Is Renewable Energy acually good for society?

Professor Wolff; Thank you for the information you impart each week. On the 02Feb2017 podcast I learned more about the Vermont brewery and the thoughts of Hegel. The latter is important as he seems to be a favorite of my son's, who is currently in grad school studying philosophy. I understand very little of what my boy says these days. As with many who write you, I do disagree in one area. Renewable Energy. While climate change is certainly a serious issue, and I'm glad that many of the aspects of climate change are entering popular discussions, the proposed solutions are invariably non-solutions designed merely to make the populace feel good about doing something. If I might explain. RE is mostly large hydro power with some geothermal, wind, solar, and maybe tidal. Most people focus on wind & solar, and there is lots of installed capacity, but W&S tend to greatly under-produce energy capacity. This is not mentioned often enough. Wind produces about 30% of potential capacity and solar even less. Yes there is lots of wind and sun energy available, but we shouldn't have to eliminate most of the natural environment for the sake of using lots of W&S – that's backwards thinking! I would also mention that many of the best spots for wind are already taken (or protected), so future builds will be in less efficient locations. W&S can be useful, but not as a primary energy source. The major issue with W&S as currently used is that it supports the top 1% more than it assists the general population. This is your area of expertise, Prof. Wolff. Federal subsidies for RE takes many forms. There's the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which requires utilities to take energy from W&S – regardless of whether the grid can actually use that power. Then there are more subsidies for manufacturing or installation. Every few years I have heard that “we must pass legislation to support solar/wind or the industry will grind to a standstill”. Good riddance to welfare industries is my response, but the legislation invariably passes. One other type of subsidy is the Production Tax Credit (PTC) – this is perhaps the most heinous. W&S producers connect to the grid and get paid directly by the govt for what they produce, then the grid also pays them for what it must take from the producer (remember the RPS?), ...and so it goes. Do you know many who are both rate-payers & tax-payers? However when there is an abundance of sun and wind, things get interesting! The grid doesn't need the energy, but W&S producers want that PTC payment... so they begin to pay the grid to take the energy is doesn't need – like a bribe! This invariably leads to negative wholesale prices (there are 5 minute auctions between utilities and power producers throughout the day & night). Yes, the owners of wind and solar farms get so much in subsidies that they pay the utilities to take energy that isn't needed! Otherwise they would have to curtail production and the govt would not pay out the lucrative PTC. Now if these installations were owned by common people this would be a slightly different story. But these are generally owned by the richest in our society – so this whole issue of RE energy (IMHO) has become a smokescreen for welfare to the wealthy. And the common people, led by green environmental groups (who do take money from fossil-fuel interests), cheer on. “Intermittent renewables get much of their money from subsidies of various types, not from the grid. Therefore, they can bid into the grid at artificially low costs for their power, even bid in at negative numbers (we will PAY you to take our power!).   This lowers the power price on the grid, and particularly hurts plants that make a lot of power, like base load plants.  As base load plants retire because they can't make enough money to keep operating, the amount of capacity available diminishes, capacity payments go up, and peaker plants get proportionately more money.  Peaker plants always get a higher percentage of their money from capacity payments, but when base load plants retire, they get even more money from capacity payments.” If you wish to pursue this further you might contact a fellow Stanford alum, Dr. Alex Cannara. He has left his office address & phone number littered around the internet. One other talk given at an energy conference was by Andrew Dodson, I do realize that RE is something pushed by your partner-in-media, Truth-Out. Many of their articles are quite good on social issues. The same can be said for most media outlets. A phrase I've used in the past couple years is “Truth-Out is out of truth”, at least for STEM issues. I'm merely asking you to look a little further into the issue, and perhaps be a bit more cautious about hyping RE in the future. Yes it has it's place, but connecting large-scale RE to the grid is proving disastrous for our society. I hope you can understand my concerns. Please, have yourself a wonderful week – in spite of headlines and such! Respectfully; Christopher Bergan Iowa City

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  • Christopher Kavanaugh
    commented 2017-02-19 21:49:57 -0500
    Reverse your question ’ Is society good for renewable energy aka the planetary system?’ My avocation and academic background is archaeology aka the anthropology of dead people. We as a species are very clever at maximizing our use of the environment and expanding
    populations to the full carrying point: At which time either we overpopulate or an environmentral collapse destroys it. The famous Chaco Canyon complex of the Southwest is
    the classic example with a prolonged drought overwhelming maximum population numbers and an intricate irrigation and water cachment system. The post culture of cliff dwellers raiding each other and resorting to cannibalism so horrible modern first peoples called them Anasazi; not ancient ones but The Enemy. Think of this on the next trip to Las Vegas.
    We do not have to expand energy with the same flawed thinking of economic growth. We need to reduce our impact and population. This, with multiple strategies maximizing renewable energy in urban areas now dispoiled ; rooftop solar collectors, urban agriculture and replanting trees ( first planted along with those water fountains for the benefit of horses.)
    I am not optimisitc. Here in California our drought has been broken, for now with record rain. I am watching massive runnoff into the Pacific Ocean once again. Oh, and water companies are pushing legislation prohibiting private individuals from contructing any cachment systems.
  • Daryl MacFarlane
    commented 2017-02-19 21:01:49 -0500
    “Now if these installations were owned by common people this would be a slightly different story.”

    I think you answered your own question. If the economy was out of the control of private corporate interest and the people could control their own local economies democratically, this means that it would be way easier for communities to plan to use renewable sources that are viable for the community. Say you have a democratic general assembly in which a community comes together to discuss issues and make plans for the community. There are more than enough people who are concerned about the reliance on fossil fuels and the devastating effects on the oceans and atmosphere for it to be brought up. Then as the people democratically make plans for their own community, they could plan to put in plenty of resources towards the development of renewable energy along with developing other social services and other services that benefit the people. This is just part of the whole idea of an economic democracy and social planning, where the people directly control their own workplaces and their own resources, and can therefore plan what to produce and how it should benefit the community. This is fundamentally different than letting a few individuals control the economy for private interest and walking the rest of society on a subservient leash to serve their own private interest. In short, we need to build the foundations for an alternative society where the people hold ultimate control over their own work and communities if we are to save the planet, whilst building a society based on liberty, equality, direct-democracy, cooperation, solidarity among the people, and self-direction of the people as true equals within their community and within their workplace.
  • Timothy Stuart
    commented 2017-02-19 20:46:51 -0500
    Intermittent renewables are just a high-cost mystical placebo that is not helping to curb CO2 emissions, e.g. Germany; cost-effective batteries are ever far from reality, so it is fossil fuels that keep lights on when sun is not shinning or wind is not blowing or during prolonged droughts.
  • Timothy Stuart
    tagged this with bad 2017-02-19 20:46:51 -0500
  • Rick Maltese
    commented 2017-02-19 12:41:16 -0500
    Another way of saying it. Considering renewable energy investments are predominantly wind and solar and that the return on investments are in the form of tax credits and that the wind and solar energy sources create so little energy and would not be profitable without government assistance, is that economically wise? Obviously the government loses money. There are behind the scenes trade-offs that help the fossil fuel industries and hurt the nuclear plants chances of survival. This gets into morality vs. profit motive.
  • Rick Maltese
    tagged this with good 2017-02-19 12:41:16 -0500
  • Christopher C Bergan
    posted about this on Facebook 2017-02-19 11:55:10 -0500
    Ask Prof. Wolff: Is Renewable Energy acually good for society?
  • Christopher C Bergan
    published this page in Ask Prof. Wolff 2017-02-19 11:54:54 -0500