Sunday, May 2, 2010

New Energy and the Profit Problem

This has been an aspect of transitioning away from fossil fuels that has interested me for some time. The problem is a civilization's worth of infrastructure, both cultural and physical -- that is socioeconomic and technical -- that have been built on fossil fuels, and oil in particular. For a variety of reasons (which I prefer to sum up with the dictum "change is the only constant") we are progressing away from oil, but the existing infrastructure is having a hard time coping with this. And because we have a global oil-based infrastructure, we have a global resistance.

The first quote is from an old (2005) Washington Post article, in which Jeffrey Immelt and Jonathan Lash analyse the challenge:

"Fundamental change will require three things: the brainpower to develop new technology, a market that makes clean technologies profitable and a strong dose of American will. Right now we have two out of three."

What pops out at me of course is the second condition. The alternative to fossil fuel has to return a decent profit. So if there are viable alternatives that don't, should we let civilization perish? Is monetary profit and protecting the existing vested interests really that important? Apparently. Perhaps the authors' jobs highlight a possible reason why Immelt and Lash might hold this view:

"Jeffrey Immelt is chairman and chief executive of General Electric Co. Jonathan Lash is president of the World Resources Institute."

More recently noises are emerging that wind powered energy might be too cheap, and is therefore the reason for resistance from those energy utility companies who stand to lose out as it becomes more prevalent and effective. From The Oil Drum:

"The key thing here is that we are beginning to unveil what I've labelled the dirty secret of wind: utilities don't like wind not because it's not competitive, but because it brings prices down for their existing assets, thus lowering their revenues and their profits. Thus the permanent propaganda campaign against wind. But now that this "secret" is out in the open, it's hopefully going to make one of the traditional arguments against wind (the one about its supposed need subsidies) much more difficult to use..."

Meanwhile other alternatives to fossil fuels are popping up like daisies. Some will wither, some will bloom, and of them this from Bloom Energy seems particularly exciting:

"the company boasts that their systems could literally replace the electricity grid with dispersed, clean, and easy to maintain fuel cell boxes running on a variety of fuels, water, and oxygen, with no combustion at all."

There are many others of course, new ways of harnessing wind, space-based solar energy collectors, nets of tiny-beads to hang in windows or coat buildings also for collecting solar energy, and others besides. What we are seeing is a combined and multi-fronted attack on an existing order, and the existing order doesn't like it. How could they? What it all adds up to is a paradigm-altering challenge on the way humanity has done business these last few centuries, including the nature of money, and the nature of waged-labour too. Almost everything is back on the table. Because the implications are global, this change is painful and is being met with huge resistance, which is only natural.

Interesting times folks. And we're living in them.


Debra said...

Yes, I agree. Very interesting times.
I think that there is an organic relationship between our society and the type of energy that drives it.
I know that I am going to sound strange in this next affirmation, but...
An economy based on raping and pillaging the earth's resources IS NOT the same economy as one that makes use of available resources in a different way.
As humans, we STILL need to perceive a relation between us and our material, physical world.
And we need to elaborate implicit theories about our PLACE in nature.
Every society has to do this work.
And, "we" are going to feel more or less good about ourselves on the basis of how we treat nature (the new word is environment ??).
We have been laboring under collective guilt for some time over activities such as... mining.
Compare mining to agriculture...
In one activity, human beings wrest materials from the earth through more or less hard physical labor, BUT WITHOUT EXCHANGING ANYTHING. I could almost say.. without PRODUCING anything...
And in a time frame which implies a relative immediate gratification. UNDERGROUND.
I think that IN OUR MINDS, we are not at ease with this relationship to the earth, this... pillaging, even if we may loud mouth about it rather easily.
Because we are not really CULTIVATING anything over time.
We are engaged in a destructive activity, basically.
We canNOT ignore how the way we live our daily lives reflects back on our psyches. Individually AND collectively.
Mining, for oil, or other materials, is an extremely PREDATIVE form of activity.
Predation is NOT a bad thing.
But when predation becomes the ONLY type of relation you can have with your environment, well then, "you", and your culture start hurting.
Because... the predator ALWAYS has predation on his mind. For others, but... he also is ALWAYS afraid of being preyed upon too...
In OUR species, at least.

Toby said...

This is an excellent point:

"I think that there is an organic relationship between our society and the type of energy that drives it."

That really gets to the heart of it. My intuition tells me we have to grow up (fast) before we can transition from oil to other energies, which will, taken together, give us virtually unlimited power. This almost frightening scenario is tantalizingly close, but we're not ready for it. Our blind appetites are still rapacious, we measure too much with money, misunderstand basic things like value, human nature, wealth and health, and are miles from embracing the far reaching connotations of the interconnectivity of all things.

And your point about guilt, Debra, is also very interesting, one you've made before. My gut tells me the guilt is at having given up our creativity and maturity at the mass level, to let Mom 'n Pop Psychopath Inc. take care of business. We've let them present themselves to us in soft focus, all shimmering professionalism and competence, via all media at their disposal. They're our drug, our teet, and the whip for our backs all rolled into one, and we're deeply addicted. But somewhere deep down there's the guilt, poking its head up through the muck, and getting louder in its protestations.

Interesting times indeed.

Debra said...

I'm not sure that creativity and maturity exist at the mass level.
I think that who we are as a group and who we are as individuals is extremely different.
It really is like squaring the circle to intricate our need to resemble others (and form collectives for cooperation) and our need to be different individuals (in our minds...).
I think that Freud's theory COULD be important for us.
Freud noticed that when you were NOT CONSCIOUS of what was making you tick, then you were controlled by it. "It" thinks YOU, "you" do not think "it".
At least CONSCIOUSNESS affords a little more "control", choice, and freedom than unconsciousness, shall we say. (Everything that goes on in our heads is NOT thought, it is discourse. Some of this discourse is thought, but some of it is not, and it is not easy to tell the difference.)
And there is NO individual consciousness, thus NO THOUGHT in any MASS phenomenon. I believe.
We cannot federate the masses. It is hopeless.
Or if we think we are federating ourselves as MASS, we are telling ourselves BIG LIES, and the door to paternalism is WIDE OPEN. I HATE paternalism. Passionately.