Jim is a Justmeans staff writer for Energy, Climate Change, and Transportation. "From my years as a debater prior to undergraduate work in Massachusetts, I have written about science and technology, carrying this focus into graduate school, where I examined the history of Birmingham and the early twentieth century South from working class and progressive perspectives. In addition to work as ...
Solar Media as Renewable Energy Guidelines
Readers have had extensive opportunities to read about solar energy in these columns, in addition to having chances to grapple with surrounding issues and political economic ramifications. Only one of the experts that this column has encountered expressed doubt that, including wind and water and biomass, energy originating with the sun might be inadequate to proffer adequate motive force for human activities. David MacKay's bias was easy to uncover, yet readers may recall my promise to review his volume, Renewable Energy--Without the Hot Air.
That is not happening today, but I did want to reaffirm again the intention to take up the contentions of Dr. MacKay, with whom I profoundly disagree. Today, instead, I return to the life-work of Hermann Scheer, whose social democratic persistence in favor of solar and renewables has set cloudy and chilly Germany on the path to become this planet's renewable energy powerhouse.
Before engaging in the first piece of what will end up as a two-part review process, though, I decided to summarize briefly the solar authorities whom I've introduced in these essays who, unlike Professor MacKay, feel certain that the sun can meet all imaginable homo sapiens needs for power. Six such individuals or institutions, specializing in and passionate about the sun, have meandered across my section of the JustMeans platform.
Arjun Makhijani started us out. Observers may recall that he began his career as a nuclear physicist, before he helped the TVA cure itself of a glutted grid by minimizing nuclear investment. Readers first examined the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research(IEER), which Dr. M. founded and which he still leads.
In addition, the good professor's formidable challenge to the U.S., Carbon Free/Nuclear Free, expressed Dr. M's conclusion, after he delved the issues involved, that various renewable sources, with solar at the center, contained plenty of energy capacity to provide for all humanity's needs. Readers may recall that he started out a skeptic, taking on the multi-year investigatory process on the basis of imprecations from Dr. Helen Caldicott that he look at the matter deeply, whether a nuclear free future were possible without fossil fuels.
The Western North Carolina Renewable Energy Initiative(REI) also appeared here early in the JustMeans output of this humble correspondent. Even though a detailed look at REI solar has yet to make a debut in these pages, readers did get a brief REI overview in the context of a closer look at the Small Wind Initiative under the purview of Professor Dennis Scanlin and Marcus Taylor, his estimable assistant. REI participants at Appalachian State University do not doubt that a big chunk of N.C. energy could rapidly emanate from renewables, with much more available after appropriate policy and economic support.
Walter Ratterman hated to talk politics as much as he loved to help communities gain mastery over a steady electrical current through solar techniques. While the chronicler typing away here extolled Saint Walter, whose tragic end was as unexpected as it was random, this humble correspondent did note the impossibility of avoiding politics. An attempt to finesse the inherent conflict of empire and political economy, in fact, tangibly impedes what Walt Ratterman stood for, the capacity of several billion cousins to gain a grid-of-their-own by means of solar voltaic ingenuity.
Jigar Shah, the much touted 'solar visionary' of the business end of sun-power, is politely persistent--smilingly relentless, really--in his insistence not only that solar is likely to become a major profit center in all but the most backward economies, but also that this manifestation of moolah will come to pass in the context of less and less government support, fewer and fewer subsidies. This humble correspondent kowtowed to his hallelujah attitude, at the same time that he remained dubious that solar could soar outside of an significant expansion of democracy first.
Henry Red Cloud, meanwhile, firm in his belief in joining old ways with new ways, has been revolutionizing his Lakota Sioux community in several ways. His renewable energy education efforts are empowering people who heretofore had an 80% likelihood of unemployment. He is keeping money in the neighborhood by making sure that any household can gain its own power supply, And he is bringing hope and a sense of engagement where before bleakness seemed omnipresent.
And just last week, Herr Scheer bid farewell in these lines. More than any other advocate for sunny juice, Hermann Scheer demonstrated the political consciousness--of social democracy, and the political economic analysis--of the mandatory dismantling of current power networks that has to happen, if proponents of this higher calling actually intend to achieve results that yield sustainable business and the 'business better' that comes from the sun.
I have been critical of all of these fabulous people, with the exception of former Representative Scheer. The basis for my admonitions, other than my innate propensities, has ever revolved around the inadequate political and social assessment of how a society, such as the USA, can stand a decent chance to do the right thing, choose the right path, and enable as sustainable future that flows from renewable energy choices.
Such critiques have become somewhat popular. The database search, garnered 50,000 relevant connections, everything from doubting the intentions of the world bank to working with legislative initiatives, all the while decrying "business as usual" as a death sentence for sustainability.
Stumbling Toward Sustainability, by the Environmental Law Institute's John Dernbach, powerfully articulates this recognition of inchoate and bumbling engagement with what people often indicate are number one priorities. Dernback's well-intentioned policy cheerleading, as indicated, has become quite common.
Marilyn Brown and Jess Chandler, just down the road from this humble correspondent at Georgia Tech, also analyzed this apparent conundrum. "While there are many barriers to the commercialization and deployment of clean energy technologies, those that are imposed by legislatures and regulators are particularly of interest as they operate at cross-purposes with government-stated intentions."
In scanning these complaints, legitimate as I agree that they are, I nonetheless came across zero sociopolitical grounding that the life of Hermann Scheer exemplified. By turning to some of his vast output in favor of solar--specifically the book, The Solar Economy--those among readers who also comprehend the validity of frequent complaints about sabotaged policy and so on have the option to appreciate a pathway out of the thicket, a democratic renewal that can operationalize what we say we want and what we admit we need.
Last Thursday, this humble correspondent both paid last respects to Herman Scheer, and contextualized his life to put this eulogy in perspective. Readers may recall that a comprehension of this 'miracle on the Rhine' necessarily entailed an investigation of German history in relation to empire and capital and political democracy in the ashes of dictatorship.
Moreover, the emphatic commitment to social democracy was also a core component of Herr Scheer's successes. Not only did he work through a socialist collective in making the policy innovation and technical upsurge that characterized his involvement manifest, but he constantly appealed to the necessity for a conjunction of renewable energy with local democracy in order for humankind to move forward from the crises so typical now on all fronts.
Additionally, of course, Hermann Scheer and his colleagues foresaw that imperial entanglements and war spending direly threatened a social upwelling in favor of solar energy. Furthermore, after his own abbreviated tenure in the nuclear industry, Herr Scheer rejected any further investment in atomic methods for making steam, a path that he helped to lead Germany to embrace and that has gained traction generally in many of the more socially democratic regimes in Europe.
Finally, in integrating these various underpinning modalities with his legislative and policy legerdemain, he called explicitly for the necessity of dismantling current power networks. In other words, a turn away from the capital intensive technological methodologies inherently revolved around disempowering the hegemony that these sectors have long exercised over 'advanced' societies and 'underdeveloped' countries alike.
Thus, Hermann Scheer saw a mutual interest on the part of all common citizens on our fair orb in building power from the ground up, simultaneously disengaging the ruling networks that currently provide so much of what we take for granted in the world. In the process of making these points politically, and advocating for new laws and policy, readers will recollect the phenomenal achievement that Herr Scheer was able to assist.
Germany grew from a society in which under four per cent of electricity was renewable to a colossus of the sun, more than quadrupling the proportion of power coming from wind and Sol, to more than sixteen per cent. This success, a dear factor for many Americans--and hence probably for JustMeans readers as well, is something that observers should keep in mind as they review, with this humble correspondent, one of the elements of Hermann Scheer's magnum opus in support of solar sources of power and livelihood.
THE SOLAR ECONOMY
Every text offers readers both the chance to explore new territory and to understand familiar environs in a richer and deeper way. Of course, everyone is busy. Reading is time consuming. The exigencies of existence impede engagement. Then again, survival may depend on folks' exploiting this 5,000 year old gift of cultural evolution, the magic possibility of text.
All that this humble correspondent will do to facilitate the process is to provide a synopsis of the organization and primary arguments of the fellow who, more than anyone else on earth, had helped to improve the chances for a renewable energy future. He's gone now. He's asked, repeatedly, that we join in and help rescue our own bottoms, and those of our children, from the holocaust awaiting humankind if we fail to act.
If nothing else, everyone, from every point on the globe, should consider Hermann Scheer's magnificent prefatory remarks. While this twenty page blessing and imprecations is rich with gems, a bedrock theme is that empowerment requires power, and personal and community capacity actually to create power is a key part of any democratic flowering. The "distributed" nature of sun-energy necessitates such a potentiation of people.
Part One, "Captivity or Liberation: Fossil Fuel and Solar Supply Chains Compared," evokes Hermann Scheer's roots in systems analysis. On the economic vitality and viability of solar, he and Jigar Shah would have a glorious meeting of the minds.
However, Hermann Scheer has a larger agenda. He envisions not increasing profitability to wealthy individuals and shareholders, but increasing prosperity for common folk in their regular associations and communal arrangements. This shift, from profit to prosperity, from private capitalization to social capitalization, makes all the difference in the world.
Part Two, "The Pathological Politics of Fossil Resources," is a cry for recognition from a boy whose first birthday arrived a few days prior to Hitler's suicide, when Germany lay in ruins, strangled by its lack of oil. Instead of any plausible pathway to human progress, "moral bankruptcy" and the reliance on force will flow as certainly from a fossil/Uranium Plutocracy's continuance as water flows from the melting snow atop the world's mountains.
Moreover, Herr Scheer shows the intellectual bankruptcy concomitant with coal and nukes and oil, the falsities of breeder reactors and plutonium reprocessing, all promising ease and productivity but embroiling humanity in a toxic stew that extends from the nursery at the cancer ward to the fake compassion at the lost soldiers and citizens who have been sacrificed to carbon and Uranium when sunshine could stand all people in much better stead.
The three chapters in Part Three, "Throwing Off the Fossil Fuel Supply Chains," detail the technical plenty that awaits a world that embraces solar. Herr Scheer celebrates the creativity and ingenuity that his leadership helped to liberate in Germany.
But he looks around the globe for other cases. These show up especially in his writing about farming, the transformation away from a monocultue dependent on fossil fuel fertilizers and gigantic schemes of mechanization. In many ways, his ideas echo the hard-headed practicality of Wendell Berry, who never romanticizes farm labor, even as he recognizes the instances when human power or animal power provide apt substitutes to fuel and machinery. To this, of course, Hermann Scheer adds the practically unlimited inputs that are available in sunlight, along with water and soil the basis for our presence here.
The triad of chapters in the final section, Part Four, "Toward a Solar Economy," proffers a dialectic that moves from community power to the potential of solar technology to illustrate the greater stability, security, peace, and satisfaction that attend the transformation that, for now, is still available to us. He calls for a "creative destruction" of the fossil fuel and nuclear fuel cycles--as I've suggested, we should start calling them 'Fool Cycles'--out of which can emerge, like a Phoenix honest trading networks from capacitated communities on every continent.
When I read the volume, which did in fact require that I skim huge sections--this humble correspondent resembles most of my cousins, swamped and beleaguered, I tried to find interesting ways to determine where Herr Scheer was coming from, what POV he unintentionally or intentionally supported. I checked the index of the volume, to see how often 'expert' or 'expertise' showed up.
After all, solar power evolves from science, which is requisite in excellent adaptations of the sun's potential in technical terms. Fourteen occasions is the extent of The Solar Economy's reference to experts, however, slightly less than once every 25 pages.
'Democracy,' as one part of speech or another on the other hand, appeared 24 times in the volume. Moreover, since various forms of community came up on 17 instances, we might infer even more powerfully that Hermann Scheer valued democratic community at least three times as much as he valued 'expertise.'
This does not eschew knowledge, far from it. Such a way of thinking fiercely defends the notion that knowledge is a social and collective act, and that in fact the 'cult of expertise' is often no more honest, let alone honorable, than any snake-oil voodoo on the market.
The final term that I searched, 'nuclear,' showed up well over 100 times. Each time the context was the unity between fossil fuels and nukes, that the motion of history under the guidance of a fossil fuel regime inevitably moved toward atomic energy. Not only is this not a rational 'exit strategy' for a world suffering under monopoly fuel tutelage, it will irremediably worsen the suffering caused by carbon and elicit the real possibility of mass collective suicide. He explicitly argues that 'opportunity costs, ' are a huge rationale for rejecting nukes.
Herr Scheer closes this amazing intellectual and social document by clarifying the intersection among energy, work, and quality of life. He makes two important points in this regard.
The first is that 'technology' alone has never much improved human life. This especially adheres to situations when the technical implementation emanates from and primarily serves a master class. As Herr Scheer notes, "The burden on workers was only ever lightened as the result of action by politicians or trade unions. The future will be no different: technology may make improvements in living standards possible, but this is not guaranteed to happen" unless a redistributional dynamic comes to pass. He notes the decentralized ease with which such a dynamic could easily transpire under a solar regime.
The second point concerns the vast quantities of energy currently expended on domination. The subsumption of vast tracts of our fair home, and the people there, under one 'flag' or another, cannot help but accompany a fossil fuel, or he would quickly add, Uranium regimen. Not only will this quite likely result in the ruination of the biosphere, but it is also ethically monstrous and stupidly vicious toward each other and the Mother of us all.
"By taking hold of the visible hand of the sun and producing from sustainable resources, the world remains close to the land, and its inhabitants meet in a freer and more just environment. From riches for the few, be they individuals, companies or societies, will increasingly come wealth for all, more justly and more equally distributed. Renewable resources will bring a new era of wealth-creating economic development, initiated not by bureaucratic fiat, but by the free choices of individuals."
Needless to say, 'this is what democracy looks like,' when community and capacity and appreciation for social justice joins the sort of profound analysis of which we're capable. Readers might stay tuned for a forthcoming assessment of a film that Hermann Scheer produced just before his death.
Mike Ewall, of the Energy Justice Network, stated the matter as well as any of the interlocutors to whom this common citizen has appealed for insight and input. "Energy Justice is the first national organization to advocate a complete phase-out of nuclear power, fossil fuels, large hydroelectric dams and 'biomass' incineration within the next 20 years(as) possible, affordable and absolutely necessary. What is holding us back is only a lack of political will."
Of course, limiting his assessment to the U.S., Mike's assertion of the Energy Justice Network's primacy is beyond question. That an entire generation of German politicians, Socialist and Green, along with significant slices of other European political apparatuses, have antedated even the authoritative militancy of EJN is, to say the least, noteworthy.
Readers may remember a recent profile of Georgia's Green Party, which indicated that at least some political forces in this country are catching up and dovetailing with the impetus that EJN has given to community activism and engagement nationwide. This could not be anything other than a welcome development.
On the other hand, a twofold weakness seems indisputable in stating the way that a minor party represents the leading edge of 'sustainable business' thinking in this, the best of all possible worlds, the home of the free and the land of the brave. In the first place, inasmuch as citizens--such as many folks on JustMeans, for instance--have powerful networks and communities already, and yet have not demonstrated the sort of unequivocal affirmations that the likes of Greens, Social Democrats, and progressive NGO's have promulgated, the only conclusion is that a critical aspect of consciousness is missing.
Either that would be so, or the avowals about sustainablity and 'clean' technologies are the 'hot air' that Dr. MacKay characterizes in his book in a fundamentally different way. This is one of those situations where an erstwhile proponent of renewable energy and sustainable business cannot simultaneously maintain, 'Oh, I'm all for that stuff,' at the same time that he or she demurs about committing to democracy and popular empowerment.
The second weakness occurs in precisely the many communities that my many correspondents have introduced to JustMeans readers: Shell Bluff folks that WAND assists; the Madison County and other North Carolina communities that Lou Zellar serves so assiduously through the good offices of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League; the widespread agglomerations of aggrieved citizens whom Mike Ewall has helped on occasion to obtain surcease; and many more. These folks all too often lack capacity either to oppose on their own what is oppressing them, or to promote what would liberate them.
In some near-at-hand future, those who honestly want sustainability and appropriate technology have little hope outside of a democratic movement to back up such objectives. A party cannot lead; the people must assume command.
In The Strength to Love, Martin Luther King recognized the underlying fact that sets this up, that those who long for transformation must find a way of working with their cousins in order to obtain real change. "In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectely."
In a nutshell, the inescapable implication is that, lacking democratic approaches and the intellectual and social capacity to back up the forms of majority-rule, this 'network of mutuality' spells doom. Of course, something akin to a paradise on the planet is available if citizens can find a way to work within the parameters requisite in this paradigm.
Several kinds of power result from harnessing the sun. Photovoltaic electricity captures many people's imaginations, because of its elegance and obvious utility. But several forms of solar heat have immense potential to fit snugly into a sustainable business paradigm: water heaters, space heaters, and process heat are all available from the sun, though the last of these may end up having less impact than the first two types of warmth.
And this is just the easy-to-view surface that solar energy presents to humankind. While options for untried solar applications may not be limitless, even a cursory reading of the main authorities considered over the course of these essays suggests tremendous untapped potential in a 'sunny side' uptake of the human prospect.
The underlying theme of what I've presented here, however, also with copious authority, and plentiful example, and a plethora of rationale, is that none of these plausibly marvelous qualities of solar as an energy source will amount to a proverbial hill of beans unless citizens facilitate the growth of another type of potency. I'm referring, of course, to people power.
What's coming up next Tuesday, by the by, doesn't equal democracy either. Voting is one essential element of democratic forms. However, as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton so elegantly articulated 220 years ago, rulers can utilize the structures and dynamics of representation so as both to protect the minority rights of the propertied and the plutocratic and to divide the masses into competing 'interests' that are as easily conquered as is a cavalcade of divided soldiers, all afraid and hoping to live, and devil take the hindmost.
Community, democracy, capacitation, and more such themes have been effervescent in the texts of this humble correspondent. Don Harris has begged us to 'listen to the trees' The students at Pugwash, following the lead of Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, have implored that we exit the nuclear highway and consider gentler means of energizing ourselves.
A recent scholar spoke about this in a powerful insistence in systemic thinking, the willingness to develop a sense of consciousness that takes people deeper, deeper into learning about the past and its links to the future, deeper into examining the interconnections among people and societies, and deeper into an awareness of human animality--that we can no more escape nature's enfolding grip than we can escape the necessity of being born of a woman.
In a section of his work entitled "Ecological Being, Social Organization, and Social Practice," he intoned as follows. "Like Marx in his early works, such as The German Ideology and the Paris Manuscripts, which address the concept of species living in an unalienated fashion, we need as well to focus on the distantiation that has occurred between us as Humans (and) other living beings and natural processes."
He goes on to insist on responsibility. "Human agency has a part to play in this overall world historical process, therefore we must retrieve our ecological selves (being) so that the Circle can be reconnected again. Consciousness raising, deep explorations, identification, and realization with other ecological selves need to take place so that a 'sense of place' and a 'sense of wonder' can return. What it means is identification and solidarity with all life."
And he closes dispositively. "In short, value changes that are more sensitive to the 'common circle' should be encouraged." That this is impossible outside of a democratic context ought to be obvious. Is it? Inquiring minds, as ever, would like to know.