Hidden Costs Constrain the Benefits of Transitioning to Renewable Energy

It seems that little effort to understand fully the costs and benefits of the transition from fossil fuel to PV energy production has accompanied the rush to install utility scale solar and wind farms. However, it is very important to examine the environmental costs of achieving the environmental benefits of low carbon emissions energy production, especially at industrial scale. Moreover, that transition must involve so far largely ignored major societal transformations if humanity is actually to achieve the goals of zero carbon emissions, ecological restoration, and climate stabilization.


Paris Agreement Celebration

Given the accelerating trajectory of ecosystems collapse and climate destabilization well underway, achieving those goals is simply imperative. Yet, despite the importance of the technical, economic, and social complexities inherent in such a comprehensive transition to “sustainability,” utilities, governments, and corporations pursue the quest mostly in a business-as-usual format.The COP-21 Paris Climate Agreements, so difficult to implement, nevertheless fall short of needed international action.

Even before reading Ozzie Zehner’s book, Green Illusions, I worried about the carbon costs of the production of renewables. Zehner raised many questions but did not provide the kind of data-driven findings we need to optimize renewables deployment, though he rightly asserted the primacy of the problem of overconsumption.

Optimization Imperative

Importantly, the choices are difficult and the optimal solutions very hard to achieve.  In several ways, international trade is an important culprit. Not only does it add immensely to carbon costs; it also amplifies the waste resulting from not keeping manufacturing domestic in all PV markets. Corporate financial optimization conflicts with ecological and climate imperatives.

Clearly, we need an international agreement that works in the exact opposite direction from the extant NAFTA or delayed TTP regimes. No approximation of net-zero emissions will be possible in the near future without severely curtailing international trade and minimizing the distance between materials extraction, and the manufacture, installation and operation of near carbon-neutral energy systems. The same goes for all industrial production.

COP-21-Paris-Climate-Conference-Summit co2 chart

Only Deep Industrial Contraction can Achieve Adequate Reduction in Carbon Emissions.

We must accelerate the transition, but we must do so consistent with the goal of minimizing net carbon emissions in the process as well as in the outcome.  In that context, it is interesting to note that so little mention is made of energy conservation in the literature of emissions reduction and “sustainability” — except indirectly, in terms of improving production efficiency. The immensity of the task escapes most analysts.

DeGrowth and Consumption

One of Zehner’s core arguments is that the renewable energy transition not only consumes a lot of fossil-fueled energy production and depletes increasingly scarce mineral resources. It also encourages more energy consumption and waste.  It is not surprising to find the old pattern of “unanticipated consequences of social action” in this context.

The core consequence in this case is that the goal of zero carbon emissions to stabilize ecosystems and climate must entail significant contraction of industrial economies themselves – “degrowth.” Most government officials and policy wonks do not anticipate that deeply transformative consequence. It contravenes their deeply held beliefs in economic growth as the primary societal goal.

Two Kinds of “Grass Roots”

Most analysts and even political leaders agree on the need for large-scale highly rational international agreements to optimize the transition to a low-carbon renewable-energy-based economy. Yet little prospect for such large-scale political solutions is in sight. At one level, local community efforts to fight global warming are essential. However, some sort of “grass-roots” effort also must arise within the PV and wind industries, in order to optimize the extraction-production-distribution-installation matrix, despite the difficulty. Maybe the industry could form cooperatives to trade or share elements of the cycle in order to minimize distance between these elements in order to optimize carbon-reduction benefits. At this point, micro-economic incentives are lacking.

As Kris De Decker documented as early as 2015, based on diverse research findings, net-positive life-cycle carbon-reduction benefits from renewables are far from automatic. They only occur with localized optimization of supply chains. An important step is to bring awareness to the players — and to environmentalists too. However, some form of leverage on the industry is also needed, or it’s not likely to happen. Time is short, and the cost of time in this instance is very high.

Making Money, Making Time, and Making a Living

For many Americans, the time has come to reassess our relations with the economy that is being driven off the cliff by the creation and hoarding of phantom money by the very few and catastrophic burden of debt for the rest of us. The economy is controlled by the Big Banks and it has not worked for ordinary citizens. The economy of the plutocrats has kept the nation in debt. At the same time it has made it more and more difficult to make a living by simply working at a job.

This situation raises several serious questions about the nature of money itself and how it is created, managed, distributed, and used in our economy. Most of us are not schooled in the technical aspects of ‘money and banking’ or the philosophy of money, neither of which quite rises to the level of science. But we know that something is very wrong with the way money flows – mostly up – in today’s economy. Just like blood in our arteries and veins, money must circulate broadly to assure a healthy society. One might consider today’s mega-banks as aneurisms in the economy’s aorta, poised to burst.  Surgery is required.

Time is Life
Some recent criticisms of contemporary economic culture have looked at money from the larger perspective of life itself. We have all heard the cliché, “Time is money.” An alternative view is that “Time is life.” What does that mean? Well, time is all we really have in this life and what we do with that time is our life. When we complain that we “don’t have time” for things we deem important, it is because we do not make time for them. Our time is mediated by money, which controls our access to the essentials of living. [1] Thus, money controls much of our life, so political control of the money system is critical for making a living — life.

The cult of American Individualism would blame the victim of poverty for not exercising her/his “individual freedom.” But where is the individual freedom of the increasingly common fast-food or other service worker who has to work two jobs just to pay the rent? Such admonitions assume a perfect world in which anyone who works hard can achieve anything. As Barbara Ehrenreich[2] and others have demonstrated, for many Americans, hard work is simply not enough.

You can’t make time you do not have. If you have to work at minimum wage or less, it is necessary to work most waking hours to avoid homelessness. As middle-income jobs are “outsourced” to China or other super-low wage nations, the middle class shrinks because jobs with a living wage continue to disappear from the American economy. Corporate controlled international trade agreements such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the new TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) supersede national sovereignty over environmental quality and worker rights. They are negotiated in secret because voters would not tolerate them if they knew of their terms. “When Corporations Rule the World,”[3] the people lose their basic rights along with power over their own lives and the ability to make a living.

What Christian Parenti [4] has called a “catastrophic convergence” of accelerating poverty, violence, and climate disruption is already producing chaos around the world. An impending sense that the party is over is also beginning to bring about a sea change in the image ordinary people have of their lives in relation to both the economy and the planet. Profligate consumption and waste are reaching their limits as resources have passed their peak of easy extraction. Increased costs of extraction cascade into manufacturing costs and cannot be controlled. Capital is moved to locations where labor costs can be reduced. But this results in post-industrial markets shrinking due to the loss of wages that would otherwise be used to buy products. It’s a downward spiral.

A major cultural reassessment is under way. The economy is obviously failing to serve the people. The concentration of wealth in the top 1% of the top 1% is now greater than at the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is unsustainable. Any economy is sustained by the effective circulation of money as the means for allocating time for doing work. Capital exists only to the extent that labor organizes material – the production of value. Yet, our economy has become subservient to a financial elite that increasingly “makes” phantom money [false capital] by generating more debt without economic productivity.

The fundamental purpose of money in the economy has been subverted. Corporate media attempt to maintain the illusion that multinational corporate capitalism is just that good old Adam Smith version of “small business” and “free” markets in bucolic communities. But we are closer to a corporate police state than any imagined democratic capitalism. Whether they articulate it in such economic terms, people know that the system is rigged. They also know that it is the corporate control of the economy and political system that is doing the rigging. Not only do the people have little or no chance of making a living in that rigged system, but those who do so sustain the larger problem.

A living Economy to Thwart Climate Catastrophe
So, what is to be done? When a system is rigged the only way to break out is to turn away from that system. This is being done in little ways all around the country. Most scientists know that massive programs to stop or at least slow climate chaos must be initiated at the national and international levels. But the system is rigged against that as it accelerates toward the convergence of climate, economic, and population catastrophes causing mass starvation/migration, resource wars, and social chaos. Energy production and wasteful consumption must be severely curtailed, but how?

Parenti argues that: “We cannot wait for a socialist, or communist, or anarchist, or deep-ecology, neoprimitive revolution; nor for a nostalgia-based localista conversion back to the mythical small-town economy of preindustrial America as some advocate…Instead, we must begin immediately transforming the energy economy. Other necessary changes can and will flow from that.” (p. 241) Parenti, like so many others who see what is needed, fails to articulate how such a massive transformation can be accomplished. He says that it “will require a relegitimation of the state’s role in the economy.” But that is precisely what the power elites will not allow – except, of course, where that role entails the massive economic subsidies the state already provides to the mega-corporations. So, he is partly right and partly wrong. He is right to say that we cannot wait, but for what? He is wrong in assuming the energy economy will be transformed from the top without revolutionary change in the structure of political power.

First, we cannot wait for the federal government to act in the public interest – it is controlled by the corporate interests tied to the fossil-fuel economy. The energy economy must be transformed immediately, but how? Even if Bernie Sanders were elected president, the hypocritical Corporate Democrats and the magical-thinking Corporate Republicans would still be in control of legislation and continue to serve their corporate masters. Second, the only action that cannot be stopped by the political-economic elites is the grass-roots action of growing numbers of people organized to change their lives to make a living without depending on the corporate consumer economy. That is both very difficult to do and the only viable path available.

Parenti is right in saying that the immediate task is specific: drastically cut carbon emissions. But that entails a myriad of even more specific tasks, which if achieved will have arisen from below, demonstrating human resilience in the face of corporate-state paralysis. So much to do, so little time.
1 David C. Korten, Change the Story, change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.
2 Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.
3 David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2001.
4 Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2011.