Volume 52, Issue 1: Spring 2018

Energy economics

Large is beautiful — but only if radically democratic

Photo by US Bureau of Land Management

Our world is on the brink of climate catastrophe. Most of us are keenly aware of the fact: it has embedded itself within our spirits, tainting every small victory with the reminder that the ship is sinking — and threatening the lives and livelihoods of poor people in the Global South already.

Entire cities are now running out of water, while others are violently flooded with far too much of it. Wildfires, droughts, pestilence, famines: climate change is already making these disasters bigger, stronger and more frequent. And we’ve seen nothing yet. By the end of the century, there could be two billion climate refugees. Two billion. We are facing simply unprecedented levels of death, misery and collapse in already Dickensian living standards.

Unless, of course, we take truly radical action.

The key climate benchmark is the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions to “net-zero” by 2060. That would mean eliminating almost all emissions from transportation, electricity, buildings, industry and agriculture — in every single country. To do that, we’ll need to “electrify” close to everything: cars, buses, planes, factories, furnaces, plastics. We’d also need massive breakthroughs in “negative emissions” technologies. Even that won’t guarantee that we’ll successfully avoid catastrophic impacts, given the potential for feedback loops and underestimation of current emissions (especially methane). But it’s our very best bet.

The only sensible political approach to achieve this is an explicitly leftist one that challenges the legitimacy of private property and the state-capital nexus. Neoliberal policies like carbon pricing and demand-side management are reasonable in a theoretical sense, but they fail to account for the wide range of tools that capitalists will deploy to limit any serious challenges to profi tability: lobbying, advertising, donations, burying information, media flak, capital strikes. In addition, while production may become more efficient per unit, capitalists will certainly exploit that to only produce more total units in order to maximize profi tability and competitiveness. Privatized solutions could eventually get us to netzero emissions using existing technologies and policies — but certainly not by 2060.

In fact, recent calculations suggest that it will take over 350 years at the current rate to build enough low-carbon power to transform the electricity system in order to avoid catastrophic impacts. Obviously, far too late to matter.

That leaves a gigantic opportunity for socialists to propose actual solutions. Yet leftist environmentalists can’t agree on what their approach to achieve net-zero emissions in a mere four decades should look like.

There are very few detailed plans in place. Two main but unofficial theoretical camps exist: the 100-per-cent renewables (and often “degrowth” or “steady-state economics”) group, and the Promethean eco-socialists. Both kind of hate each other. But both also contain extremely legitimate criticisms of the current system that are rooted in anti-capitalist politics and a commitment to build a society that’s owned and managed by people.

In the spirit of the dialectic — and decidedly not the Third Way — it may be possible to formulate a synthesis to offer a revolutionary path forward to 2060.

Choose your fighter

There are a pair of major, related divides between the two leftist positions. For the sake of brevity, we’ll crudely refer to the camps as the Renewables and the Prometheans — although such titles are misnomers on a few levels.

The first standoff is over future economic growth and energy demand. The Renewables tend to argue that Global North countries should stabilize or even drastically reduce their total consumption of energy via a combination of demand-side measures including energy efficiency, localized agriculture, reduced consumption of emissions-intensive activities including air travel and eating meat, and not buying as much “stuff.” Comparatively, while the Prometheans may see great worth in cutting emissions when possible, they argue it shouldn’t be at the cost of living standards for workers whose wages have stagnated for three decades — and that we should aspire to far more energy production and democratized economic growth in order to fulfill the dream of fully automated luxury socialism.

Prometheus (1635), Peter Paul Rubens

This directly ties into the second significant divergence: where that energy should come from. As indicated by their fictional title, the Renewables only support the proliferation of wind, water and solar — including onshore and offshore wind, rooftop solar and solar plants, geothermal, hydroelectric and wave energy — combined with an enormous expansion of energy storage and transmission. Backers of this approach tend to cite modelling done by Mark Z. Jacobson, a renown Stanford University civil and environmental engineering professor who cofounded the Solutions Project and has received public support from the likes of Naomi Klein, Bernie Sanders and Mark Ruffalo. Recently, he sued an academic journal and lead author for $10 million following the publishing of an article written by 21 energy experts that heavily criticized his modelling, which didn’t exactly help the relationship between the two camps. At the heart of the argument by the Renewables is that all future energy can and should be generated from all means except for fossil fuels, nuclear power, and preferably not dams.

The Prometheans, on the other hand, don’t believe that we should restrict ourselves to renewables. Instead, they argue that every low-carbon option should be on the table given the incredible urgency of the task ahead, including nuclear power, large hydroelectric dams and even natural gas plants equipped with carbon capture and storage. While advocates of this vision see a significant role for conventional renewables, they tend to critique the often “variable” nature of such resources, only generating electricity when the sun shines or the wind blow — and that varies greatly depending on the location, season and time of day. Advanced energy storage technologies are still in a relatively early stage of development, and pumped storage (when excess electricity is used to pump water uphill into a reservoir to be released at time of greater demand) is restricted to certain geographies and may face issues with scalability. In addition, Prometheans will sometimes complicate the advertised “greenness” of renewables by pointing out the enormous metal and mineral mining required to build solar panels and natural gas or coal used at “peaker plants” in many renewable-heavy jurisdictions when wind and solar aren’t producing.

It’s fair to say that there are certain cultures and attitudes linked to each camp (although there are, of course, always exceptions). In the case of the Renewables, there’s often a fierce commitment to a small-is-beautiful and “people power” ethos represented by locally owned renewable power and contempt for leftists who continue to advocate for “extractivist” technologies like nuclear. On the other side, the Prometheans have a habit of aggressively appealing to rationality and anti-sentimentality, framing the debate as one of hard but necessary truths. They don’t see anything inherently wrong with large-scale projects, and see the Renewables as hawking an outdated and arguably reactionary agrarian ideal.

Neither of these theoretical or attitudinal positions is exactly correct.

The shadow of baseload

When it comes down to it, the Prometheans are likely correct in their conclusion that we need every low-carbon technology on the table — including nuclear power.

Constructing entirely renewable grids is certainly technically feasible. The price per installed megawatt of wind and solar continues to drop, while technologies like smart grids and net metering have emerged in response to the rise of rooftop solar. Innovations in “demand flexibility” also offer great promise. But while energy storage technologies have seen dramatic improvement in recent years, they’re still not remotely sufficient to allow to replace existing systems with renewables due to the variability issue. And that’s to say nothing of greatly expanding consumption for low-wage, racialized workers in the Global North and a great majority of people in the Global South. That means that we’ll almost certainly need a ton of predictable “baseload” generation for the near future, especially as the world attempts to electrify many key processes. At this point, baseload either means coal, natural gas, hydro or nuclear. Wind power can contribute significant generation, particularly with new highvoltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines. But it’s not enough.

It’s an incredibly controversial opinion. And here’s the thing that many Prometheans miss: it’s controversial for very good reasons.

Negative impacts of “clean” or low-carbon energy infrastructure almost always hits Indigenous communities the hardest. Whether it’s hydroelectric dams destroying fisheries and traplines in Northern Manitoba or the devastating poisoning of the Navajo Nation due to uranium mining, it’s the continent’s first peoples who have disproportionately shouldered the toxic byproducts of such pursuits. This is something that the Renewables camp seem to accept as a foundational truth.

Furthermore, Prometheans don’t tend do a great job of recognizing that utility companies integrating both nuclear and hydro have often performed terribly over the decades with respect to consulting Indigenous peoples and other communities, examining alternative energy options in good faith, and ensuring that forecasted demand attempts to accomplish socially beneficial aims. To again use the example of Manitoba, its provincial utility has ignored decades of Indigenous protest, consistently ignored the potential for wind power, and emphasized electricity sales to other jurisdictions and pipeline companies to justify new dams. Such situations are even worse in the U.S., where many private nuclear proponents are legendary for impenetrable bureaucracy, delays, corruption and cost overruns.

The actual consumers of energy are also often obscured. Militaries are almost certainly the largest users of energy on the planet. The extremely rich burn far more than poor North Americans — let alone people in the Global South — by owning multiple homes, luxury yachts, and frequent-flier cards. The current conception of economic growth, dependent on cheap and accessible energy, serves only to funnel enormous profits into offshore tax havens and deprive countries of desperately need infrastructure and services.

These are not the markers of a compelling leftist vision. While Prometheans are likely more than aware of this, their strong public posturing can often come across as unsympathetic to concerns about Indigenous rights, extremely hierarchical decisionmaking, and demand forecasting that assumes the effective continuation of capitalist wastes. Such realities would hopefully change after the revolutions. But this is the reality that people know, and we must construct our alternative goals with that understanding in mind. At the same time, Renewables must be open to a dialogue about using every technology available — otherwise, we might be run out time, waiting for an energy storage miracle from Elon Musk that never arrives.

To 2060 and infinity

A leftist vision for 2060 and beyond should likely include the possibility of nuclear, hydro and largescale negative emissions technologies. But it also must prioritize and benefit Indigenous communities and other people who disproportionately face the devastating impacts of environmental racism. This might sound like an impossible ask. But this is where the liberatory potential of bottom-up socialism can and needs to shine — and what the Renewables camp gets largely right, at least in theory.

The issue is fundamentally not that of technology. It’s a problem of social relations: how we make decisions, what we choose to produce or not produce, the ways by which we evaluate consent, the infl uence that private profi t is permitted to have over policymaking and which mining practices or safety regimes are followed. That isn’t to say that legitimate concerns about nuclear, or hydro, or high-voltage transmission lines will dissipate along with the profi t motive and more people’s councils. But they may take on a different form when people, especially sovereign Indigenous communities, are afforded legitimate abilities to make decisions for themselves. This means leaning in to large-scale planning, but the kind of planning that is profoundly participatory and grounded in decolonial theory and praxis.

Practically, that means understanding that communities can and will say “no.” In addition, a vast portion of energy and fi nancial benefi ts should go to such communities fi rst: not just the crumbs from impact benefi t agreements. The very conception of “growth” needs to be redefi ned from the crude metric of GDP to something founded on the critical values of equality, ecology and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and communities that have been exploited and violated. It’s also recognizing that mining — whether it be silicon for solar panels, metallurgical coal for wind turbines, uranium for nuclear, or aluminum for power lines — can be done in safe and ecological ways. Almost all technological solutions already exist. But they cost a lot more money, meaning capitalists continue using highly anachronistic and dangerous methods of extraction and waste storage.

Of course, many centrists will dismiss all of these proposals based on apparent “lack of money,” establishing the ideological groundwork for further ceding of energy ownership to maniacal tech capitalists like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Luckily, there’s a gargantuan amount of money out there for the taking: as Oxfam reminds us annually, the eight richest men possess the same amount of wealth as the world’s poorest 3.6 billion people. Somewhere upward of $20 trillion is currently hoarded in offshore tax havens. With that, we can easily build a fully public, low-carbon global energy system within a decade or two, laying the foundation for a new, truly sustainable society of meaningful work, plentiful leisure and justice for the oppressed.

Such imaginings are obviously off-the-charts ambitious. But given the need for incredibly rapid transition and potential price of failure, it’s important to have alternatives to strive for — or at least write an angry letter about.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He writes about energy and climate politics for the likes of DeSmog Canada, Vice Canada, National Observer and Rank and File.