Renewable energy: the Good, the Bad, the Unnecessary and the Mythical

by Lorna Salzman

Nowhere is the corruption of democracy more evident than in past and present US energy policy. The manipulation of media, the free market, elected officials, the law, regulatory bureaucracies and the citizenry that has characterized the development of nuclear power continues today unabated.

The giant energy conglomerates oil, gas and coal corporations, electric utilities, bolstered by the investment sector, elite technocratic policy makers and favorable transnational treaties and institutions such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), are tightening their grip on global energy sources, commandeering public policy and narrowing the options for a safe energy future. This policy has three parts: reviving the civilian and military (space exploration) option; insuring continued dependence on fossil fuels, especially in the automotive sector; subverting citizen efforts to bring publicly controlled renewable energy technologies to fruition.

What holds back the inevitable transition to a renewable energy economy is not technology or money but corporate political clout and control of Congress. Energy corporations are fully aware of the imperative that will ultimately require a shift to renewable energy; in the interim their main objective is to muster political support to hold off the start of the solar age long enough to insure continued profits and full control of the means.

Towards this end they have made sure that renewable energy technology applications and demonstration projects receive none of the subsidies, tax breaks and incentives that now accrue to nuclear and fossil fuels; that no laws or statutes will be enacted by the Federal government, states or municipalities that could act as incentives to development of renewable energy; that existing institutional and economic barriers to installing renewables be maintained.

Recognizing the growing public support for renewables, the energy corporations, to gain public acceptance and not be perceived as opposing renewable energy, have successfully courted and recruited businesses and the major Washington-based national environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council to their side on grounds that changes in energy policy and practices will take place more quickly, less painfully and more effectively if they, the energy corporations and investor owned utilities , are allowed to maintain their profits in the transition to solar.

A subtext of this strategy is their demand that they not be penalized for past errors in judgement such as building unnecessary power plants, while insisting that they be doubly rewarded for their "cooperation" in facilitating the transition to the solar age. As a result, plans are underway to enable the utilities to not only maintain control over future renewable energy sources and distribution infrastructure but to actually dump their financial mistakes on the backs of ratepayers rather than shareholders. The corporations call these "incentives"; they are more accurately called "bailouts". (see Economics chapter).

While not all major environmental groups are active participants in this scheme, most of them have taken a compliant rather than a proactive role in promoting renewable energy by simply dropping the ball and ignoring the energy issue entirely. With the exception of individual renewable energy associations and industries and a handful of overworked underpaid lobbyists for small progressive groups in Washington, none of the large environmental groups have any consistent, targeted lobbying presence in favor of a democratized, decentralized renewable energy policy. They have in effect turned their backs on a safe reliable energy future and therefore on democracy.

One might naively assume that this is because renewable energy is already established or at least well on its way in the US, or on the other hand that it is unfeasible. Neither of these is true. Renewables are in wide use primarily outside the US, especially where centralized energy production and distribution infrastructure is lacking (and not needed), and were formerly in even wider use here in the United States in the l920s and 1930s; the advent of cheap gasoline and underpriced fossil fuel effectively prevented it from spreading more widely.

The technical feasibility, not to mention favorable economics, of renewables solar water and space heating, photovoltaics, wind electric generation, among others, has been clearly demonstrated. Solar cookers are almost standard equipment in many parts of the Third World; photovoltaic arrays for electricity function in Israel, Japan and elsewhere, and wind generator grids are now a common sight not only in the American West but in Denmark and other parts of the world.

The barriers to a full solar economy, however, remain as they have been for the past decades, political, institutional and economic:

  • underpricing of fossil fuel, primarily gasoline, and particularly to large users;
  • subsidies, tax breaks and incentives to nuclear and fossil fuel that are denied to renewable energy technologies;
  • outdated engineering and building codes;
  • lack of established technical training of energy technicians, including plumbers, electricians, engineers, repair, maintenance and installation experts;
  • absence of a low cost loan and credit union system for individuals and small businesses;
  • disincentives for installing renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency mechanisms in new buildings;
  • resistance to comprehensive enforceable efficiency standards for cars, buildings and appliances;
  • reluctance of planners, because of pressure from land developers, to stop suburban sprawl and highway construction and channel new development into existing towns and settlements that would minimize automotive use;
  • refusal of government to subsidize energy efficient transportation systems or to de-subsidize energy-wasteful transportation modes;
  • failure to force fossil and nuclear users to pay the full social, health and environmental costs of energy exploration, production, distribution, consumption and cleanup;
  • refusal to impose energy taxes sufficient to force consumer shift to conservation, efficiency and renewable energy.

Ironically, while electricity demand has actually dropped and the price of solar and wind energy has decreased, ratepayers rather than shareholders are being saddled with the runaway costs and debt burden of nuclear power plants (to the tune of $30 billion in California, and more to come in other states as nuclear plant decommissioning and radioactive waste disposal submit their bills to the taxpayers).

It is crucial to delineate the sharp contrast between the solar economy and the existing energy structure in the US. An energy economy characterized by a combination of individual power production such as solar water and space heat, photovoltaic and wind electric generation from community electric grids, is one that is beneficial to individuals and businesses alike because it creates a permanent demand for production, sales, service, installation, training and all the other spin-offs of a sound business venture.

Not least, the money generated by these services remains in the community rather than being pocketed by utility shareholders who have no financial or ethical commitment to the community. It eliminates the need for massive regulatory bureaucracies. It banishes government interference in our daily lives by stressing self-sufficiency and community interdependence, in the old Yankee tradition. In brief, the solar economy is a milestone on the path to reconstructing true democracy. Unfortunately this is precisely why the corporations and government are trying to hold it back.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.