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Socialism and the Energy Question, Part Two

By Brian Yanity

The Upside Down World news

4/27/04

Clicke here to go to Energy Question, Part One

Electrification and the Russian Revolution

The Bolshevik electrification program is an example (though failed) of how the most serious revolutionaries realize the importance of energy for economic and social development. Soon after the Russian revolution, Lenin and many others realized how important electrification was for the survival of the revolution and the living conditions in the country. The GOELRO plan, started in 1920, was the plan to implement mass electrification in Russia for the first time. The plan to bring electricity to masses was a glimmer of hope in a very desperate time, as the country was in the midst of starvation and ruin resulting from WWI and the civil war:
V.I. Lenin invariably emphasised that large-scale industry, and first and foremost, industry based on electrification, was the material and technical basis of socialism and communism. In a speech at the Eighth Congress of Soviets, he said: "... if Russia is covered with a dense network of electric power stations and powerful technical installations, our communist economic development will become a model for a future socialist Europe and Asia."

As described by British academic Rosamund Bartlett:

In December 1920 delegates to the 8th Congress of Soviets sat in the unheated, dimly lit Bolshoi Theatre with their gaze fastened on an enormous illuminated map. Each of the myriad lightbulbs on it represented a future electrified city or town in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately the power needed to turn them all on caused blackouts all over Moscow. The clash of utopian dreams with grim reality that is so characteristic of the early revolutionary years is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in this ironic incident.

It was Lenin who spearheaded the campaign to adopt electrification as the key state technology, believing that it held the key to the regeneration of Russia following the ravages of war and revolution, and it was at the 1920 Congress that he first uttered the famous phrase: "Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country".

In other words, electricity was invested with an almost magic ability to transform Russian society at every level, and was seen by the Bolsheviks as the pre-eminent symbol of progress and enlightenment. The State Electrification enterprise was thus launched in a mood of high euphoria (some zealous Party members even named their babies Elektrifikatsiya), but soon ran into problems in the decentralized conditions of the New Economic Policy, which replaced "War Communism" in 1921.

In his preface to I.I. Stepanov’s The Electrification of the R.S.F.S.R. and the Transitional Phase of the World Economy, Lenin wrote:

I heartily recommend this book by Comrade Stepanov to all Communists.

… the author splendidly outlines the significance of the New Economic Policy, and magnificently answers the ‘airy’ skepticism that is displayed in some quarters about the possibility of electrification. This skepticism is usually a cloak to conceal the absence of serious thought on the subject (that is, if not a cloak to conceal whiteguard, Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik hostility to all Soviet construction, which, in fact, is sometimes the case).

What we lack most for genuine (and not idle-bureaucratic) popular education is precisely “school manuals” (for absolutely all schools) like this one. If our Marxist writers sat down to write such manuals, or textbooks, on all social questions without exception, instead of wasting their efforts on newspaper and magazine political fireworks, which everybody is sick and tired of, we should not have the present disgraceful situation where, nearly five years after the proletariat captured political power, the young people in the proletariat’s state schools and universities are taught (or rather, corrupted) by the old bourgeois scientists using the old bourgeois junk.

The Eighth Congress of Soviets decreed that instruction on the Plan for Electrification should be compulsory in all educational establishments in the R.S.F.S.R. without exception. This decree, like many others, has remained a dead letter because of our (Bolsheviks’) lack of culture. Now that Comrade Stepanov’s “manual for schools” has been published we must see to it - and we will see to it! – that every uyezd library (and later every volost library) obtains several copies of it and that every electric power station in Russia (there are over 800 of them) not only has copies of this book but also arranges popular lectures on electricity, on the electrification of the R.S.F.S.R. and on engineering in general. We must see to it that every village schoolteacher reads and assimilates this manual (to help him in this a circle or group of engineers and teachers of physics should be organized in every uyezd), and not only reads, understands and assimilates it himself but is able to relate what is in it in a plain and intelligible way to his pupils, and to young peasants in general.

The skepticism of some environmental and socialist activists today about the possibilities of renewable energy echoes Lenin’s comment on “the absence of serious thought” about the energy question. However, the magic of electricity was no match for Russia’s devastation. Full electrification had to wait until Stalin’s accumulation by force, slave-labor and all.
The Bolshevik’s electrification program, despite its failures, is still an inspiration for developing countries today. A Bangladeshi scientist, Mohammed Khalequzzaman, speaking of importance of electrification to develop backward economies, has made a direct comparison in the material circumstances of Russia in the 1920s and contemporary Bangladesh. Khalequzzaman has called for a “Lenin-type electrification plan” for industrializing poor countries. Sufficient energy supply can make or break both empires and revolutions.

Energy, Imperialism, and the Undemocratic Control of Resources

The most important commodity in the world today is fossil fuel. This predominately means petroleum, but includes natural gas and coal as well. Petroleum is the main fuel of global capitalism, so who controls oil controls the world economy. Fossil resources such as petroleum, gas and coal are particularly well-suited to concentration of capital. The whole supply chain of fossil fuel production- from geological surveys, to drilling, extraction, transportation of the fuel, processing and refining are highly-capital intensive and by their very nature require economies of scale. As described by German solar energy activist and MP Hermann Scheer:

The sheer [economic] weight of these concentrated material flows leads to the formation of strategic alliances between large-scale resource suppliers and the operators of large-scale industrial processing and energy-generation capacity. There is pressure to manage the whole supply chain in-house, or at least to control it. The oil giants led the way in this regard, bringing the whole chain from exploration through to garages under one roof.

Petroleum and gas are very centralized in their extraction, refining and transport, and are especially conducive to capital concentration and undemocratic control. In many cases, countries become less democratic and more unequal once they start exporting oil. One needs to look no further than places such as Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Aceh, East Timor, and Mexico. Renewable energy has the potential for much more rapid deployment than fossil fuels, Scheer also says, because there is no need for these complex supply chains.

Imperialism existed long before petroleum was the world’s dominant energy source. England’s industrial revolution was powered by its abundant domestic coal supplies. Later, England’s coal-powered steam ships, must faster than those with sails, greatly aided its imperialist plunder of large sections of the globe. Some physiocrat (ultra-materialist) analyses go so far as saying that Great Britain became the world’s first industrial nation solely because of its large domestic reserves of coal and iron ore.

Energy only became an internationally traded commodity with the rise of petroleum. Standard Oil consolidated its monopoly around the turn of the last century. Before then, in the early stages of capitalism, the main sources of energy: wood, coal, and water power were both produced and consumed within a limited geographical area. During World War I, Winston Churchill convinced the British navy to build oil-powered battleships, which were faster and had a longer range than coal-powered ships. Lord Curzon, proclaimed a few days after the 1918 armistice that “the Allied cause had floated to victory upon a wave of oil.” British statesman Ernest Bevin once said that “the kingdom of heaven may run on righteousness, but the kingdom of earth runs on oil.” The Allies’ comparative advantage resulting from control of oil sources continued in World War II. In energy terms, WWII could be described as a war of “coal vs. oil.” Even non-fossil forms of energy such as large hydropower have been the cornerstone of imperialistic projects.

Not long ago, conservatives and capitalists would completely dismiss renewable energy. Although many still do, Democrats and Republicans alike are jumping onto the renewable energy bandwagon. This may seem like a contradiction, given both parties’ vested interests in the fossil fuel industry. But renewable energy is popular, and ruling-class politicians will support it in a manner similar to the way in which Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Today, from across the mainstream political spectrum, there have in recent years been suggestions that the industrialized world, and the United States in particular, must switch to renewable, or at least domestic, sources of energy to end reliance on Middle Eastern petroleum and natural gas supplies. The dependence of industrialized nations upon foreign oil was even expressed recently by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “All that is needed is to hold tight for 30 years and not to give up any assets until then.” By that time, “modern technology will come up with cheap alternative energy sources that will clip the wings of the Arab world and reduce its leverage on the West.” He neglects to mention that Israel is dependent upon U.S. geopolitical oil strategic needs for its very existence. The standard argument goes: renewable energy will end “our” dependence on foreign oil, and benefit “our” national security. Most proponents of this argument never mention the relations of production of petroleum such as the heavy U.S. military presence in oil-producing regions, the leverage of control of oil that the U.S. government uses to control the economies of other oil-importing countries, and support for undemocratic regimes in oil-producing regions. Not to mention the fact that U.S.-based multinationals profit from these foreign sources of petroleum. Instead, it is some unexplained, evil, amorphous “foreign oil” that is our enemy.

Advertisements by the Hollywood hack group the Detroit Project, co-founded by liberal pundit Arianna Huffington, say that Americans shouldn’t drive SUVs because all gasoline sales support countries (by implication Arab or Muslim) which “support terrorism”. By this argument, every time that you fill up at the gas station, you are directly funding terrorists. This racist argument completely ignores the role of Western imperialism in stirring up anger across the Middle East; a vast oversimplification which places blame on the consumer for voluntarily supporting certain petroleum producers. When a consumer buys gasoline at the pump, no matter what the quantity, he or she has no control over where the petroleum was extracted. It is the producers of gasoline who determine that. When a consumer fills up their SUV in Alaska or Texas, they may be wasting gasoline, but gasoline which is virtually guaranteed to be made from petroleum extracted in the same state, i.e. “local petroleum.”

From this logic, it could be argued that those who waste gasoline in Alaska or Texas are helping their local economy. A more sophisticated argument along these lines is that US’s level of petroleum consumption is the main cause of US aggression against Iraq and other countries in the region. Some protestors have held up signs at anti-war demonstrations in the past year saying “draft SUV drivers first.” A good question to ask these people is why aren’t they saying “draft oil company executives first”? The issue of production and who controls it appears to be not on their minds at all, only the consumer. It can be argued that many consumers do have the choice of what kind of vehicle to use, and that some can choose to use alternatives such as public transit or walking. But none of us alive today had the choice of whether or not to be born into a petroleum-dependent society; we were all born with “fossil-fuel addiction”. The global system of production became addicted to fossil fuels more than a century ago, so now we are all like babies born addicted to crack. To kick the habit, we must radically change, or dispense with, the entire global system of production: capitalism. Fossil fuels by themselves are not the root cause of imperialism, but today just happen to the most important commodity for present-day capitalism (given today’s means of production). The recent invasion of Iraq was about asserting imperial hegemony in an extremely strategic region. A strategic region because of its petroleum and gas reserves, though these commodities in themselves cannot be held responsible for the structural needs of imperialism. Do workers and consumers in the U.S. truly benefit from a fossil-fuel based economy? It’s almost the same question as: do workers in the U.S. benefit from U.S. imperialism?

It is tempting to say that we are all part of the problem. After all, the industrialized nations, with one-fifth of the world’s population, consume two-thirds of the world’s resources and produce four-fifths of the world’s waste and pollution. But this doesn’t actually explain anything. It is not enough simply to note that one-fifth of the world’s population consumes two-thirds of the world’s resources. We have to ask, who is doing the consuming? What are they consuming and why? And, most importantly, who is benefiting from this arrangement?

As Marxist environmentalist John Bellamy Foster has said “What we consume is dependent of the nature of production, rather than the reverse.”

However, all this doesn’t mean we cannot do things which lessen the severity in the meantime. Capitalism has developed all kinds of technologies with which we could solve the energy problem. Renewable energy has great potential to weaken imperialism, though not to do away with it entirely. Imperialism is endemic to capitalism, and so purely domestic sources of energy will not completely end imperialism until capitalism as a global system is disposed of.

Despite energy’s centrality to the world economy, there are still plenty of other commodities which still must be traded, and competed for, by capitalists internationally. For example, certain important non-fuel minerals only occur naturally in a very small number of countries. For example, 99.5% of the world’s known reserves of platinum are found in just three countries: South Africa, Russia, and Canada. If for some reason platinum was the world economy’s most important commodity instead of petroleum, the world’s capitalist classes would be putting just as much effort into securing and controlling the platinum resources in these three countries as they do now with oil-producing regions. And we would be saying “who controls platinum controls the world.” And even if today’s global capitalist economy were run completely by renewable energy, the temptations of foreign markets are too great for corporations. Only worldwide socialist revolution could fully solve this problem. We must demand that the whole world become independent of fossil fuels, not just the U.S.

Capital and Renewable Energy

Do corporations actually thwart the development of renewable energy resources? Do they purposely buy up patents of renewable energy technologies simply in order to thwart their development? This is a common assumption on the left. Keep in mind though, the left still has a glut of baby-boomers whose politics are still stuck in the 1970s. Unfortunately, one thing the left in the United States has been very good at in recent decades is fatalism. Even as expressed by Foster:

…capitalists and their acolytes have blocked the implementation of solar power alternatives, some of which are entirely feasible at this stage. Corporations have sought to take over solar power from the grassroots movement, not in order to promote it, but in order to hold it in abeyance. Under capitalism, it is those energy sources which generate the most profits for capital -of which solar power is certainly not one- that are promoted, not those most beneficial to the earth.

Foster does not explain exactly what he means by solar power, or provide any proof of corporations holding solar energy down consciously. Foster is simply out of date when he claims solar energy is “certainly not” profitable. He goes on to cite the classic Who Owns the Sun, a book published in 1996. The energy industry has undergone drastic changes in the past eight years. The days of the energy industry, as a whole, preventing any kind of renewable energy development are over.

An argument among some socialists and anarchists has been that the development of significant renewable energy resources is impossible under capitalism. But this is a crude oversimplification. It is somewhat like saying that the death penalty cannot end under capitalism. Most industrialized countries do not have the death penalty, and these are usually the same ones which are already heavily promoting renewable energy. True, the death penalty does, as part of a larger system of racism, benefit the capitalist class in the United States, but it is not fundamental to their class interest. In the same way, large sections of capital have vested interests in fossil energy, but other large but not-quite-as-large sections of capital stand to make profits from renewable energy. Renewable energy can be developed, but the system cannot totally be transformed to sustainability without overthrowing capitalism.

No one can deny that petroleum and natural gas are extremely profitable, but large energy corporations will invest in renewable technologies if the profit margin on them is high enough, and if their implementation does not displace established fossil energy sources (and thus not negatively effect their overall profitability). The behaviors and investments of energy capital must be looked at closely. Over the past few decades, renewable energy has been bitterly resisted in many cases by established energy interests. They will attack anything that hurts their profits, but will embrace renewable energy whenever it increases their profits. But now capitalists are coming to the conclusion that it is advantageous to use various forms of renewable energy at least as a significant minority of energy production.

Most forecasts predict global energy demand growing by more than 50% over the next two decades. This will require an average of $700 billion to $1 trillion investment in energy supply per year. Because the global production of fossil fuels is not growing as fast as world energy demand is increasing, there is money to be made on moderately-priced new energy capacity, no matter what kind it is. In other words, the capitalist class as a whole wants to increase both renewable and fossil energy production:

The renewable energy sector today is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is by far the smallest segment of the world’s energy industry, but it is also the segment undergoing the most dynamic growth. In contrast to traditional fossil fuels, which have grown less than 2% a year over the last decade, both solar and wind energy have shown double-digit annual growth rates. Wind energy has been growing at about 35% annually for the past five years, making it the fastest-growing of any energy system, and it is expected to continue growing between 22-30% over the next five years. Meanwhile, in its annual Clean Energy Trends 2003 report, clean-tech market authority Clean Edge, Inc. of California, U.S. projected that solar photovoltaics, wind power, and fuel cells will expand from a $9.5 billion market today to $89 billion by 2012. Clean Edge also reports that while venture capital investment in the U.S. is generally down, investments in clean energy are up to 2.3% of all venture capital activity, compared with 0.7% just three years ago.

As Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto:

Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

Thus, even all-powerful capital is not immune from opening a genie’s bottle. As stated by Scheer:

At first, the energy industry confined the renewable energy boat to port; now they are looking to board and take over the cabins. Now that the boat is finally underway, they want to control its speed and have their hands on the tiller. But the way the energy industry is bound up in its own supply chains should lead us to expect it to sound the ‘all-stop’ at the very latest when its own structure comes under threat. At that point, it would only be necessary to keep the industry on board if its expertise were indispensable and if there were no other suitable major players. But there are.

Instead of just focusing all your energy on the tinkerings of the federal budget, like most mainstream environmental groups do, it is far more interesting to look at the actual developments on the ground. A recent poll of U.S. utility executives by Pricewaterhouse Coopers asked: For what reasons would you move/are you moving towards increasing renewable energy? 75% said compliance with legislation, 55% said to enhance reputation/brand, and 52% said exploitation of potential competitive advantage. That more than half said renewable energy is a competitive advantage is significant. Some major utility corporations involved in renewable energy -such as Enel (Italy), Scottish Power (UK), Edensa and Iberdrola (Spain), and Mid-American and FPL in the U.S.- have invested billions in the last few years in developing wind, geothermal and small hydro generation. It is interesting to note that much of the wind investment in the U.S. is coming from European capital.

With the large exception of ExxonMobil, oil industry involvement in renewable energy is nothing new. A diversity of energy sources can actually be good for petro-corporations’ overall profitability. BP, which these days likes to refer to itself as “Beyond Petroleum,” has been involved in renewables for more than thirty years. In 1997, BP CEO John Browne said that he hoped that 50% of world energy would come from renewable sources by 2050. The 50% Browne describes would be a whole lot of energy, but with a similar amount of fossil fuels burning at the same time, this means that the glass would be only half full. Don’t be fooled, the money petroleum corporations spend on developing solar, though comparatively large within the solar industry itself, are a drop in the oil barrel compared to what they spend on developing new oil and gas production. This diversification into renewable energy in no way means that fossil-energy corporations plan on slowing down their fossil fuel production:

BP, which got off the mark faster than Shell, has announced its intention to invest $20 million annually to 2010 in renewable energy; Shell promises $500 million in five years. But at the same time, according to data from German Watch, BP invested $4 billion in fossil energy in 1997 alone, and Shell $7.5 billion. There are sound business reasons for this: the finance for the investments in renewable energy must come from the fossil fuel business.

While gas prices are volatile, green energy prices tend to be predictable. So they can add balance to a utility’s supply portfolio and help smooth the rate fluctuations created by changing gas prices.

Starting with Tesla and Westinghouse’s landmark Niagara Falls hydroelectric installation in 1895, both traditional regulated electricity monopolies and deregulated utilities (and the investment banks which back them) prefer large power plants. This traditional “big box” electricity production model easily comes under strain, especially with the chaos of deregulation. Due to decentralization in technology, big utilities are having a harder time competing, similar to how entertainment conglomerates are losing money due to internet downloading. There are fewer sites available for new large (especially nuclear) power plants, partly due to communities organizing against them, struggles which have led to important legal and environmental precedent. Also, technological developments should be looked at in a historical context, no matter who first developed them. Renewable energy is a prime example of how tools for a better world are developed under capitalism, but capitalism cannot utilize these tools in a way that benefits the majority of people. Keep in mind that the internet was supposed to be for Pentagon use only, and as we all know, just because it was developed by Dept. of Defense does not mean that the internet can’t have practical value for such things as organizing protests and strikes. In 2003, Spectrolab, a subsidiary of Boeing, unveiled the world’s most efficient solar cell, with 36.9% efficiency. Not to mention, recently there has been serious government interest in distributed generation and renewable energy for “national security” reasons. The technology has improved enough to make certain renewable technologies very profitable already:

While renewable energy accounts for only a small fraction of the world energy industry, it clearly is the fastest growing segment. Even the most conservative forecasters of renewable energy supply concede a steady growth in the role of renewable energy in the world’s total energy picture.

Global wind power capacity grew 35% in 2001 alone, to 25,000 MW, and the industry will far surpass the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecast of 48,000 MW by 2007. Annual wind power sales are already in the $5 billion range, by some estimates, with 25% per year growth expected through the decade.

Solar photovoltaic systems are a $1 billion market, with one leading supplier projecting the market to reach $5 billion in annual sales worldwide by 2010. Capacity in OECD countries grew 37% in 2000 to 712 MW, with Japan’s installed capacity growing 52%, according to the IEA, whose forecasts of 4,000 MW in 2010 are most likely as conservative as its wind forecasts. U.S. PV manufacturer AstroPower forecasts world capacity to reach 10,000 MW in 2010 and over 80,000 MW by 2020.

This is not due solely, as many middle-class environmentalists would say, to a “change in conscience.” A good example is PV manufacturing: BP Solar and Shell Solar are the second and forth largest PV manufacturers, respectively, together representing 23% of the world market in 2002. Japanese electronics giant Sharp is the world’s largest PV manufacturer with 22% of the global market. Sharp is experienced in semiconductors, from which photovoltaic cells are made, and is investing huge amounts of money in solar.

Japanese electronics corporations Kyocera, Sanyo and Mitsubishi are also in the top ten list of PV manufacturers. In 2002, Japan produced 45% of the world’s PVs, Europe 24% and the U.S. 21%. Japanese companies applied for over 6,000 PV-related patents between 1981 and 1995. Relative to other countries, Germany and Japan have been investing heavily in renewable energy since the 1970s. These two countries have no domestic-based petroleum industry to protect, and are completely dependent on oil and gas imports. This is a direct result of these nations losing World War II, as the victorious Allies wanted to put a lever of control on the former Axis countries.

Another interesting story is that of the General Electric (GE) Wind Energy division. Is GE investing so much money in wind power because of some kind of green corporate ethic? No, it is because GE wants to make money selling wind turbines, generators and related components. In theory, this would compete with the oil, coal, gas, and nuclear generation equipment sold by GE, but in reality the GE Wind division has boosted the overall profits the entire GE Energy group. The GE Wind Energy division has received more than $3 billion in orders for wind turbines between the years 2002-05. GE is involved in the proposed 468 MW Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts. Summer-home fat cats out on Cape Cod and Nantucket are trying to stop the Cape Wind project simply because they don’t want to look at turbines from their yachts. Leading Democratic Cape Cod politicians such as Ted Kennedy are spearheading this effort, against the pro-wind Republican GE-backed politicians. These people are spending almost as much money lobbying against the Cape Wind projects as their kids spend on cocaine.

Of course, many Republicans are in the anti-wind camp as well. As described by a regulatory lawyer involved with the project, “The only time Senator Kennedy is actually in Massachusetts is when he is schmoozing at his yacht club.” This is further proof that relying on the Democrats for renewable energy policy is like relying on them for abortion rights.
This does not mean that GE Wind Energy division is part of a struggle. It is more a testament to popular pressure for the development of renewable power, as well as certain material changes in the world energy market. Certain conditions of world energy production have made it extremely conducive to wind power in recent years. Natural gas prices have increased faster than expected, but gas-fired power plants were the most popular type of new plant construction in the 1990s: making wind much more competitive with this increasingly common form of power generation:

The U.S. has become increasingly dependent on gas-fired generation at a time when supply is tight and prices steep, and gas-fired plants supply 97% of the new power that has come on-line over the last three years. Meanwhile, prices have jumped from about $2/million BTU to more than $5/million BTU.

Gas supplies are expected to remain tight for several years, keeping gas prices high and making renewable energy more competitive. Wind power may even be able to compete on the spot market in regions where gas is on the margin… ‘This is going to reinforce the economics of renewable energy, and the politics, because people will start looking at renewable energy to ease the demand for gas’

Technological improvements in wind generation such as better turbine materials, power electronics, and better scientific understanding of air-flow dynamics have made wind turbines much more efficient and cheaper. Another beneficial aspect of GE Wind Energy is that it subsidizes other parts of GE itself. As said by John Rice of GE Wind Energy:

Our wind turbines are literally being made out of other GE businesses: power electronics and controls from Consumer & Industrial, gearboxes from Rail, knowledge of materials and aero design from Transportation, and systems integration from Global Research. The result is going to be a world-class turbine.

Perhaps the best wind success story so far is Denmark, which already gets 15% of it electricity from the wind. The Danish government started heavily subsidizing manufacturers in its then-infant wind power industry in the 1970s. Today, Danish manufacturers control 44% of the rapidly-growing global wind turbine market. Denmark-based corporations such as Vestas, NEG Micron, and Bonus have a competitive edge on the potentially huge export market. The Danish wind industry generated $2.7 billion of revenues in 2001, and employed 20,000 people. Impressive for a country with little more than five million people. Though the growth of wind power has slowed in the last couple years due to the worldwide economic slowdown, sales of wind power equipment are continuing to grow nonetheless. Many of the wind turbines in Denmark are operated by locally-owned, community-based cooperatives called vindmollelaugs. Similarly, many burgerwindparks are sprouting up in the nearby German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Schleswig-Holstein currently gets 26% of its electricity from the wind, about the equivalent of two full-sized nuclear power plants.

As for the most ambitious plans for the hydrogen-economy, Iceland has made a pledge to convert all of its energy use to carbon-free, renewable sources by 2020. What is intriguing about this initiative is that private capitalists, not the government, started it. The island nation of 280,000 people has no fossil-energy resources. Iceland’s only domestic sources of energy are hydropower and geothermal, both of which are abundant on the island. In 2001, 82% of Iceland’s electricity came from hydropower, and virtually all of the remainder provided by geothermal. Over 90% of Iceland’s heating comes from geothermal energy.

Currently, two-thirds of Iceland’s total energy comes from domestic renewables, with the remaining third coming from imported oil. Fuel cell-powered buses using hydrogen are already running in the capital city of Reykjavik. Most of the energy conversion will take place in converting all of Iceland’s automobiles and boats to hydrogen power. The economy of Iceland depends upon its two main export industries: fishing/fish processing and metals processing, both of which are very energy intensive. In the case of the fishing industry, ocean-bound fishing boats consume massive amounts of fuel oil, and Iceland’s metals industry (mostly aluminum smelting and ferrosilicon processing) consumes massive amounts of electricity. The electricity is mostly provided by hydropower, but transportation and the fishing fleet are still completely dependent on imported fuel. It would thus be very advantageous for Iceland’s small capitalist class to be independent of the global petroleum market and the forces who control it. Petroleum company Shell, auto manufacturer DamlierChrystler and Norwegian industrial giant Norsk Hydro have teamed up to collaborate on the Iceland New Energy (Nyorka) company, to develop fuel cell-powered vehicles. Eventually, Iceland also hopes to export hydrogen to Europe. Petroleum companies are taking an interest in Icelandic hydrogen because the gas is helpful, ironically, for oil and natural gas refining. Aluminum smelter conglomerates such as ALCOA have long had a ‘hydroelectric imperialist’ influence on Icelandic politics.

The European Union has a mandate that member states’ total energy production must be at least 12% renewable by 2010, not a small accomplishment considering the heavy EU lobbying of fossil energy corporations. Federal funding for U.S. renewable energy took a heavy hit during the Reagan-Bush administrations, and did not increase during the Clinton administration. However, state governments have been more supportive. State Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) been very successful in some states. Republican Governor George Pataki of New York in January 2003 signed the most aggressive RPS in the U.S. to date. In 1999, Texas Gov. George W. Bush signed into law a highly progressive RPS:

The Texas RPS is the most successful state RPS programme to date, having made Texas the largest wind market in the U.S.; 912 MW of wind was installed there in 2001, easily exceeded the ultimate target of 400 MW for 2002. An additional 2660 MW of wind capacity has applied for grid expansion, and hundreds of megawatts are being planned in 2003. Texas installed more wind in 2001 than the entire U.S. had installed in any previous year, and is now third in the world for new wind installations.

Despite the presence of massive oil and gas interests, Texas has a very successful wind power program, with the second largest installed capacity in the US. The economic prospects of the rural west Texas counties, some of which have already run out of oil, have been greatly improved by wind power.

Renewable energy is already growing rapidly, but not only as a “luxury” in rich countries like Iceland, Denmark, Germany or Japan. In reality, renewable energy is also growing rapidly in the so-called Third World or global South. Hardly a luxury, the energy industry in many poor countries has found that renewable energy is more, not less, economic (read profitable) for rural electrification. As much as vested energy interests would want to create a market for oil, coal, or natural gas throughout the rural global south, it most cases it just isn’t profitable. Most poor countries must import oil, which is all priced in U.S. dollars. Developing countries contain 80% of the world’s population but consume only 30% of global commercial energy.

Constructing a centralized system of electric lines, pipelines, or fuel storage systems for poor people in rural areas just isn’t very profitable compared to more densely populated areas and industrial ventures such as sweatshops and mines. In rural areas where the electric grid doesn’t exist, decentralized renewable energy systems are already very “competitive” in the mainstream economic sense. People in poor countries around the world can learn a lot from the energy mistakes of the advanced industrialized countries. Also, environmental costs are usually higher in poor countries. As described by river activist Patrick McCully, discussing the effects of large dams:

An argument often used by dam builders and backers in developing countries to defend incomplete and biased environmental surveys is that concern for the environment is a ‘first world luxury’ which they cannot afford. In fact the opposite is the case. The majority of people in developing countries depend directly on their environment to provide them with subsistence. The environmental destructions cause by dams in developing countries (and to a lesser extent elsewhere) thus carries a major human cost, which falls most heavily on the poorest sections of society. People in developing countries, in fact, can least afford the environmental impacts of large dams.

Most of the poorest places on earth are also the sunniest. An estimated 1.1 million solar home systems and solar lanterns have been installed in developing countries. For example, in Kenya, between 3 and 4 percent of rural households had small PV systems in the year 2000, compared to less than 2 percent who were connected to the power grid. China’s solar hot water industry expanded rapidly in the 1990s, and is now serving 10 million households. The Indian government has stated a goal of 10% of all new electricity generation capacity be renewable by 2010, China has pledged 5%, as has South Korea, while Malaysia has pledged 5% by 2005. China is undergoing a massive renewable energy program for rural areas, with a $340 million, two-year plan involving small hydro, solar and wind power in thousands of rural villages. In Pakistan, the government has stated an RPS of 10% by 2015, while Tunisia has committed to a 25% RPS by 2010. In India, the overall contribution by renewables (excluding large hydro) is still only 3.5% of the country’s total energy supply, but is growing. The renewable energy industry in India has been growing 15-20% annually in the last few years.

Brazil started a program in 1975 to use ethanol (made from sugar cane) to fuel vehicles. Today, about one third of fuel used by cars and light trucks in Brazil is in the form of ethanol. Dirt cheap solar cookers and improved biomass stoves have long been common in poor areas. Even in the fossil fuel-rich Middle East and North Africa, renewable energy use is growing rapidly: Syria announced plans to invest $1.5 billion in renewable energy by 2011, Turkey is currently developing 440 MW of wind projects, and Egypt is developing wind and solar power on a large scale.

Even bastions of neoliberalism such as the World Bank and USAID have gotten in on the renewable energy act to a minor extent. Between 1992 and 2002, the World Bank financed $1.35 billion of renewable energy projects, but it also spent $25 billion for fossil energy projects in the same period. Corporate and governmental lip service to renewable energy is on the increase worldwide. Many leading scientists and scientific organizations have long spoken out in favor of renewable energy.

Public opinion polls around the world show solid majorities in support of renewable energy. Corporations may be making money now on renewable energy, and is constant expanding investment in renewable energy, but will the “market” ever adapt itself quickly enough to save the environment? Or to the point that fossil fuels are no longer profitable? A big question is: is capitalism capable of switching to a renewable energy fast enough? All the evidence, in the form of subsidies, leads to no. For all the rhetoric about free and open markets, petroleum, coal, natural gas and nuclear are generously subsidized the world over. Most credible estimates of direct government subsidies to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries are in the range of several hundred billion dollars per year. Greenwashing of fossil fuel subsidies with such things as “Clean Coal” and nuclear hydrogen is becoming increasingly common. Probably the most hideous subsidy of the nuclear industry is that almost all countries with nuclear power plants grant their operators generous exemptions from public liability in an accident. Without these government subsidies, no sane insurance company would even think of insuring a nuclear plant. These are the kind of subsidies which require revolutionary action to undo.

Labor and Renewable Energy

Renewable energy has great potential for workers in form of more employment, and more democratic, less centralized control. Workers and their unions are usually the first casualties of deregulation. This is as true in energy as it is in telecom, airlines, railroads, trucking or any other industry. In the past few years, 150,000 utility jobs have evaporated in the U.S., and many utilities are in deep financial trouble. This of course means that utility workers are going to bear the brunt, not executives.

Utility union leadership has a bad history of collaborating with corporations who benefit from fossil and nuclear energy.

In the 1970s, most unions in construction and energy – Operating Engineers, Carpenters, Laborers, and Electrical Workers- believed that to support the soft-energy program of the anti-nuclear and solar advocates would be to sign their own death warrants. The construction trades in California enthusiastically allied themselves with Pacific Gas & Electric, Bechtel, and other construction and utility giants to form the California Coalition for Environmental and Economic Balance (CCEEB)… CCEEB’s goal was to fight the environmentalists and the grassroots anti-nuclear activists and to streamline the approval process for giant construction projects.

Recently, the United Mine Workers were lobbying for high-sulfur eastern U.S. coal, and continue to be lobbying for expanded coal use, and the Teamsters are in the odd position of supporting both wind energy and drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This nonsense is mostly a symptom of union bureaucracy collaboration with management. In reality, renewable energy creates more jobs per unit of energy produced than fossil energy sources. Rebuilding passenger railroads and mass transit would provide lots of union jobs. The idea that reducing fossil fuel use while increasing renewable energy use will do nothing but kill jobs is a scare tactic used by Houston mythologists. As described by Scheer:

Whereas, in decades past, jobs in municipal power plants were replaced by jobs in large power stations, now the reverse will be the case. Biomass farmers and foresters replace jobs in oil and gas extraction in Saudi Arabia and Russia, or in coal mining. Those currently employed in the lignite mines of eastern Germany could find new work in the same region, cultivating and harvesting biomass; power station installation engineers could move into the installation of solar systems; refinery workers could find new work in regional [biomass] oil mills, biofuel production or in the processing of plant-derived materials.

Also, nuclear engineers and plant workers could find ample work cleaning up nuclear waste and the decommissioning of nuclear power plants. Don’t forget that an energy industry capital like Houston is one of the most important places in the world for energy workers to organize. However, the environmental movement has historically been ineffective at reaching out to workers. This is largely because of the environmental movement’s large dead weight of yupper middle constituents. However, since the Seattle protests in 1999, environmentalists and the U.S. labor movement have found common ground in the global justice movement. The working class, like the capitalist class, can also use the laws of physics to its own advantage, but only if the class has a proper grasp of its relationship to nature’s role in the production process.

Renewable Energy Movements

Democratic control over a decentralized renewable-based economy is in direct competition with the profit imperative of many, but not all, large companies. The present policy of governments and most mainstream environmental organizations is to lightly pressure (in effect leave it up to) fossil-fuel corporations and big utility companies to develop energy alternatives. Mainstream U.S. environmental organizations, most notably the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, in the mid-1970s started pursuing “partnerships” with large energy corporations (like union leaders partnering with management) with predictable results:

… [in the 1970s] David Roe of the Environmental Defense Fund argued that there was no inherent contradiction between utility profits and the promotion of conservation and renewable energy. Roe contended that it was imperative to cut the utilities into the demand-side deal by offering them a fixed profit share on their expenditures to reduce demand, expenses that ran the gamut from rebates on energy-efficient refrigerators to conservation commercials aired on TV. It may have seemed “too good to be true,” wrote Roe, but under utility-controlled demand-side management, all that the utilities would have to relinquish would be their energy-promotion advertising, which had historically overshadowed research and conservation efforts.

The NRDC and the corporate-backed Energy Foundation (which helps fund the NRDC) both supported the approach as stated in its late 1980s “Collaborative Principles of Practice”, that in environmental partnerships with energy corporations, all “stakeholders” should make decisions by consensus and “speak with one voice.” Activists practicing consensus with corporations has rarely been a good idea, and the renewable transformation must come at the cost of established fossil energy interests. These same organizations had connections to Wall Street money, as mainstream environmental leaders saw no contradiction between renewable energy/conservation and the profits of energy corporations. They wanted to merely change utility “investment practices.” The bankruptcy of this approach was obvious by the start of the 1990s.

Top-down approaches such as international government accords are doomed to fail, as witnessed by the breakdown of the vague “commitments” by governments to the Kyoto Protocol. They are based on the voluntary compliance of corporations to reduce emissions, as well as the goodwill of such people as “Enron Democrats.” For example, the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment was eliminated during the Clinton administration in 1995.
We have to go to the grassroots and struggle from below. Poor people and workers spend a much greater part of their incomes on energy consumption than do rich people, so are disproportionately affected by the negative aspects of the fossil energy industry. What kind of grassroots renewable energy development is possible in an industry dominated by a few large corporations? The good new is that this is already going on. Home-sized renewable power systems are becoming increasingly more popular. The movements for municipally-owned and cooperative utilities offer more democratic control for consumers, and though a far cry from any kind of meaningful worker’s democracy, they are still important and should be supported against the likes of Enron. Opinion polls have consistently shown in the last three decades that most of the U.S. public wants greater investment in renewables and energy efficiency. Among the short-term reforms that people should demand include generous subsidies for installing renewable energy systems in homes, and a “green-sin tax” on large energy corporations, from which money could go to renewable energy programs.

Although sun-based heat applications go back to ancient times, the first modern applications of solar energy were developed during the industrial revolution. Some scientists and engineers at the time already saw the contradictions of a fossil-fuel based economy. Scattered groups of scientists, engineers and technical hobbyists kept the dream of solar energy alive until the 1950s and 60s, when solar cells and improved fuel cells were developed by the U.S. and Soviet governments for their space programs. Solar energy proved to be the form of energy most suitable for powering satellites. In the U.S. in the 1970s, a grassroots solar movement started after the 1973 energy crisis, growing out of the anti-nuclear, environmental, and “back to the land” movements. The 1970s solar movement was limited in many ways, but important in establishing the grassroots as the basis for renewable energy. Some of its weaknesses included incompetent installers/lack of knowledge, undeveloped technology, and a lack of solar industry support infrastructure. Also, the politics of many people involved in this movement centered too much on individualist lifestyle politics. In other words: just run away from society, go off into the woods, build yourself a cabin, get your own energy, and that is all you need to do. In other words, their purpose is not to change the world, but to retreat from it.

This middle-class movement was very far removed from any kind of mass social struggle. In northern California, the epicenter of the solar home movement, much of this movement was funded by backwoods professional marijuana growers, the exact kind of petty bourgeoisie who want to stay out of the public eye. There is nothing wrong with living sustainably in the countryside, but what is a problem is if this is a political end in itself. Individually switching to renewable energy only has any real impact if it is part of a mass movement liked to other social struggles.

Movements by people around the world affected by capitalist energy projects are truly inspiring and deserve our support. In the Brooks Range of Alaska, the Gwich’in people are working on solar energy projects while fighting oil drilling in the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The successful popular mobilizations against water and gas privatization in Bolivia have been making headlines around the world. Grassroots struggles in the Narmada Valley of India against big dam projects have also attracted international attention. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), or “Save the Narmada Movement,” has teamed up with the People’s School of Energy (PSE), a progressive engineering group based in the Indian state of Kerala, to help affected Narmada villages build microhydro electric plants as a working alternative to big dams. The PSE is part of India’s remarkable People’s Science Movements, which are centered in Kerala, a state famous for its progressive development programs and social movements. The Communist Party of India [Marxist]-related Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), which literally translates as “Science Writers’ Forum of Kerala,” coined the term “science for social revolution.”

Why people's science? Because science and technology could have fulfilled the basic needs of all of humanity; could have liberated minds from the dead weight of obscurantism and backwardness. But in a world where the greed of a few have strangled the needs of the larger humanity, science and technology have been turned into further means of concentrating power and wealth into a few hands, are being abused as tools for wasteful consumption, hideous militarization and gruesome wars. Their distorted use has brought both humanity and nature on the verge of annihilation.

All the People's Science Movements are committed to working for a society where every single person is guaranteed a minimum quality of life, a society which is equitable and sustainable. The PSMs believe that science and technology inputs are essential to achieve this goal though such inputs by themselves are not sufficient to do so. The PSMs believe that the public needs to develop a critical understanding of science and technology to enable them to participate in shaping the growth of science and technology and in decisions regarding its application, especially in the choice of technologies in different contexts. The PSMs believe that science and technology must be actively shaped to serve the goal of serving humanity. The PSMs share the optimism that WE can by collective action ensure such a future.

As India’s People’s Science Movements demonstrate, knowledge of energy production should not strictly be the realm of so-called experts. Millions of everyday people should be learning about these issues and making their voices heard, not just in India but in the industrialized countries as well:

After the bombing of Hiroshima marked the end of World War II, Albert Einstein warned that the facts about atomic energy must be carried “to the village square.” From there, he said, “must come America’s voice.”

One of the greatest corruptions of American academia since the 1960s is the decay of science education due to the influence of postmodern ideas. As noted by Scheer:

It is the task of the modern, environmentally conscious age to force this transition to a solar global economy, thereby overcoming the doomed fossil industrial age that has not only closed its eyes to the life-and-death choices that confront it, but utterly denies that such choices exist. The US philosopher Arran Gare writes in his book Postmodernism and the Environmental Crisis that disorientation ‘has been made a virtue, and the absence of fixed reference points is celebrated.’ He portrays a generation mistrustful of the wider picture and of large-scale solutions. Such crises of identity and the loss of confidence in the future of society have always made an appearance when the existing social model has lost its credibility. But that is no excuse to all abandon all convincing models.

Thanks to postmodernism, primary school teachers, and thus children, are trained to ignore a scientific understanding of the world. Most of the graduate students in departments of physical science and engineering throughout the industrialized countries are from Asia, where postmodern ideas about primary and secondary education have less influence.

(Stay tuned for Part Three of Socialism and the Energy Question...)

Brian Yanity is a student at Columbia University. He can be reached at bby2001@columbia.edu

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[i] Wilhelm Ostwald: Die energetischen Grundlagen der Kulturwissenschaften (The Energy Basis of the Humanities), (Leipig 1909), p. 2.

ii] U.S. Dept. of Energy, Energy Information Administration. Available online at http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/iea/table29.html.

[iii] Richard Spurgeon and Mike Flood, Energy and Power (London: Usborn Publishing 1990), p. 13.

[iv] IEA World Energy Outlook, 2003., p. 28. Available online at http://www.iea.org/statistics/key2003.pdf.

[v] Hermann Scheer: The Solar Economy: renewable energy for a sustainable global future. (London: Earthscan Publications Ltd, 1999), original German edition: (München: Verlag Antje Kunstmann GmbH, 2002), p. 14.

[vi] IEA, p. 33.

[vii] Scheer, pp. 98-99.

[viii] Lawrence A. Ruth. “Advanced Coal-Fired Power Plants,” Journal of Energy Resources Technology, March 2001, p. 5.

[ix] Available online at http://www.greenpeace.org/nuclear/nukepower_reason4text.htm

[x] Thomas Spiro and William Stigliani. Chemistry of the Environment (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall 2003), pp. 5-9.

[xi] John Houghton. Global Warming: the Complete Breifing. (Cambrige, MA: Harvard University Press 1997), p. 203.

[xii] Richard Spurgeon and Mike Flood, Energy and Power (London: Usborn Publishing 1990), p. 14.

[xiii] Paul Maycock, “PV market update,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 84.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 96.

[xv] Ibid.,, p. 86.

[xvi] Peter Fairley, “Can organics replace silicon in PV?,” IEEE Spectrum, January 2004, pp. 28-30.

[xvii] Daniel M. Berman and John T. O’Conner, Who Owns the Sun? People, politics and the Struggle for a Solar Economy (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green 1996), p. 16.

[xviii] ESTIF, “A solar thermal strategy: sun in action II,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, pg. 200.

[xix] Ibid., p. 204.

[xx] Christine Real de Azua, “Grid Wars,” Solar Today, November/December 2003, p. 39.

[xxi] “Wind generates power for 35 million people,” REFOCUS, September/October 2003, p. 14.

[xxii] Paul Gipe, “The BTM wind report; world market update,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 76.

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 81.

[xxiv] D.L. Elliot and M.N. Schwartz, Wind Energy Potential in the United States (Richland, WA: Pacific Northwest Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy, 1993). Available online at: http://www.nrel.gov/wind/wind_potential.html.

[xxv] “AWEA projections for US wind in 2003 increase, but PTC extension essential,” Renewable Energy World, September/October 2003, p. 18.

[xxvi] Peter Asus, interviewing Steve Zwolinski, “Offshore wind energy takes off at GE,” REFOCUS, November/December 2003, p. 55.

[xxvii] Gipe, pp. 66-8.

[xxviii] Ibid., p. 68.

[xxix] “EWEA sets sights on 180,000 MW wind in Europe by 2020,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 14.

[xxx] Alison Hill, “A new power in the marketplace,” Renewable Energy World, September/October 2003, p. 46.

[xxxi] Ibid., p. 48.

[xxxii] Micheal Zaaner and Andrew Henderson, “Offshore update: a global look at offshore wind energy,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 115.

[xxxiii] Godfrey Chua, “The sleeping dragon: wind energy in the Asia-Pacific region,” REFOCUS, November/December 2003, p. 27.

[xxxiv] David Hayes, “Asian renewables,” REFOCUS, January/February 2004, p. 34.

[xxxv] Ibid., p. 28.

[xxxvi] Gipe, p. 66.

[xxxvii] Ibid., pp. 74-6.

[xxxviii] Ibid., p. 66.

[xxxix] Spurgeon and Flood, p. 32.

[xl] John Griffiths, “Marine renewables: wave, tidal, and ocean current technologies,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 170.

[xli] John Lund, “Ground-source heat pumps: a world overview,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 218.

[xlii] Spurgeon and Flood, p. 28.

[xliii] Jeremy Rifkin, The Hydrogen Economy, (New York, Tarcher Penguin 2002), pp. 180-2.

[xliv] Jan Hamrin, “The amazing growth of the U.S. green electricity market,” Renewable Energy World, July/August 2003, p. 148

 

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