The following is a response to an article titled “How (Not) to Run a Modern Society on Solar and Wind Power Alone” and the comments initiated by myself. The article was written by Kris De Decker for publication in his Low-Tech Magazine and reposted on the Resiliance website hosted by the Post Carbon Institute. The article and comments can be found at the following link: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-09-14/how-not-to-run-a-modern-society-on-solar-and-wind-power-alone/
I know I promised not to come back here, but I have been pondering my own and other comments from folks on this topic and felt a need to perhaps apologize (as one commenter pointed out) for getting pissed off and taking it out on the author Kris De Decker and the Post Carbon Institute, or maybe confess my own guilt in having committed the “sins” I have accused others of committing, but more than likely just gloat about my own righteousness. Use or lose any of this as those who bother to read it see fit, or feel free to abuse me, for daring to revisit these pointless accusations.
So, let me start over for whatever that is worth (which is probably not much), maybe clarify my points, and perhaps expand on what several folks asked for in what I would propose as an alternative.
I believe that the thesis of Mr. De Decker’s article is contained in the opening two paragraphs where he points out: “the potential of wind and solar energy is more than sufficient to supply the electricity demand of industrial societies, these resources are only available intermittently.” Because of the intermittency and other factors like difficulty in meeting peak demand and need for storage, he concludes that “matching supply to demand at all times makes renewable power production a complex, slow, expensive and unsustainable undertaking”. However, “if we would adjust energy demand to the variable supply of solar and wind energy, a renewable power grid could be much more advantageous” and that “modern technology” could provide a way to take advantage of these energy sources and keep a version of our industrial society in operation into the future.
The article then goes on to document the variable nature of both wind and solar power, via references, statistics, graphs, and charts. It also explains how meeting existing power demands with the variable source wind and solar would require an extremely large infrastructure and backup fossil fuel plants or storage systems all of which “would be just as CO2-intensive as the present-day power grid”, “have a high impact on the land” and “require a significant amount of energy and other resources”, leading me to believe that they would not be good for the environment nor us.
In the concluding section of his article titled “Adjusting Demand to Supply”, he proposes “this doesn’t mean that a sustainable renewable power grid is impossible. There’s a fifth strategy, which does not try to match supply to demand, but instead aims to match demand to supply. In this scenario, renewable energy would ideally be used only when it’s available.” And “if we let go of the need to match energy demand for 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, a renewable power grid could be built much faster and at a lower cost, making it more sustainable overall.” He claims that this adjusting demand renewable energy supply system if built and operated in the United Kingdom, would only result in electricity shortages on 65 out of 365 days of the year (18% of the time).
Throughout the article there is little if any indication, data, statics, or hints at what the impact would be on the ecosystem of building this “sustainable” system and the new infrastructure it would need to operate. Was this by design or neglect or simply not necessary? I however am quite sure that the impacts would be similar to, those occurring currently and in the past from our industrialized society. So things like climate change, spices extinctions, loss of habitat, dead zones in the oceans, wars, and other calamities will carry on as long as we treat our planet and our neighbors as resources to use to keep our technology alive and our plundering possible, even if those technologies are “renewable” or their usage is now paced to match the variable rate of supply.
Based on this understanding of the energy supply system that Mr. De Decker was proposing, I concluded in my pissed off state of mind that a summation of the proposal was that we could “keep our "modern" society powered into eternity with "green and clean" energy, ignoring the fact that this industrialized society that views the planet and people as resources to plunder to keep the profit in the pockets of the power-elite is the source of our problems. Ignoring the impacts plundering the planet to obtain the resources needed to build the "green and clean" infrastructure is the only way this works out with a "happy" ending. Thinking it might be time to stop following the "green washing" being put out by Resilience and the Post Carbon institute.
Several commenters responded negatively to my and other commenters labeling the article and others published or publisized by the Post Carbon Institute as “greenwashing”. Asher Miller (who I assume is the executive director of the Post Carbon Institute) responded to this accusation with “I find comments like these truly baffling. I think anyone with an open but critical mind would be hard-pressed to lump PCI/resilience.org in the "greenwashing" or "techno-cornucopian" camp. Usually, we're accused of being Luddites/Malthusians/doomers. To me, comments like the above show laziness, ignorance, and/or a hardline view of collapse that is utterly fatalistic and very likely wrong. And I'm always left wondering, why do you come here?”
Obviously Mr. Miller was indeed familiar with some of my best character traits (or worst depending on who you ask), and it was indeed my lazy nature that prompted me to react with the original abbreviated response. It was also ignorant of me to assume that other people had the same understanding of the term “greenwash” or the other concept that came out in the commentary like “techno-cornucopian”. I actually prefer the term “techno-fundamentalist”, and wished I would have used that term in any of my comments to point out that it is that world view that I believe dominates Mr. De Decker’s article and others I have seen publicized by the Post Carbon Institute. And I am indeed resigned to the fact that like all the other complex civilizations before us, ours is indeed heading into an unavoidable collapse, as we too have fallen into the trap of letting fools have all the power in our society. So, to make up for my ignorance and initial lazy response, below are some definitions that I hope clarify what I mean by these terms and the words that make them up.
Greenwashing– “a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization's products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwashing)
Technology – “the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/technology
Fundamentals – “any intellectual/political/theological position that asserts certainty in the unquestioned truth and/or righteousness of a belief system.”
“technological fundamentalists are those ‘unwilling, perhaps unable, to question our basic assumptions about how our tools relate to our larger purposes and prospects.’”
Perhaps I am incorrect in applying these terms to the article in question and the Post Carbon Institute. I do admit that I am indeed guilty of accusing them of what I know for sure I am guilty of and that is the practice of greenwashing influenced by my own technological fundamentalist upbringing. I have worked most of my life as an environmental engineer or specialist, working for industry, consulting, and government. I used to be convinced that this was noble work, that what I did was to preserve and protect the environment by helping to design equipment and treatment plants to clean up our wastewater and keep our rivers and lakes clean. I kept this same ethic to guide me working for government environmental regulatory agencies enforcing the rules and regulations that I believed were designed to keep our environment safe. About 12 years ago, after 20 or so years of doing this type of work, and seeing the state of the planet, I started to question this. I began to wonder if that is what I was really doing. It seemed to me that my work was much more about covering up the messes that our industrial society was creating, than it was about protecting and preserving the planet.
And to answer Mr. Asher’s question about “why do you come here?”, it was at this point in my life I was first exposed to the work of the Post Carbon Institute at a conference I attended on Environmental Sustainability. I don’t remember the name of the speaker from the Post Carbon Institute, but I remember the thesis of his talk which was basically that in the age of peak oil and climate change we needed to rethink how we focused the goal of our societies and our priorities away from economic growth and towards meeting the needs of people. I liked that message and I looked up the Post Carbon Institute and began following the work that folks who worked there were putting out. It seemed like a safe and sane place to go to learn what I thought could be a new calling on how to make our way of life more sustainable.
And I found other resources and learned about concepts like “greenwashing” and “techno-fundementalism” and I realized I had been and continued to practice them and get paid to keep doing them. I also realized to make a living in our modern industrialized society, that if you didn’t practice them to a certain extent or believe in them you would not make a living or maintain some semblance of sanity. In other words, despite my attempts at looking for ways to making a living in various places, I could not find any place to work in my line of work that was not guilty of these practices, nor am I aware of any such “utopias” existing within our industrialized society. Based on this, it seems obvious to me (perhaps influenced by my own insanity) that indeed we all our guilty of these practices, whether we want to admit it or not.
What do I propose as an alternative? It is indeed ignorant and arrogant on my part to even assume that I can solve the worlds environmental, societal, or energy problems. I believe that the problems with our societies and those of the past are indeed a result of giving the power to make such decisions into the hands of few people or even a few organizations or institutions. I also do not believe that a solution will come out of the systems that have created these problems. Looking to alternative energy fueled systems to sustain the same old but modernized version of industrial society is not where I will be looking for a solution. The solution is also not going to come from focusing on whether we need a newer, simpler, older, or varied technology or changing or modifying our tools. I think that the solution will come from asking ourselves what do we really need as human beings to thrive, living on a finite planet, within a fragile ecosystem? And then individuals within societies will need to determine what tools or technology should be used to obtain what it is we all need.
Sorry if I am wrong, and best of luck to all in finding a more meaningful way of life, as our society enters the world of collapse. And with that I really am done.