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Beyond Zero Emissions: What's Wrong with Big Green Tech

Politics / Renewable Energy Apr 30, 2012 - 06:23 AM GMT

By: Ashvin_Pandurangi

Politics

Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleIlargi: The following is a guest post by friend of TAE (and our kind present host) John Isaacs-Young, who is active in Transition Sunshine Coast, a region located about halfway up the eastern coast of Australia. There's a lot more wrong with Big Green Tech - and the Beyond Zero Emissions movement - than the specific points John addresses here (and he knows that too), but that's a story for another day.


John Isaacs-Young:

The Green House is that venue at our local folk festival here on Australia's Sunshine Coast where environmental and related issues are promoted and work-shopped. There was a new presence this year at Woodford, an organization calling itself Zero Carbon Australia 2020 - Beyond Zero Emissions. These folk seemed to be very organized and had been given the large booth at the entrance to the venue. They promoted their cause with vigor on and off the program and were actively seeking recruits for a grass roots army for their campaign. Their 'not for profit' outfit is an example of Big Green Tech in action.

The session I attended, where Zero Carbon told their story, was conducted by a young lady who had learnt her stuff and she held our attention, delivering the blueprint for the transition to a completely de-carbonized Australian economy by 2020. Hundreds of experts are involved, she told us, and when the plans are complete, they will be handed over to corporations to implement. I was very impressed by the boldness of the vision, the quality of the research. And completely unconvinced of its legitimacy or the likelihood of its ever getting up.

One of the key components of the plan involves the progressive replacement of all existing coal and gas fired power stations with large scale wind farms and solar thermal plants that involve vast acres of mirrors and the storage of heat energy in liquefied salt. These two, wind and solar thermal, are considered old, reliable and proven technologies. In the large format envisioned, they will provide base power in support of our national electricity grid into the future. The grid however will have to be upgraded and extended with the east and west coasts of the continent connected.

The national grid - that darling of our centralist planners, big energy companies, investors and climate change activists - , works now, but how viable is it likely to be into the future?

In his essay 'Money verses Fossil Fuel', David Holmgren, the co founder of Permaculture, sets out a position that challenges much of the strategic logic behind current mainstream climate change activism. He describes the moneyed interests supporting the alternative energy agenda as more problematic than the miners and polluters themselves.

"The out of control power of money and markets is leading us more rapidly towards the collapse of human civilization than the short-comings and impacts of any specific activity or technology including the burning of fossil fuels."

Climate activists are right to be concerned about the big polluters and about finding alternative, non polluting technologies, for generating electricity. But the cleanliness of the technology is one thing - size, resilience and who owns it turn out to be just as significant. Can we or should we, like the Zero folk, be attempting to maintain or increase our current levels of power generation? Should we continue to buy into the debt/growth based model that is part and parcel of big centralize systems? Can we afford to look at the world through a single issue window and hope to come up with anything like a clear understanding? David Holmgren:

"And many environmental activists have failed to grasp the importance of energetic limits to the wider human project in the quest for politically acceptable solutions to the climate dilemma."

Amongst the big operators in the global economy are those who accumulate wealth by exploiting the natural world directly and those who make it big-time by 'clever', more abstract means, in the market place. These two groups are mutually inter-dependent but also constantly at war with one another. Both of them are deeply committed to the debt based growth model and the creation of larger and larger systems with each jostling for the controlling high ground. But both groups are in fact losing control and both are now hell bent on self preservation. Only the big fish survive in the current economic climate and the path to survival is through merger and acquisition, financed by more debt.

But as Ashvin Pandurangi points out at The Automatic Earth:

"The largest institutions are clearly the least flexible to 'new and unexpected' conditions that will arise: and therefore are the most acutely vulnerable to "black swans" and systemic shocks on the tightropes stretching across every line of latitude from the North to South Pole. Look out below!"

'Big' is increasingly vulnerable and economies of scale and the laying off of workers is increasingly, obviously, counter-productive. The very survival process is hastening the demise of the system as a whole. Of the two groups, however, David Holmgren sees the 'clever' group, those not involved directly in exploiting the earth for profit, as the more imminent threat to life as we know it. These folk are more involved with wild speculative bubbles and complex schemes involving massive leverage. Holmgren again:

"Our money and markets are the most complex products of this deeply ingrained faith in human 'brilliance' (hubris). And just as their foundational beliefs are incomplete, so is their expression extremely dangerous."

After the so called green shoots of recovery, the signs are here again of a liquidity crunch in the asset markets. In fact, the situation looks much worse than 2008, when there was still a store of faith to draw upon. That faith has been drained away by feckless regulators and authorities who failed to address any of the root causes of the crisis or bring anyone to account.

Instead they have been spreading, layer upon layer, thin-as-air-funny-money, over the top of the symptoms. Anyone who has paid the least bit of attention knows that these 'magic money layers' have proved to be anything but magic. Not only are the root causes still with us (too much debt, vast regional financial imbalances) but they have grown steadily throughout the intervening period.

As Nicole Foss explains at The Automatic Earth:

"... our vulnerability to the consequences of debt is extremely high at the moment. The scale of that debt is staggeringly large. The global credit hyper-expansion has been decades in the making… we should be in for the largest economic contraction in several hundred years, and it will be global."

The trouble with deleveraging is that once it gains momentum, money is sucked out of the system through massive debt default and falling asset values. There will be no money around to fund new projects and no one who has it will be willing to lend it. As demand falls, and with it prices, investment in the energy sector in general is likely to dry up.

An effective transition to a big-system, carbon-free economy will no longer be possible under these circumstances. Because these conditions are already underway, the likelihood of realizing this 2020 dream becomes more and more remote. On the other hand, carbon emissions may well drop owing to reduced demand and without the help of climate activists or big 'green' corporations. Nicole Foss once more:

"One of our consistent themes at The Automatic Earth has been not expecting solutions to come from the top down. Existing centralized systems depend on dwindling tax revenues, which will dry up to a tremendous extent over the next few years as economic activity falls off a cliff and property prices plummet."

Hello Zero Carbon grass roots converts! You all seem well intentioned and genuinely concerned folk. I like your technology. How about bringing it down to my town? With your help we'll set up a small scale, solar thermal, molten salt plant in my back yard. What do you say? A community scale power plant and grid, owned locally, that supplies only its immediate locale is part of a very different story to the one that you are currently championing.

Around here we are looking for a resilient decentralized system that is not owned or funded by mad bad corporations and does not want to grow beyond its means. The only problem I can foresee is that here on the Sunshine Coast, the sun does not shine all that often. I don't know how much salt we could melt.

"Climate activists in particular", says David Holmgren, "tend to focus on the fossil energy industries as the 'enemy' (both for generating greenhouse gases and funding climate change denial), but naturally see any parties accepting the new climate agenda as allies. I believe that many of the global players promoting the climate agenda are as dangerous as those denying that agenda."

One has to choose one's battles. Why go after big polluters, guns blazing, when deleveraging is already moving against them. Why make common cause with governments, central planners and corporations who sound like environmentalists but are really growth junkies, for whom our one earth is just too small. Step back a moment, allow deleveraging to do the fighting for you, then throw your weight behind a truly worthy cause - like community building and localization. Soon enough, the effects of peak oil will also be fighting on the side of the environment to lower carbon emissions.

There are reasons why a smooth and easy transfer to a green energy economy is unlikely to happen merely because it's a good idea. One cannot, for example, overestimate just how psychologically committed we are to the context into which we are born and have lived. The age of cheap easy energy has been our age and whether it continues to advantage us or not, the underlying assumptions upon which it was built are fundamental to our lives and identities, almost like breathing. Only at the edges do some of us start to question the under-pinning stories. We are not converted so easily, even to sensible ideas; Intellectually perhaps, but not profoundly.

Ilargi at The Automatic Earth:

"It's high time we begin to understand to what extent the interests of the politicians and bankers and CEOs that we allow to make our decisions for us (read against us) differ from our own. But since our education system and media have denied the very existence of any such difference all of our lives, this understanding will be very hard to come by for 99% of the 99%."

Even in the face of the disintegration of the world as we know it, we will tend to want to cling to our big-system world and demand that it be fixed. Most of us will continue to lend our support to those who claim to be able to bring it back. Those who enjoy or have enjoyed positions of power are even more invested and will be relentless in their efforts to rebuild the big systems. Time and again this will look like it is going to work, only to fail again. Eventually we will get the idea. There will be a shift in values and a different way of doing things.

Nicole Foss: "We have already seen cuts to services and increases in taxes and user fees, and we can expect a great deal more of that dynamic as central authorities emulate hypothermic bodies. In other words, they will cut off the circulation to the fingers and toes in order to preserve the core. This is of course, a survival strategy, from the point of view of the core. But it does nothing good for the prospects of ordinary people, who represent the fingers and the toes."

Transposing this general comment on the economy to the national electricity grid, you can see that when ordinary consumers have difficulties paying their accounts then there is less revenue and reduced capacity for grid maintenance. When sections of the grid are not maintained, outlying customers lose service. This is the nature of big systems. They work in orderly, abundant times but are otherwise loaded with inefficiencies and grave vulnerabilities. Not only that: big systems are sitting ducks for cyber or physical attacks on hardware.

Nicole Foss: "The job of national and international politicians in contractionary times is typically to make a bad situation worse as expensively as possible, as they attempt to rescue the dying paradigm that has conveyed so much personal advantage in their direction. That paradigm is one of centralization - the accumulation of surpluses from a broad periphery at the centre of power."

Anyone who is a little familiar with how the exponential function operates within our growth model or what complexity theory tells us about mature systems under stress knows that our current way of doing things is no longer working and all attempts to fix it can only make it less functional. The Zero Carbon plan for the national power grid is of course, one of many attempts to enliven, improve or save an imperial scale technology.

Nicole Foss: "Such systems cannot be responsive within the time-frame that would actually matter in a financial crisis, where risk is cascading system failure, potentially in a short period of time. Everything they might do is too complex, too expensive and too slow to do much good. If we expect top -down solutions we will be disappointed, and more to the point we will be unprepared to face a period of rapid change. By the time we realize that the cavalry is not coming, it may well be too late to do anything useful."

No, don't join a pie in the sky green effort to keep the growth cycle expanding when in fact it is already into its contractionary phase. It simply won't work.

Nicole Foss: "Fortunately, other strategies exist beyond attempting to preserve the unpreservable. What we must do is to decentralize - to build parallel systems to deliver the most basic goods and services in ways that are simple, cheap and responsive to rapidly changing circumstances."

Ashvin Pandurangi, third year law student at George Mason University
Website: http://theautomaticearth.blogspot.com (provides unique analysis of economics, finance, politics and social dynamics in the context of Complexity Theory)

© 2012 Copyright Ashvin Pandurangi to - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.


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