When a practice arises that is detrimental to the profits of industry — you know, any practice that helps to heal the planet and its human occupiers — industry has a long-practiced, graduated response. First it ignores, then it attacks, and if all else fails it co-opts, and having co-opted, advertises heavily.
Organic farming, for example, was first ignored as a fad, then derided as “no way to feed the world,” then co-opted. Now every other box and package in any supermarket, including cow milk and chicken parts, bears the label “organic.” And by this stage, you know it’s a lie. When asked if he would seek federal certification as an organic grower (federal certification follows industrialization, as the flies the garbage) Joel Salatin famously replied that he would never lower his standards that much.
Another example: Do you remember what happened to the first mass produced electric car, General Motors’s EV1, when the idea was first recognized by industry back in the 1990s? Yeah, me neither, and I drove one.
And so we come to renewable energy, despised and derided by industry for years, until some bean counter measured the market and realized there was real money involved. All they had to do was scale that puppy up, which is what industry does first and best, and pretty soon you would have something worth doing.
(I got schooled in this when I went to BP Solar’s ginormous solar panel factory in Maryland some years ago seeking support for a seminar on sustainable living. You could have cut the disdain with a knife. We aren’t interested in selling solar panels one at a time, I was told. We’re interested in the big projects. They did a few, and then BP departed from the business and the factory closed.)
Others persisted, however, and now we have blizzards of news stories about the declining cost of (industrial scale) solar power, its increasing contribution to the power supply of (insert name of state or country here) and isn’t that great for the planet. Well, no.
Much of this industrial solar power comes from the (artfully labelled) solar “farms” that BP Solar loved so much. As Fortune Magazine swooned last fall, “almost 14 gigawatts of solar panels could be installed in the U.S. by the end of 2016, and over 70% of that will come from what they call “utility-scale” solar farms. These solar farms generate energy using thousands—or even—millions of panels, often piping energy long distances to residents and companies to use to power homes and offices.”
The first problem, from the point of view of the earth, is the installation of those thousand or millions of solar panels in a remote California desert, where many of them have been located. The road in is a major disruption of the fragile ecosystem, as are the hundreds of acres of bulldozed and trampled land. Then there’s the small city, first for construction crews, then for tenders, with its water-supply and sewage-disposal needs.
Then there’s that “piping” that Fortune referred to. The construction of massive power lines connecting the “farm” to the grid. With all this massive expense, how could the cost of solar keep going down? Well, the 30% federal tax credit for investment in solar power is a major factor. (Federal subsidies follow industrialization as the flies….well, you know.)
Even more beloved of industry are the vastly more complicated — and of course expensive — concentrated solar plants. These plants used focused sunlight to boil water, generating electricity with the steam. The first known review of how six of these mega-projects are doing finds them to be plagued by breakdowns, operating far below advertised expectations, and consuming far more natural gas (they have to jump-start the systems every morning) than predicted. Despite their enormous expense (thank you, tax credits) they are only slight improvements on your standard gas burning power plant.
Like wind “farms,” solar “farms” are a hideous industrial hybrid that transformed a mildly hopeful prospect for a cleaner way to get energy, into a world-destroying cash cow. The only way renewable energy can make a significant contribution to what’s left of the planet’s health, and that of its occupants, is if the energy is distributed — that is, made where it’s used. (I’m leaving aside, for this discussion, the whole knotty question of the impact of manufacturing any solar panels or wind turbines, on any scale.)
There’s no solution for this, of course, except the solutions you and I can implement in our households or farms. Thinking outside the boxes built by industry and maintained by industrial might will be possible only after the boxes have collapsed under their own weight.