British Petroleum — the folks who tried for a while to convince us that their initials stood for “Beyond Petroleum” until it became clear that they really meant “below par”– have done it again. Having shown us how not to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and how not to maintain the Alaska Pipeline, they have now demonstrated how not to use solar power to make a stronger, more sustainable America. According to Reuters, their BP Solar subsidiary is closing its huge solar-panel manufacturing plant in Frederick, Maryland. Completely. What are they going to do instead? Solar project development.
In other words, they are doing their part to see that we go as quickly as possible from dependence on cheap foreign oil to dependence on cheap foreign solar panels. China, unlike the United States, is making huge national investments in the future of renewable energy, and has already been able to capture a large share of the world solar-panel market with a flood of cheap products out of vast new factories. But wait: Korea makes cheap cars; does that imply that Ford should shutter its factories and go into the driver-training business? What’s going on here?
A clue. Years ago, at a university far away, I tried to get funding for a conference on sustainable living. BP Solar was virtually next door, and seemed a slam-dunk natural candidate for a sponsor, if not the sponsor, of an event that would show off their products to avid, would-be customers. They could not have been less interested. Already, they had run through all the industrial gear-changes into overdrive — looking for the highest volume, the lowest unit costs of production, marketing and distribution — and had decided that only huge projects interested them. Selling panels to people a few at a time to effect distributed energy and off-grid, sustainable living was not only uninteresting to the suits at BP, it was anathema.
Industrialists have to have everything huge — huge plants, huge sales, huge profits — or they are not interested. They do not know or care that every step toward these so-called economies of scale also concentrates risk — environmental, social, and economic risk — which accumulates slowly over time and suddenly exacts payment long after the profits have been spent.
Someone could build a pretty good business outfitting homes and businesses with their own sources of energy, moving people off the grid and toward sustainability. It may well be that Solar City, with its no-down-payment, leaseback business model and its $280-million investment from Google, is that company. But BP Solar, who was in position to be that company years ago, wanted Huge instead, and showed again why renewable energy is not sustainable if it is industrial.
[For more on this see "Solar 'Farms' Keep us in the Dark," The Daily Impact 11/28/10.]
Now, they can’t even be bothered to make solar panels. Shuffle the paper, move the money, that’s where the big profits are. Let Asian peasants make the thingamajigs, we’ll package them and securitize them and finance them and bet both for them and against them in the derivatives market, and we’ll be vastly rich.
BTW: 430 people worked at the BP Solar facility in Frederick. Isn’t BP among the giant corporations that are given subsidies and tax breaks because they are “job creators?”
And when peak oil, or water wars, or climate refugees or destabilized governments cut us off from our supply of foreign solar panels at the same time we are cut off from our supplies of cheap foreign oil — or when the water-guzzling solar “farms” and their desert cities of attendants run out of water — what then?
Not our problem, says BP Solar. We just do concepts now. We’re Beyond Solar, too.