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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Philosopher Pawns: Climate Change, Nuclear Revival - Market Fundamentalism Ignores Local Power


As Fukushima poured its iodine clouds eastward toward the West and its millions of gallons of radioactive water into the Pacific, a famous ecologist burst forth publicly with enthusiasm for nuclear power. George Monbiot, the British Climate Change authority and journalist, felt compelled to declare his support for nuclear power plants, he said, in order to pre-empt a rising tide of opposition to the Nuclear Industry's revival, which I have written about since the 1990's.
Fukushima, Monbiot feared, would cause the construction of more coal-fired power plants to make up the difference in an ever-growing global demand for electricity supplies.
His dread was expressed most profoundly in the inability of renewable energy to provide an economically feasible alternative to coal power - "the baseload problem," Monbiot and others like to say. The intermittency of renewables is perceived to pose an insurmountable problem.  Monbiot's fatalism about coal, understandable in a global Race to the Bottom in all policy arenas from Washington to London, Berlin to Beijing, not just in energy policy - yet Monbiot's platitudes are based on profoundly poor, even superficial understanding of energy economics, blinding him to the dramatic opportunities for renewables to replace coal or nuclear baseload plants worldwide in the immediate term - without increasing the cost of energy even in cheap energy markets based on coal-fired power at the center of America’s economy.
By over-depending upon economic figures from the fosil/nuclear/import-oriented incumbent energy industry (whose way of doing business has caused climate change) Monbiot thus reproduces the desperately narrow mentality of said Race to the Bottom. This is the error of coming out for a nuclear solution to Climate Change; it is hysterical – a panic reaction. Let's take a comparable policy challenge - reducing smoking. Governments do not ask Tobacco companies how much it will cost to reduce smoking. When the U.S. turned against smoking, the political alienation happened over night. The day before it was King Tobacco; the following day those interests became pariahs unwelcome at Washington social engagements. The idea that the government would ask the tobacco industry to please reduce smoking by its customers would have been ridiculed as irresponsible. But with Climate Change, the mainstream policy debate has studiously ignored the question of causing economic harm to power plant owners, who (ahem) own the large concentration of fixed capital in the world. Their prerogative to remain profitable despite Climate Change is the major political problem defining the economics of renewable localization, because the systems they adopt to comply with government mandates like Feed In Tariffs invariably impose a premium to recover losses from reduced fuel consumption. Monbiot's policy framework is limited to carrots and sticks - ultimately the feed-in tariff - a poverty that makes nuclear the only option.
The Enlightenment leader Voltaire said sometimes the most dangerous man in the room is the one who says everything is going to be alright. In a crisis, to be comforted by such a man, is folly. Monbiot, like British climate scientist and nuclear revivalist James Lovelock, is justified in being sufficiently alarmed by Climate policy collapse and epochal catastrophe that would follow that. I admire both men for their clear read of the Climate Change / Energy industry trainwreck over the past decade. The problem is, the time is up. The energy industry is the problem, not the solution; public works built bridges when banks would not – not to mention water and sewer systems – the public side of life. Why no consideration of public works to address this mounting crisis? 
Great crises and great events are not consensus-based; they are political, they involve decisions being made and actions being taken.  Our somnambulistic U.S. climate policy players (among which are counted some of its worst energy corporations, like self proclaimed “eco-warrior” Pacific Gas and Electric) where I live have obscured this fact with astro-leadership, which is to say, public relations - greenwashing. When a terrorist attacks New York and Washington with airplanes, our governments jump militarily to destroy entire nations; but when the energy industry threatens humanity on a far greater scale, the corporations causing it are consulted, asked for their ideas on how to handle the problem, and ultimately coddled with incentive packages and tax breaks, perhaps a new tariff or 30-year goal. This is a political problem - of corporatism, not an economic problem, as Monbiot and Lovelock naively assume.
History did not end. The surrealism of pay-to-play industrial democracy has brought a new kind of corporate hubris in a fiscal collapse following a global deregulation and liberalization; in my own struggle last year, Proposition 16 attacked the efforts of governments to implement green power public works in California last year by a corporate plebiscite. $46 Million was spent over six months to persuade voters to block City and County governments from implementing some of the world’s leading efforts to attack climate change. PG&E attacked local governments mind you just as they were being hit with sudden property tax collapse and 50% budget shortfalls to start the collapse ball rolling. Again, this is politics, not some iron law of green economics. PG&E is America's leading Nuclear Revivalist, Mr. Monbiot - while crushing green public works by municipalities. In this historical moment it is not green power itself that poses the main challenge, but effective democratic action – doing the Right Thing – not choosing the (cough) lesser of two evils. That is what we have been doing since Kyoto: our two nations have already suffered our Blairs and Clintons.
Over my career of 18 years in energy- , arithmetic has not ruled energy costs – but bailouts, state-authorized shock doctrine, and laundered structural failures. This failure of ideology is a uniquely American and UK prejudice for oligarchical, imperial-style control of energy as a strategic commodity. It is the detritus of the Cold War and the British Navy before that. But it has spread throughout the world under energy liberalization policies our governments have championed. Many are more comfortable blaming overpopulation for climate change rather than question Western hypergrowth, and feel more comfortable discussing depopulation (more imperialism) rather than questioning the prerogative of energy corporations in our political life - the very maw of hypergrowth. Our nations are intellectually encumbered by this Market Fundamentalism: we literally cannot see the solution to climate change, nuclear proliferation, oil war, sprawl transportation, species extinction, and the epi-crisis that is Energy itself. 
In energy, markets might control technology, but politics controls markets. The power of a local government to build infrastructure is not limited to markets.  In finance, the ability of a government to control power revenues or sell bonds is the basis of a non-linear investment opportunity – the opportunity of “public works.” My own work is reinventing energy public works to cause relocalization by local governments and cooperative ownership structures to create the space for real change. This is not a market structure, not a tariff as in the Feed-In Tariff and Net Metering arrangements between owners of renewables and monopoly utilities. Such schemes are constrained to build change within an industrial detritus of legacy investments in obsolete coal, methane, oil, and nuclear power plants and fuel supplies, high voltage power lines and substations, pipelines and related financial obligations. Monbiot limits his analytical universe to the sectoral green power industry growth curve assumptions, which determine his bandwith of greenhouse gas reduction potential in local distributed renewable technologies, efficiency conservation technologies, and so-called “smart grid” applications of a dozen or more competitive technologies.  It is a fatal flaw. Energy Localization – Community Choice, H Bonds, Community Solar Shares, and other related strategies change the foundation upon which pricepoints and growth curves are built. This non-linearity of public works, Monbiot and Lovelock fail to perceive.
Over the years I have admired Monbiot's work. His dressing down of the California solar cheerleader squad in his 2006 book Heat was totally on the mark. But Monbiot assumed that was all there was to solar. To assess wind economics, Monbiot like Lovelock always assumes British or U.S. industry markets and their trend curves are the final word on what is physically achievable - if the utility industry he so blindly parrots were to itself to take a hit.
The Market Fundamentalists all mistake the interests of a power plant owner with the interests of the energy user. The grotesque spectacle of ecologists nuclear revivalist Born-Agains is not unique to Monbiot, who follows in the steps of Gaia Theorist and technologist – actually a genius, but profoundly mistaken - James Lovelock, "Greenpeace Dropout" eco-contrarian Patrick Moore and Marin New Age “green capitalist” Stewart Brand. All share the demeanor of the recently converted, a sunny tabula rasa innocence, a jettisoned former conviction replaced by an imperfectly attained new wisdom - a hubristic resentment of abandoned loyalties, a trace of guilt, an ambiguity verging on paranoia - a skepticism posing as certainty. Like when left atheist Christopher Hitchens came out supporting Bush's Iraq invasion right when it made a political difference in Congress, cheerleading for Dr. Strangelove in the Fallout of Fukushima is high-stakes territory resembling intellectual folly.
The No-Man's land between knowledges is most terrifying to the philosopher, who would possess wisdom, an organic remembrance of pure unencumbered history, and thus producing reliable theory, even a tradition - appropriate attitude and the right questions, a steady practical management of the New. But the Nuclear Revivalists get it wrong - dyslexically wrong.  The 20th century eradicated what remained of the Enlightenment through a process of Specialization that has rendered coherent scientific knowledge very difficult to accomplish.
Energy and the ecological and economic crisis the Energy Industry has caused, presents a particular challenge to philosophers because of the many-layered forms of knowledge required to comprehend Energy. Monbiot, and the Nuclear Revivalists are in a sense victims of this silo-ism (post-enlightened solipsism?) of knowledges in our time, rendering them over-dependent intellectually on specialists in fields of knowledge in which they have no direct competence.   While brilliant and honest, Monbiot and the genius Lovelock have fallen into an intellectual blind spot. Lovelock, as I have written in some detail, is politically illiterate, and economically naive to the point of possessing a fundamentalist naivety - a worshipper of economists as if they were naturalists rather than ideologues and minions of corporate power - and of imperialism, for example. Monbiot, less naive politically, is uneducated in energy economics, depending upon status quo industry statistics for his estimates of the cost of renewable energy relative to the cost of conventional power. This is a drab statement admittedly, to make it plainly – an understandable but damnable mistake.
We are talking, ultimately about the cost of change. Monbiot has said it is too expensive, so we must have nuclear power. Big Brother talking now, chiding us for our nuclear NIMBYism.  Naive, these philosophers have become pawns of the darkest forces of Status Quo, imperialism, divide and conquer, and are reduced to cheerleading for the least of two epic evils:  nuclear power yes, coal power no.
Monbiot and the Nuclear Revivalists would have us choose between catastrophes because they embrace its dark hopelessness as a new kind of adulthood, a new political maturity. They would father us with this condescending realism, repeating the old saw that what is must be - that the real is indistinguishable from the true.
But what is, must not be. Economics, in energy, is master of technology, but the servant of politics. The synthesis is science - is Enlightenment. Understanding what is possible, today - not just tomorrow - cannot be achieved without this synthesis. Like Lovelock, Monbiot worships at the idol Economics; he states, with little qualification that solar photovoltaic power costs 41 pence per kilowatt hour, pointing to Britain's Feed-In Tariff system of paying solar PV owners for their solar power. And he is right, the Feed In Tariff system of Europe is not the way forward, but nonetheless he uses this number to discredit solar power as a technology. Similar isolated technology economics analysis comprise Monbiot's critiques of renewables as a Carbon solution throughout HEAT and his other writings. This analysis is woefully limited and must be retracted. Monbiot fails to deconstruct the Tariff itself, merely footnoting it as a FACT.
Truth, is solar power has neither an objective price, energy cost, nor a priori carbon impact.   The impact of renewable distributed generation technologies may not be judged in isolation, one by one, but together, operating in parallel as a single integrated location-specific system. Tariffs are flawed, because they are designed as post facto modifications of the incumbent energy industry’s business. It is self evident they have prevented change in the U.S. for fifty years – nearly as long in U.S. and competitor’s imperial claim areas all over the world. Now that the technical feasibility of renewable energy localizations of 50% to 75% over five years cannot be disputed, the economic feasibility is solely in question in Nuclear Revivalists’ central precept that renewable energy cannot deliver a 50-75 physical system demand reduction cost-effectively in five years without increasing power and heat utility bills for any customers.  Technology strategy will differ by place but is achievable today by mature, innovating industries. I repeat, the challenge is political will for historic change, not any objective price of power that Monbiot or anyone else can tag on solar power. Power and heat can be built to carry transporation infrastructure, capturing the Lion’s Share of the extraordinary volume of carbon emissions that must be reduced over the next five years in any region of the world. A ten- to fifteen-year global transformation of energy is technically economically feasible through such localizations, offering a soft landing to 21st Century mankind - without new nuclear plants threatening new catastrophes.
Like Lovelock, Monbiot approaches renewables within the paradigm of fuels. Fuel has a price. Natural gas, coal, oil produce the same power in the UK as in California or Siberia. But renewable technologies produce different volumes of power in different weather conditions, and more importantly, offset different volumes of grid power in different communities based on the regional weather and demand pattern (bedroom communities at night, cities in day). 
Every place has advantages and disadvantages based on not only local resources but local governance authority; if only a monopoly has role of implementing the change, it is germane to estimating feasibility. Where a local government like Sonoma County or Boulder Colorado says it wants to relocalize and physically build a public works rollout of a 50-75% regionalization/relocalization with not one technology but a dozen, not just minority facilities but mainstream distributed power and demand response, targeted capacity balancing with local storage, and smart grid. To speak of renewable energy in this two-dimensional way is a folly of climate change economics. Monbiot had a debate tour but I didn't hear about it in time. I would welcome a debate at any time, San Francisco or London some time in the affordable future. Renewable economics are not defined by commodity prices but by the manner in which they are integrated as intermittent resources to physically replace power plants.
Our time in History suffers not from stupidity but a demoralization, disengagement, and a sense of hopelessness - it is the rational modern attitude in the face of overpowering external forces - and liberalization, globalization, hypergrowth. But philosophers and leaders must not succumb to it; to the extent Monbiot and Lovelock would concede my economic argument, they must admit to some startling non-linear volumetric consequences, namely an accelerated scaled decentralization that could be implemented in short order. I know it is hard to imagine given how dystopian the idiocy of America, Britain and Europe in the Blair/Clinton Era of Bush Obama Non-Policy is - no economy, and no trade policy. It is hard to find a witness or coherent leader in the so-called developed world. That U.S. Trade policy is unmentioned during the world economic downturn shows the deck - the vacuity of policy depth, the unseriousness, the Fame-oriented trivialization of it. But this decadence does not define what is possible, nor what is to be done to stop Climate Change.
Why wouldn't it be that way in the U.S. twenty years after the global victory of Capitalism, Globalization, Liberalism, and Deregulation? In the tired detritus of U.K. and U.S. political discourse, physicists compare Tariff prices and cry Uncle - at the very moment when a real alternative to nuclear power and more militarism is made possible now and without increased utility bills - if the necessary changes are made by local governments, like San Francisco, Marin County, and the City of Boulder are trying to make.
Zeitgeist After Apocalpyse? Will the world end with a whimper or a yawn? The challenges of building major public works in a new category of cause (not plumbing nor bridges, nor hospitals nor trains) are significant, with complex urban environments to work through. These are the focus of my work, how I make a living - figuring out how far, how fast any county or municipal government could transform its community's energy supply, measured in carbon reductions, without increased rates. I can point to portfolios we have designed for several cities, and proposed them to cities in public documents over many years.
Most are posted on my Local Power Inc. website. We are talking about political challenges, not challenges to technical potential or economic potential. Just as it was a political challenge for the U.S. Congress to turn its back on King Tobacco in order to truly oppose cigarette proliferation, so the green power localization / customer ownership / public movement can plan to down nuclear, gas and coal power plants to a grid backup function, dramatically reduce carbon (our last model is 67% reduction built over 5 years - no rate increase – for Sonoma County in California).  Again, I repeat, the Green Nuclear Revivalists undertake an economic rejection of renewables modeled upon the incumbent owner/controller of the utility system to implement. In countries where the government owned or controlled the systems left over from socialist origins, the Feed in Tariffs were easier to implement. In the U.S. a Cold War configuration of mega-utilities, holding companies and cartels control each state market differently - even each municipal franchise agreement.
The reality of Climate Change actions on a scale commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis is, as with telephone deregulation, a trade war. Enron and Pacific Gas & Electric have proven that democracies can be gamed, manipulated, led in a circle. The Keystone Cops aspect of regulation in U.S. or Europe during the Boom to Bust orgy must not suffer the silence of laughter. To suggest the Tobacco companies should have been given responsibility for reducing smoking in the U.S., this was thought irresponsible - but is precisely the primary framework of all U.S. energy policy that is deal-oriented and normative with stooges and dorks played by sharks and cynics. Let's not pretend that U.S. or European governments are limited market-based solutions, when after all the markets have self-combusted? Indeed, today the Local Power model is more possible because the growth maw of hyper-growth economics is so spasmodic, so obviously maladaptive. We do not need a power supply to feed the McWorldization of the world. We need ourselves to be retrofitted and modernized, our Old New Infrastructure now behind countries like Cuba. Liberalization and Globalization are not the way of the future. They are the mad dreams of an old-fashioned economic imperialism. 
The embrace of Nuclear is ultimately an embrace of militarism. It is nightmarish, this epiphany that one must embrace one devil to avoid another. This is the madness of Market Fundamentalism, and its jettison will free souls like Lovelock and Monbiot who cannot tolerate the salesmanship and lies of solar promoters in California a decade ago - who need to see a real path, not just the fog of hope. But in fact my associates and I at Local Power Inc. are at the precipice of implementing community renewable energy localizations and are confident of various strategies that are achievable in electricity service or gas or heat district service that can be engineered with storage, demand response, islanding (virtual power plant replaces dispatchable fossil or non-dispatchable nuclear plant) and other technologies to achieve exponentially accelerated growth curves for all categories of renewable onsite and demand technology.  It is often very challenging to design these systems but so far we are able to model 50-75% physical replacement of a county at price parity, exponentially higher greenhouse gas reductions at price parity,  and a grid-reliability power plant replacement at price parity. In no case does solar, or wind, or any single technology or application provide the key and the economic shape of the solution. With renewable energy, location matters – there are no cookie-cutter solutions.  Being committed to specificity and handling complexity is critical to the economics of energy localization. Again, this is a five-year solution anywere in the world.
I hope Monbiot and Lovelock will reconsider. We need to regroup around the concept of localization, rather than obsession with technology favoritism; Appropriate Technology means adapted to local conditions. This principle of approach should change the desperate terms of debate about Climate Change and Nuclear Proliferation after Fukushima. 

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