuel or nuclear power plants.

As renewables are dispersed by nature and most will not be grouped in massive gigawatt-sized plants, taking turbines or solar panels offline is much less disruptive than shutting down just one large coal-fired power plant. Out of the more than 1,000 wind turbines operating in Japan, only one was damaged by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami. Therefore, resilience to natural disasters is another bonus of renewable energy sources.

One of the most intriguing benefits of renewable energies is that energy consumption would drop dramatically. According to Scientific American, "electrification is a more efficient way to use energy. For example, only 17 to 20 percent of the energy in gasoline is used to move a vehicle (the rest is wasted as heat), whereas 75 to 86 percent of the electricity delivered to an electric vehicle goes into motion."

The cost of subsidies

Perhaps the most common argument leveled against renewable is its expense. Nuclear-power proponents claim nuclear power is the cheapest form of energy per kilowatt-hour, less expensive than coal, oil or wind. This is true--if one ignores decommissioning costs for hundreds of nuclear reactors; the hundreds of billions of dollars that it will cost to handle the Fukushima disaster over the next 100 years; lands devastated by uranium mining; at least 150,000 deaths from the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl; and tens of thousands of years of continuing poisoning from highly radioactive waste that no one has a clue what to do with.

Wind is already cheaper than natural gas and coal, with almost none of the environmental drawbacks from mining and fracking to acid rain and climate change.

According to the winter 2011 issue of Good magazine, U.S. government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry in the form of tax breaks and direct spending totaled $70.2 billion from 2002 to 2008. Corn-based ethanol received $16.8 billion more while all other renewable technologies received only $12.2 billion.

Globally, price and production incentives for fossil fuels were an eye-popping $650 billion in 2008; this for the most profitable industry on the planet. Exxon Mobil alone reaped $30.5 billion in profit for 2010.

As for investments in green energy, last year the United States spent $18 billion, while China allocated $34 billion. China and South Korea far exceed the United States in the manufacture and production of green technology and will move further ahead over the next several years as public funding increases.

The dinosaurs that won't die

Wind energy is now so plentiful and inexpensive that U.S. utility companies are trying to squelch the wind industry.

According to a March 2010 account by environmental reporter Peter Behr, "A group of mostly East Coast utility companies calling itself the Coalition for Fair Transmission Policy fears that the prime conditions in the Great Plains will make the region's wind power too cheap for its members to compete with, unless developers there are made to pay the costs of moving wind power eastward."

Along with natural gas producers, the utilities want wind developers to pay for back-up generators, penalties if they don't deliver energy as scheduled, and want the government to deny them subsidies.

Another case of the fossil-fuel industry trying to kill renewable energy is occurring in Ontario, which has undertaken highly successful measures to support its renewable energy sector. The Canadian province is being sued for unfair trade practices by the U.S., Japan and the European Union.

Since 2003, coal use in Ontario has dropped 70 percent as 8,000 megawatts of clean energy have come on line. Its plan is to replace coal with renewable sources by 2014. Because the provincial government has enacted tariffs to guarantee prices for wind and solar energy as well as domestic manufacturing requirements--similar to "Buy American" laws--competing nations claim it is unfair competition.

A simple way to address the issue of energy consumption is through enacting efficiency regulations for appliances and retrofitting housing stock. As one example, U.S. regulations for new refrigerators, dishwashers and washing machines have led to the manufacturing of appliances that use 80 to 90 percent less electricity than old devices. A counter-example is provided by televisions. After vociferous lobbying by the electronics industry to block efficiency regulation, electricity consumption by televisions has soared because designers haven't been pushed to reduce energy use.

In terms of transport, we need to move from single-passenger vehicles and airplanes to a mix of bicycles, buses, subways, and light and high-speed rail. Bus systems, such as pioneered in Curitiba, Brazil, show how to move huge numbers of people around a city quickly, at low cost and with minimal energy usage. In terms of high-speed rail, China's network didn't exist prior to 2008; in two years, it will have more miles of high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined.

Social power

It is clear from all the studies and possibilities--as well as nearly two decades of delays and sabotage of international treaties to address climate change--that the central problem is the political priorities of the social and economic regime of capital. This point was made forthrightly by the United Nations in its 2011 report "Towards a Green Economy":

Although the causes of these crises vary, at a fundamental level they all share a common feature: the gross misallocation of capital. During the last two decades, much capital was poured into property, fossil fuels and structured financial assets with embedded derivatives, but relatively little in comparison was invested in renewable energy, energy efficiency, public transportation, sustainable agriculture, ecosystem and biodiversity protection, and land and water conservation.

Hardly a hotbed of radical thought, the United Nations says the system is to blame.

The real answer to whether or not we can power the planet on clean energy isn't so much a technical question as a social and political problem. Either we change the social power relations or we will continue to obtain our electrical power from fossil and nuclear sources.

Fortunately, we have a current example. In Germany, a mass anti-nuclear movement that took to the streets after the Fukushima meltdown has forced right-wing Chancellor Angela Merkel to do a U-turn. Rather than expanding nuclear plants, the German government has committed to dismantling all nuclear plants by 2022.

Switzerland has since followed suit and Italy, Thailand and Malaysia are discontinuing or putting on hold their plans for a nuclear program.

Ultimately, we need a revolution in social power in order to create a sustainable world based on clean power. Under a different social system, one not predicated on profit-taking, but one based on cooperation, real democracy and production for need, we can finally live sustainably with the planet on which we depend.

Glossary: wind and wave, solar and geo

The main advantages of wind, wave, tidal, solar and geothermal energy are they are practically limitless, free once constructed, and they don't emit greenhouse gases or radiation, destabilize the climate, cause respiratory ailments or cancer, contaminate water or leave behind spills or toxic waste.

The main drawback is high up-front costs. Building a new energy infrastructure requires a new and more efficient electrical grid and a shift from private to public transport. And at least during the build-out phase, there would be a rise in energy usage.

Wind is the most advanced and least expensive renewable energy, but some people claim towering turbines are eyesores and complain about noise pollution from the whooshing blades. However, turbines are downright pleasing compared to giant high-voltage electrical pylons. Offshore wind is more expensive, but it would be competitive if it received a fraction of the subsidies lavished on fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Concentrated solar power (CSP) uses hundreds of mirrors to focus the sun on a central tower. Water inside is boiled to create super-heated steam that turns a turbine connected to a generator. Turning mechanical energy into electricity is how all thermal plants--coal, oil, natural gas, biomass and uranium--operate. The difference is the fuel is sunshine, not mined, drilled or extracted from the earth.

Constructed of semi-conductor material, photovoltaic cells (PV) turn sunlight directly into electricity. CSP is cheaper than photovoltaic and takes up less land, but like other thermal plants it uses large amounts of water. PV cells are expensive compared to other forms of energy, but prices are dropping rapidly. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, Mark Little, global research director for General Electric, projected that thin film PV cells would be cost competitive with fossil fuels in five years.

Geothermal plants sink pipes up to three miles below the surface to siphon heat. Iceland already obtains over 30 percent of its energy from geothermal sources. The United States has abundant geothermal potential in the West. One disadvantage is that heat cannot be withdrawn faster than it can regenerate. Also, geothermal plants in California and Switzerland have been implicated in earthquakes.

Tidal power takes advantage of the moon's rotation around the earth, producing very predictable energy. The largest one in the world at Rance, France, has been operating since 1966. However, one proposed for the River Severn estuary that straddles England and Wales has encountered environmental and cost problems. Tidal plants also only produce electricity while tides are flowing--about 10 hours per day.

Underwater turbines are more expensive and need more research and development, as does wave power, which relies on long snakes of turbines rocking back and forth to extract energy from wave motion.

First published in The Indypendent.