A Solar Energy Visionary on a Collision Course with a 'Renaissance'
In my first post on Justmeans, I called for "a more down-to-earth, more social, more everyday way of thinking about the issues that we consider, ultimately, to be 'energy issues.' " I followed this with a review of Dr. Arjun Makhijani's Carbon Free/Nuclear Free, a significant assumption of which is that solar technologies, and photovoltaic and other expressions of sun electricity, make nuclear investments unnecessary and unwise.
Thus, when confronting a question like this--"Can solar compete?"--this humble correspondent has absolutely no qualms in responding with a rousing and unqualified affirmation. This position results from reading such material as Dr. Makhijani presents, learning more about how marketplaces for electricity work, and generally seeking to understand this aspect of the energy equation that we're solving now, day by day and year by year.
However, as I've also said again and again and again, and again, ad infinitum, a 'more down-to-earth, more social, and more everyday way of thinking'...about...energy issues' absolutely requires that we ground ourselves in history, politics, philosophy, and ethics. Unfortunately, perhaps, from the perspective of readers who 'just want easy answers' and who 'just want good decisions and good management and cheap stuff,' I staunchly insist that such wishes are, at best, fanciful.
We must always begin with something like Thomas Jefferson's insight: 'The people can never control what they do not understand.' Recognition of this means that we must strive to learn how everything fits together, not with the expectation that we will ever attain perfect knowledge, but with the firm grasp that responsible citizenship necessitates our participation in this ongoing process of dialog, knowledge creation, and policy formulation. Therefore, more likely than not, an avoidance of this necessary complicated multi-layered reality that we have an obligation to dissect intelligently is irresponsible, not just fanciful.
The upshot of this orientation, which inherently calls for more socially democratic development, more participatory manifestations of strong democracy, is that no simple rah-rah-rah boosting of markets and their magic will ever seem very appealing to me. Of course, I may be wrong. The 'invisible hand,' which we may demonstrate has never actually existed, even as its proponents shout hosannas at its magical mojo, may somehow come into being and save us with a first real dose of democratic capitalism.
This is the promise that emanates to a degree from Dr. Makhijani, who nonetheless shows a clear awareness of the ravages of empire and an apparent, troubling tendency of social classes in control of capital to mess with the equity of the paradigm and turn any pretense of free markets into rigged casino games. Only a few brave souls, one of whom we will meet today, have the temerity to suggest that all that stands in the way of humanity and nirvana is the unleashing, finally, of the free-market-capitalist potential that the theory of capitalism has always suggested was present.
I'm not a natural numbers geek, by any stretch of the imagination. This is important today, because much of this untrammeled reliance on 'free-market thinking' in turn relies on deductions from numbers, specifically series of collected statistics that demonstrate such patterns as unit cost, consumption trends, government subsidies (which, theoretically, as Jigar Shah well knows, cannot have any place in a 'free' market).
While I have before discussed the nature of empirical thinking, the utility of its employment, and the grave risk of presuming value from trend and other problems with empiricism as an overarching premise, I want to return to that point, inasmuch as the libertarian tendency is to look at certain sets of numbers from the past as if they alone told us what the future might hold. Numbers do nothing but count, a valuable addition to human capacity, but hardly the sole, or even the primary, basis for decision-making unless we already know what our priorities are.
As I argued in my earlier post on Peak Oil, "(f)inally, we would note that probability, as useful as it is, does not represent reality but models data into simulacra of what reality might be. In the context that Marion King Hubbert provides us in today's story, moreover, the interests of a so-called scientist can cause a front-loading of falsehood in place of fact, just as the interests of upper-level stakeholders can advocate data-collection protocols that prohibit the collection of the necessary data to load into the system."
When folks say that the profitability trends prove anything other than that accountants agree that something was worth more than it cost to produce in the past, I'm skeptical. We're talking about "the means of production" here; we're inevitably going to have to grapple with "the relations of production" if we are to do more than sign off on one form or other of continued control of things by those who had all the money yesterday. And numbers about the investments in, costs of, and profits (or losses) from particular products and services and organizations delicately leave such deeper delving aside.
Furthermore, as is the case with any complex social, political, and economic phenomenon, capitalism--the complex of relations that underlies the sort of conversation just alluded to--is only useful to study when we consider historical approaches to understanding it. Except as a 'trending' tool, examining numbers from the past as a graph of likely new numbers now and in the future, the sort of thing that M. King Hubbert (and Jigar Shah) excelled at, this circumscription of policy as a matter of 'numeracy' is necessarily ahistorical. The way that past political and social events impacted present developments never enters the frame.
The point of mentioning this is that, whatever the potential for financial success in any given enterprise at this moment--say a company called SunEdison or a process with the moniker Ready Solar--looked at historically, capitalism is clearly now in crisis. Looking at numbers that are more global, for instance, like shipping indexes, rates of employment, capital investment relative to rate of profit, numbers in series that reflect some of the complex relationships mentioned above, the past ten years--some would say the entire period since the stagflation of the mid-1970's, have shown some frightening trends about capital's long-term ability to deliver its essential component.
That core of capital, of course, is growth. And no one doubts that the past forty years have manifested impressive paper agglomerations of riches. Some of my investment professional buddies scoff at everything that I say because they can show the trillions heaped up by those, for the most part, who had the original trillions at stake.
But they 'quieten down some,' when I point out that folks seem to have had a lot of concerns--that have been persistent over the past four decades--about where to put really large pools of investment capital so that they can expect a 'reasonable' net return (can anyone say, "Please let me into the five per cent club?") that is not too much at risk, and not too far behind the returns of the major gamblers in the system. Something is askew in this regard.
Thus, when a promoter promulgates the notion that he has a solution to what I term the crisis of capital, and that others may call a more macro-economic name, self interest dictates that folks take note and see if what the fellow says is hucksterism or salvation. Jigar Shah is a very convincing man. He does not rant; he does not deviate from the litany of data-driven power points that he wants to make. He may indeed have a solution, in a transition to a solar-driven economy that, because of its innate technological base, can for the first time in history yield a free marketplace in which all may compete equally and equitably.
Jigar Shah means well. He is not only a genius who knows how to bankroll hard work and make it pay, but he is also someone who envisions a model of capital's future course that passes directly through communities, and even individual consumers, to yield a socially less oppressive and generally freer environment.
Unfortunately, however, despite the viability of his model for SunEdison electric and, very likely, other institutionalizations of his entrepreneurial flair, his overall hope for the future manifestation of renewable energy will likely encounter fatal road blocks unless Shah also develops a sociopolitical engagement model at least as robust as the ingenious machinations of his economic wizardry.
As I've already said, this is one of those stories where I'm in over my head. I don't have the time and resources to do this work appropriately, dogging this busy, busy man until he'll talk to me for a few minutes. I haven't the technical background to fulfill the 'appearances-matter' palate of most folks who follow these issues. Charts and graphs and tables require a more robust cash-out before this humble correspondent can buy in, as it were.
Nonetheless, I know some history, and I can think things through, when something to consider is at hand. I was part of the movement in this country, for example, to bring about a 'Citizens Party,' with Barry Commoner at its helm, that put renewable energy near the top of its platform in the late 1970's. In the thirty years since then, of course, the ratio of renewable electricity has actually fallen, as hydroelectric facilities have moved offline, even though, technically--what with ethanol and such, the overall proportion of energy inputs has nudged up infinitesimally.
Part of the problem that I have with Jigar Shah's suave and happy promotional pitch for solar is that he doesn't offer any credible explanation for why his analysis of the numbers today will earn the tale of the tape affirmation of the smart money boys today, when the same sorts of numbers and models were in use by the techno-geeks who loved Dr. Commoner in 1979.
Readers should make no mistake. My judgment is that this is a story about a scenario that needs to happen. A renewable transition--likely as not led by solar, must occur, both if the United States of America is to continue even vaguely to resemble a functioning democracy, and if the current planetary collection of seven billion cousins are going to keep from confronting circumstances that make annihilation more attractive than continuation.
However, that 'need' will not serve to bring necessity to fruition unless some sort of political miracle, or at least a political movement, gets in gear and matches such politically engaged and socially organized forces as the radioactive juggernaut. Actuating that movement has to start with an analysis of the past. My posts here have again and again and again persisted in providing this grounding, historical analysis.
Jigar Shah shows no inclination to proffer such assessments about solar. I am not going to do his work for him, when he takes in vastly greater cashola than do I, but I am capable of such an investigation; given time and tide, I will make such an analytical foray. For now, I will merely assert that the problems with solar today have nothing to do with profitability; they have nothing to do with price; they have nothing to do with technology as such.
Instead, they have to do with matters of utility and grid history, the political economy of fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and the complicated intersection of class domination and socioeconomic oppression and subversion of democracy that are characteristic of what underlies the facade of 'America' as 'land of the free and home of the brave.'
And I'll say that the equable calm of this clearly capable guy, who has talked plenty of bankers into adopting new ideas that I'll share with readers below, will not answer the concerns that confront solar in its potential to replace the ruling SOP of energy since Titusville, Pennsylvania's Mr. Drake struck black gold and inaugurated the reign of Mr. Rockefeller. Such an ability to stand toe-to-toe with oil and nukes requires a richer, deeper, more conflictual analysis of the political and social relations of this entire arena.
As the industry poster child in San Antonio in 2009, Shah started one presentation with 'a question on everyone's mind.' "Solar is ready," he intoned. "Can we get some respect?" And the answer will continue to be, except as a boutique, niche operation, "NO! pal; not till you've done your history homework and learned more about political economy than they apparently teach MBA's these days."
JIGAR SHAH'S GENIAL INGENUITY
The World Wide Web loves Jigar Shah. His is the quiet voice of reason, the smiling countenance of a happy future for capital, and capitalism, without messy social adjustments or sloppy political machinations necessary. He is "a modern solar hero," a "solar visionary extraordinaire," the person who can deliver, "a man, a plan, and a solar future" not only to America but to the world.
He readily acknowledges the difficulties that he so confidently, his brashness the calm, well-coiffed and elegantly suited reassurance that all will be well, promises to dispel. As a repeat keynote speaker at the Solar Finance Forum in San Antonio a year and a half ago, Mr. Shah over and over reemphasizes this willingness to engage dubious audiences that rarely, if ever, responded with spontaneous applause or huzzahs.
"Solar is so different" from what we're used to," he begins. "Our stable grid has come to be seen as equal to unparalleled prosperity. ... Where does solar fit in to this?" People don't dislike solar, but they hesitate to fix 'what ain't necessarily broke.'
He tips his hat to his host town. "San Antonio is now the number one solar city in Texas, with 41 MW," but when he calls for a round of applause, a silence that would have been awkward for anyone less suavely smooth than Jigar Shah ensues. He asks important questions in response to this, about "how do we get supported," about how the technical potential can engage real communities and grassroots action. But he never answers these questions.
Instead he mentions $1.2 billion in US financed projects in the previous year. Europe, too, he nods, has put in many billions. He points out that an annual, near-doubling of installed capacity, seven gigawatts projected for '09 and 13 gigawatts in 2010, will necessitate $30-40 billion in financing over the next period of time.
Again, though, rather than any focus on real communities and grassroots engagement, he moves to a comparison with real estate ebbs and flows. "Nobody knows what the cap rate or the zoning codes and such are for solar," he says, concluding that longer processes than hoped for are the result, which causes unrest among the financial set. He offers the services of SolarTech, from Palo Alto, to do this sort of prep work for communities.
No sane citizen could argue with the utility of such a service. But this once more finesses any necessity of a community-based process, of a grassroots movement. And he still knows that "new challenges lie ahead," because, even though the halving of costs in a year is really great, we have to imagine accomplishments like this without any incentives; he is a free market purist, pure and simple.
The challenges emanate from the 'pure and simple' point that those who hold the cash only care about the bottom line, not any complicated analysis of policy and possibilities. "Finance is what happens after all these things are resolved," says Shah. "They're not interested in unanticipated delays" and such, which of course is why the rah-rah crowd around a nuclear plant like Calvert Cliffs, in Maryland, is uninterested in even putting up five per cent of projected costs, with the other 95% covered by Federal promises. Yet, says Shah, once solar achieves the requisite "level of standardization," we will see that this will really excite the banks and other money bags.
How this fits in with the desire of U.S. and international financial institutions wanting to bankroll the 'nuclear renaissance,' without any sort of plan for a bottom-up political process, isn't clear. Nevertheless, Jigar Shah continues to smile, and not a tremor of perturbation appears on his unflappable surface.
"This is gonna get really huge," he ends up. New manufacturing facilities in the US, Mexico, Canada, and India will keep costs trending downward. Financing and support will go up as market mojo operates its magic. "I look forward to partnering with you."
Following this equable performance in San Antonio, Utne Reader proffered a multiply-linked blog that averred that 'Jigar Shah is a name on everyone's lips' in the renewable energy field of late. His input could inaugurate a term as a green guru for sustainable business.
Michael Behar, in a lengthy and typically well-written piece, "Selling the Sun ," goes into pleasing and useful depth in talking about exactly what has made the young Jigar Shah's star rise so quickly as he's followed, and by all accounts begun to fulfill, a dream that he's had since being a teen, to help kick-start a solar renewal for the clearly creaking structures of global capital. Admittedly, to up the drama of his narrative, Behar mistakes the angst of 'inside the beltway' sorts for anti-bourgeois ranting, but that's another story.
Mr. Shah, Behar makes clear, relentlessly repackaged his solar pitch to financiers who remained implacable in rejecting his solar proposals despite Shah's appealing logic. Because sun-powered projects were at least two times more certain to 'cross the finish line' than other generating options, Shah proposed, this should ameliorate investor concern that rates of return were slightly below similar investments in coal, for instance.
When the bankers wouldn't buy this, Shah eventually achieved a breakthrough that only an MBA would be likely to imagine. He combined signed contracts, the Purchase Power Agreements that readers have already seen in relation to wind farms, from 'Big Box' retailers who would install roof-top photovoltaic(PV) systems, with front-loaded tax credits and production incentives from Federal and State sources, to begin churning out financing for point-source solar as a bankable, as well as a reliable, process.
This is what has made SunEdison, the company that Jigar Shah founded, one of the hottest investment success stories of the dawning millennium. At the same time, since this success also dawned a new era of mundane day-to-day business operation, Jigar Shah needed to move on, his specialty the big-picture, start-up phase of setting the stage for the 'really huge' growth that he feels certain is coming.
A certain sort of 'happy-investor' upshot is the result of Shah's business success. Financial analysts are a big proportion of the hits from Google in many 'Jigar Shah' searches. Whatever their worries on any given day, like Jigar, they remain sanguine that the future is bullish and bright for sun-powered systems.
One legal-eagle summarizes both the attributes of solar's present problems and a creative tax scheme for alleviating financial uncertainty.
|"Notwithstanding the substantial benefits of solar power, this renewable energy source remains underdeveloped, and effective financial incentive policies are not currently in place to support the development of large‐scale solar facilities over the long‐term. However, ...(o)ne potential approach that would further this goal is to extend a tax structure, which already exists and benefits the commercial real estate market, to stimulate large‐scale solar energy development. Just as real estate investment trusts (REITs) have spurred investment into commercial real estate, solar real estate investment trusts (S‐REITs) could bring solar development to the masses and would increase capital flows into solar energy markets."|
Fearful that even such a boost might be inadequate, this barrister also wants to garner production tax credits so as to effectuate this 'green' source of power. "The S-REIT structure could be the solar investment vehicle of the future with minor clarifications to the tax code and with the enactment of a production-based tax credit. This would provide safety, sustainability and security benefits, and would ensure that the US remains at the forefront of the green revolution."
Turning from the grid-level power production sphere to the smaller, often residential needs for which solar solutions, for many decades, has held out such theoretical promise, not only in the U.S. but also in Shah's parents' native sub-continent, Jigar Shah has joined Ready Solar as the Chairman of the Board. At the engineering end of the spectrum Ready Solar has equaled Shah's fiscal legerdemain at the financial pole of the solar panorama.
|"Solar has traditionally been too complicated at the point of installation. Ready Solar has simplified the installation process, making it easier, quicker, and less costly. By pioneering the solar-in-a-box industry with the first pre-assembled rooftop solar system, Ready Solar enables a broad range of construction-related trades to enter the residential solar installer business. This is an important development to drive solar solutions to the residential and small-scale commercial markets."|
Quiet, competent, unflappable, and unstoppable: these are adjectival tags to describe Jigar Shah. And he articulates the thinking behind his accomplishments. "The second (key to success) is to do things’ in the right way, don't take shortcuts – they always end up costing you more in the future."
I would have to assert, however, that Mr. Shah is trying to engineer just such an 'end-run' around a key sticking point that militates against successful implementation of a renewable energy transition. This is the disconnect between the theoretical capitalism, and fanciful bourgeoisie, of Mr. Shah's MBA days, and the actual monopoly-capitalists who currently reign over the world's workaday political economy.
One green blogger quotes an often noted piece of Jigar Shah's thinking in this regard. "'The challenge here is that the utility industry is not set up to embrace customer empowering technologies because neither they nor their investors understand how these technologies fits with their mode of profit making.'"
At the very least, one would have to contemplate that the utility history behind this 'mode of profit making' has much less to do with 'markets,' and much more to do with power politics, than Mr. Shah is willing to concede, or at least to consider as crucial to address. Heather Rogers, whom we have met before in the pages of this humble correspondent, was well aware of this proclivity to 'load the dice' in the utility business model.
She stated this very explicitly in terms of utility company response to Edison's fighting to make home power a reality. "The conglomerates struggling to control the nascent energy sector regarded that as precisely the problem. For them, a world of independence, in which householders created their own power using renewable resources, was a nightmare. The companies’ profits depended on electricity from power plants run on cheap fossil fuels."
In the blogosphere, such pondering sometimes appears in dealing with the mainly lionized Jigar Shah.
|"I am a very big proponent of solar, but it is important to consider it realistically. The utilities cannot likely profit from customers installing solar PV on their rooftops. At first with low numbers of rooftop PV, perhaps the argument could be made that it helps them manage peak demand. However at high penetration, the utility incurs the cost of managing an intermittent energy supply for the home user (e.g. either storing that energy for the user, or running their other power sources much more intermittently than they currently do, which raises their costs), which they do not make money from."|
So far as I can tell, however, none of these 'investment-and-policy' types, let alone the 'technogeeks' who come up with new gadgets and processes, mentions community-based or participatory solutions. No one is talking about community engagement, local empowerment, and extending democracy. These are the foundations of an actual plan to yield energy policy that favors renewable sources--after all, they are the precise opposite of Dick Cheney's way to elicit policy.
Jigar Shah notes, in his OnEarth Magazine profile, that despite his steady smile and his low-key aura of holding the winning hand, renewable energy remains a technology that is not a front-runner. "The thing that people have had a hard time understanding about solar is that it's part of the energy business. While new energy technologies come up all the time, technology is not the driver of the energy industry. The driver is the business model: how you get it financed and how you apply traditional risk-management methods to solar and wind and biomass."
He goes on to aver that his unswerving "faith in solar is as unwavering as his confidence in the market to fix our ailing planet, the cure springing not from the MITs of the world but from the MBAs." Unless one is willing to allow for this assumption, with all of the potential, at a very delicate stage of the human prospect, to 'make an a** out of 'U' and ME,' one has to confront a possibly problematic fact.
'MBA's' and 'business models' depend on politics. The presumption that political economy, moving forward, requires the continued hegemony of the current ruling class may in fact be the source of our difficulties, not to mention the troubles faced by solar.
Thus, when a New York Times columnist notes that Jigar Shah is providing eight policy pointers to the Feds, uninvited, the lack of invitation may be an important part of the tale of the tape here. With one exception, Shah's proposals are as 'tame as toast,' unbuttered at that. His sixth suggestion is to "(w)eatherize more buildings, by hugely increasing financing for the low-income Weatherization Assistance Program. Mr. Shah suggests the StayWarm New Hampshire model (run by a friend of his), which relies on hundreds of volunteers and donated materials from corporations." Without community buy-in, such a program will always fail; lacking community leadership, such a program will remain, at best, a long shot.
One of the comments to this essay about Jigar Shah's work highlighted a topic that I will be covering in the not-too-distant-future, the history of the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA, of course, is a special case of the manifestation of the history of the electric grid, which will appear here prior to that TVA analysis itself. If Jigar Shah is considering such matters, in his 'free-enterprise' belief that the benign hand of the market will cure all, he hasn't let anyone know about it.
As the commentator pointed out, "For these reasons, appointing TVA Board members who are proactive about our energy future and ready to rise to the challenges of the clean-energy revolution is of vital importance not only to the Southeast, but the entire nation. Without such leadership from TVA, the clean-energy revolution could be severely hampered."
To this humble correspondent, who persistently insists that addressing the central role of the South in such matters as energy and H-bombs is of critical import, this observer, otherwise gushing with enthusiasm for Jigar Shah, only states the obvious. And equally obvious is the atomic gorilla in the living room, about which no one is willing to note its status as the nemesis of renewable energy.
NUCLEAR RENAISSANCE JUGGERNAUT
Anyone who studies the Uranium fuel cycle, which starts nasty and ends rotten, cannot readily accept the association of the word 'renaissance' with the word 'nuclear,' at least in its so-called 'atomic-power' incarnation. The most troubling aspect of Jigar Shah's output is his characterization of nuclear power as a 'reliable' and generally dandy source of electricity, but for the small matter of a few cents per killowatt hour of delivered power.
We can listen to Mr. Shah here.
"Responding to the debate that nuclear energy is the more efficient, Shah states, 'Nuclear Energy is a wonderful technology but it creates a burden on the transmission and distribution infrastructure. Most applications are much better suited for a distributed technology approach. In India, where power cuts can be a regular occurrence, individuals and business can switch to solar energy – not nuclear power.'" He wants to profess a 'live and let live' thought process, dearly beloved, in theory if not in fact, in the Chamber-of-Commerce turf wars that I have covered over the course of four decades. But is such thinking actually apt? If the Export-Import Bank fulfills the American Nuclear Society's 'fantasy-five winning ticket' and guarantees loans for anywhere from 250-400 1,000 megawatt installations for India and China, that collectively hold a trillion and a quarter dollars of U.S. Treasury bonds, one has to consider the potential in such a scenario of a budget-squeeze, to put the matter mildly, on other energy projects.
And despite my inability now to prove another point in this situation, readers might consider my contention as worth noting. This assertion is pretty simple, based on an easily demonstrable fact. The fact is this: the U.S. has vast quantities of debt outstanding--China, Japan, Republic of Korea, and India are high on the list, And here's the speculation. Perhaps this fact has something important to do with another fact, i.e., that U.S. nuclear interests often express strong desires to sell these nations lots of reactors.
In such a context, the 'fact,' exalted by Jigar Shah in equal measure as Dr. Barry Commoner exalted it as the leader of a now defunct attempt at jump-starting a new political party, that solar power is cost competitive or even advantageous compared to nuclear and other forms, may be an ancillary notion. Much more critical may be the political economy--based on historical and social analysis, of nuclear energy and its legion of flackers.
Need I remind readers of the experiences of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League with the "Young Generation in Nuclear" facade? Indeed, facing this 'astroturf' awareness on the part of the atomic establishment, one might legitimately implore Jigar Shah to leave his idealist libertarian insistence that the marketplace reigns supreme behind, and show some willingness to grapple in the political realm.
But what he keeps saying is more of the MBA-speak which, even if true, may be wholly inadequate to carry the day for solar. One observer recently laid this out as follows: "Jigar Shah, chief strategy officer of SunEdison, said he could guarantee delivery to Florida of more power with solar photovoltaics — including energy storage so the power was not intermittent — for less money than the nuke plants being constructed there cost."
And Jigar himself recently made clear his empirical case for solar, vis a vis nukes.
|"The difference is really the cost of capital. For Nuclear, you have to expend the money over 8-10 years. You also have variable costs of $0.015/kWh and decommissioning costs of an additional $0.01/kWh. With solar you have free fuel and maintenance of about $0.007/kWh. My point was not to say that solar will replace Nuclear. My point was to say that Distributed Resources from solar PV, solar thermal, fuel cells, cogen, aggressive energy efficiency, smart grid, ice storage, etc provides a viable financial alternative to new nuclear."|
And this is my point. Quite likely, unless one is willing to say, emphatically, "solar will replace nuclear," and to back up that contention with a political movement organized from the ground up along democratic lines, one will likely 'face the music,' and pretty quickly at that, that nukes will sweep the field in regard to our energy future, even if this spells utter doom to sustainable business and doing 'business better,' and, quite likely as well, may elicit a slow devolution of human kind generally.
I will be writing more about his 'nuclear juggernaut,' and why citizens should oppose it. However, I do not pretend that I stand in any relation to this technology of death, so close to the heart of modern capitalism, other than that of a relentless foe. I invite Jigar Shah to join me. Or, he may show me the error of my ways. Or, he will learn, much to our mutual chagrin that his view, of 'having one's cake and eating it too,' is materially impossible. At the least, this will serve as a teaching moment for one or the other of us about the nature of contemporary capitalism.
The two separate strands of this story, were they to remain truly separate, as in a science fiction yarn where two planets that represented two world orders merely touched base with each other now and again, might find some way to yield compatible fruition. On the orb that is the actual earth that we inhabit, only by rejecting what I deduce is the political economic rationale for nuclear can one list what is discoverable about the brilliant Mr. Shah and think, 'ah, we're about to see a surge in solar.'
Unfortunately, that seemingly salubrious conclusion runs afoul of such delving of the nuclear equation as I have already provided, more of which is forthcoming. Like Mike Behar, I found disagreeing with Jigar Shah to be disagreeable, but for my long grounding in these issues well night impossible. Mr. Shah's genuinely deep knowledge, his hands on experience of both the technical and fiscal arrangements necessary for solar to work, and his affable air of quiet confidence hold sway.
Nonetheless, despite Jigar Shah's bona fides and aplomb, I'm pretty certain that he is almost entirely wrong not only about solar's general role in a nuclear society, but also about the general compatibility of nuclear power with any other electrical delivery methodology, especially one based on renewable energy sources. This is not a question resolvable by spread sheets, unless classical economic theory really works in macroeconomic analysis, a belief about which very little exists that validates it.
Moreover, in the same vein that I would mine in critiquing much of the anti-nuclear movement, I would implore Mr. Shah and those technically minded and otherwise hopeful people who would take heart at his assessment of things to focus some attention on how secretively, not to say murderously, nuclear proponents have operated in garnering a big stake in the present energy game. A clear-eyed understanding of this process ought to make us, at a minimum, wary of any compromise, let alone collaboration, with the nukesters who foresee the future as one aglow with power and profit for their plutocratic masters, on the basis of the ubiquity of radioactive electricity.
I'd much more prefer to eat my words than my hat. I've had a lot of practice at the former exercise, after all. So I'll pray fervently that all my prognostications prove false, while I ask readers to keep them in mind.
Attempting to debate policy, in any meaningful way, without incorporating historical deconstruction of the field in question, is much like saying that one wants to go to England without acknowledging that solving this travel conundrum must account for the ocean separating two continents. The potential of the present is, except by lucky accident, unfathomable unless one follows the guidelines laid down by the past.
Particularly important in developing our protocols for figuring things out, while we keep the primacy of the past in understanding the present in mind, is that the past, except through miraculous intervention, is only knowable in small part. Thus, we cannot possibly 'enumerate' all that once existed; this is even more absurd than the idea that we can 'account' for all that is now.
Thus, as many people much smarter than this humble correspondent attest, thinking cannot derive from numbers alone, even those as cheerily and competently presented as those that Jigar Shah gives us. We simply have not option, if we care about reason and clarity, other than to use inference, history, and evaluation as separate from, and prior to, counting things up.
An especially incisive participant in an online philosophy forum summed this all up.
"Well, the weaknesses (of empiricism) would be that it depends on observation, interpretation, and fails to cover the reasons for the empirical. But empirical evidence is good for analysis - we cannot debate and articulate arguments without some empiricism." In other words, empiricism is twice subjective and assumes its own primacy.
A more detailed expression of this point, which as a nerd I will insert, will perhaps help those who care about such matters to obtain more clarity.
|"The essence of empiricism is that ... sensory experience is the only source of knowledge ...(A)ll knowledge is founded on experience and is obtained through experience. One reflection of this philosophical method is that it takes a series of facts as ‘given’ (by experience), that is, takes them uncritically, accepting them as fixed and natural phenomena and using them as the basis on which an analytical structure can be built. ... Such a general law, argues the empiricist, ... .is mechanically constructed out of a series of ‘concrete’ experiences and in this way all dialectical relations are set aside, since the universal is merely analysed from the empirically concrete. ...(T)his starting with so-called ‘principles’ or ‘laws’ which are tested against ‘the facts’ (i)s ideological – ... a method which inverts the true process by which knowledge develops."|
Put in simplest terms, a child does not generally begin to doubt the existence of Santa Claus primarily due to the empirical process of seeing mama putting presents under the tree. On the contrary, the doubt--the first expression of a new knowledge, if only of uncertainty--leads to the empirical, not vice versa.
One may assert, therefore, that the question of energy policy is inherently ideological but that it also calls for us to consider what we value in human relations. Readers will recall the 'drill' that I promulgate: engagement, empowerment, community, participation, and democracy.
These matters, whatever we make of them, simply cannot advance in a context of 'just the facts.' We must dig deeper, and, if I am right, form alliances that match agendas already demonstrably in place with a people's agenda. Whether the theme is economic, technical, or political, only such an approach that starts with the past and what we think is important in our lives that has emanated therefrom can lead to useful discourse of a democratic sort.
In the end, Edison’s proudly free-standing Suburban Residence was hooked up to the grid, and neither his in-home wind-generated electricity plant nor his battery-powered vehicles ever reached the mass market. In 1931, not long before he died, the inventor told his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
Once again, we can turn to the wonderfully clever Heather Rogers, when she documented the demise of Edison's solar dreams. "In the end, Edison’s proudly free-standing Suburban Residence was hooked up to the grid, and neither his in-home wind-generated electricity plant nor his battery-powered vehicles ever reached the mass market. In 1931, not long before he died, the inventor told his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone: I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.'"
Or, readers might recall the life cycle of that brilliant empiricist, Marion King Hubbert, whose numerical acuity led him initially to salivate in anticipation of a nuclear future, but whose staunch adherence to honesty and democracy led him to reject the machinations of Edward Teller and the nuclear magicians who would much sooner prevaricate that risk not prevailing. Hubbert died with the recognition that the choice for solar, or nuclear, had little to do with technical potentiality, and everything to do with the gritty reality of political possibility.
Do we follow this? Inquiring minds want to know.