Categorised in:

Power Generation, by Alison Caddick

On the Paris climate change talks, renewable energy and the social choices we need to make

By all accounts we are on the crest of a wave of transformation in how we generate power. ‘Renewables’, as in sun and wind power, as old as the Earth and beyond, will, we hope, save our blue planet and its tenuous life forms—our own, and all creation. In the build-up to the Paris convention on climate change, positivity about the possibilities of this global meeting, as compared to Copenhagen’s, seems very much tied to technology and a certain tipping point, we might say, in relation to its viability. Without viable new technologies national and global targets for clean energy and thus a reduction in greenhouse gases is improbable in the long run, even if carbon trading and other mechanisms may make a bigger contribution in the short term to the global calculation.

By the time this issue of Arena Magazine is published, target agreements will have been fought out and decided upon. A new framework for regular monitoring of progress globally will likely have been instituted. Inequities between poor and wealthy nations, and the fate of those like our Pacific neighbours whose islands are already disappearing, will have influenced respective targets and aid budgets. And the global social movement around climate change and its varied leaders will have impressed upon the world even further, and with more success this time, our fate should we not heed the now obvious, devastating signs of climate change.

In other words, social and political goals, largely through timeworn diplomatic processes, although distinctively globalised, will have been subjected to a kind of democratic fermentation and political process: a fermenting of ideas both interpretive and practical—a reflection of the growth of knowledge and activism before and outside the official processes, and the realpolitik of multilateral wheeling and dealing, across state- and non-state agents, but especially between states—a reflection of the ongoing power of ‘realism’ in state-based foreign-affairs thinking and the struggle still to raise climate change and environmental issues generally to the status of an overarching ethical claim upon humanity as a whole.

But aside from these crucial dealings, without the ratcheting up of the new technological capacities, change on the ground—actually de-carbonising the economy—would not be possible. And so, there has been a spate of often fascinating reports on how the world is gearing up to deliver renewable power on a large scale. From Ecuador to Germany, from Sweden to China and India (though not Australia) nations are starting to power whole (small) cities, or large residential swaths, and aspects at least of industrial production. Breakthroughs in power storage are making this possible, and ‘green start-up’ entrepreneurialism is providing motivation and investment in an emerging sector. Even the business pages of conservative newspapers are getting on board, as the old power industries begin to admit what they have known and planned for—the time for eking out the last possible profits from dirty power is coming to an end. The technology carries tremendous hope but now also rides atop technical capacity and hard-headed calculation on that basis.

There’s no doubt that the increasing viability of renewables is a tremendous, even world-historic achievement, both in terms of their contribution to steering humanity and the planet away from destruction, and in terms of the movement that has generated their necessity. A product of science and engineering at one level, they are also the product of that broad global social movement for change that has fought against near-implacable ideological enemies in the old-power industries, and deep resistance in sections of lay populations to the idea of climate change, and extinction.

That these technologies seem to promise so much is, however, worth examining. Understanding their appeal, not to mention the function of a notion of their economic viability, opens out onto ongoing problems with our ever-accelerating cultural dependence on technology to solve our problems, and the naïve ways in which we believe them to function; that is, with a degree of awe and magical thinking on the one hand and a unthinking pragmatism/instrumentalism on the other.

If we hold out great hope for renewables, it is in part because people actually like them; we relate to them. In Australia at least the take-up of roof-top solar panels has been exponential, with everyone from bushies to suburban families and inner-urban trendies all participating. And this is almost certainly not only because solar promises cheaper power; rather, people understand the need for, and like, the idea of clean power (locally and globally), if it is viable. Very likely too, the apparently small-scale home-centredness of panels dovetails with a certain individualism, if not an element of survivalism in our settler-colonial make-up.

And few people seem immune to the fascination of the wind turbine—both the majestic ‘object’ (notwithstanding the Hockey-Abbott nausea) and the sea-field or mountaintop wind farm. Wind turbines are impressive, sublime even, in their scale and suggestiveness, yet somehow they also make good sense: a direct connection to the elements is clearly evident. Something similar seems to be the case with solar farms. They may not be majestic like the wind giants, and the agglomeration of shiny panels in desert settings does not suggest the common sense of merely tweaking an ancient technology—the apparent trajectory of windmill to turbine. Rather, fields of solar-panel grids are fascinatingly sci-fi, but nevertheless, they are somehow understandable too, perhaps by virtue of the ‘simple’ multiplication of the basic (visible) parts, and again, they make some kind of common ‘arcadian’ sense—after all, there’s the sun and there’s the panel!

So there is a romance about the new technologies, and it will be impossible to disconnect the logical aspects of why we should use them and the meaningful lode they carry in other respects. But this is ever the case with new technologies. The typical response is a mix of rational thinking about real-life issues and what is needed to (technologically) ‘fix’ them, and an emotional and cultural orientation to the technological artefact and its promise. We need symbols and we need stories that tell us who we are, what we stand for, where we’re going. The wind turbine and solar panel strangely fit this bill as we tell ourselves that we are harnessing elemental forces in a simpler, cleaner way, that this world and this emerging economy will be powered by natural forces, rather than dirty resources.

Yet of course there is plenty that is missing from this account. Wind turbines and solar panels may be logical solutions, on the one hand, and may function like ‘sacred objects’, of sorts, on the other, but their context goes deeper and wider—both socially and technically.

We may believe that natural forces, rather than dirty resources, can be harnessed, yet the harnessing is likely to confound this happy picture. We may not be burning coal, but no technology completely eludes downsides, or environmental, ‘cost’ in terms of the resources needed to make the tech that harnesses the power—and there may be social costs, in terms of the production processes or location of resources and their impacts on people and communities. Some of the components of solar panels will cause environmental trouble when they are discarded. Solar panels are made in factories in China, where unacceptable workplace conditions persist.

And far from simple technology, of course, solar panels and wind turbines are the products of techno-science. Wind turbines are high-tech feats of incredible engineering, and the grids into which electricity is poured from sea fields and mountaintops underline the complexity of the technical system that will deliver mega-power to the industries and homes of complex societies. The romance of the simple and direct, the clean and the elemental will be undergirded by systems of complex mediation both technical and social.

Of course, we are back among the forms and trade-offs of techno-capitalism. At least, that is the case if ‘viability’ continues to reference the status quo, or takes as its index ‘our way of life’, where massive energy will be spent to bring us a continuation of the comforts and ‘freedoms’ demanded within the world we presently know.

Many green commentators point out the flexibility of renewable-energy technologies. Small communities might have their (high-tech) single wind turbine and thereby achieve all their energy needs within a particular locality. Solar-power grids may be decentralised, and afford local communities an autonomy and decision-making authority over how their power is used and generated.

Yet the mainstream trajectory does not follow this kind of fashioning of the new technologies to communal needs and decision making—to supporting communities and joining citizens in practical democracy, which might include decisions about what counts as freedom and convenience for them. The mass-consuming public are still largely the uncritical recipients of the development mantra of their neoliberal governments and corporations. They are as excluded as ever from any ongoing, thoughtful input into the implications and ramifications of that framework, seeing the freedom of our way of life in the consumables (lifestyle and identity, digital, white goods and entertainment) that a scaled-up and ‘viable’ renewables system will be designed to cater for. The shaping power of the new technological system will not be directly felt, and so, once again, we will fail to see how technology is social and that its effects flow out to the farthest reaches of the social field to shape how we lead our lives and what we value. Technologies are often recruited to offer us convenience and freedom, as if these are merely technical issues, and as if there could be no other more important human achievements or satisfactions.

It is the viability of humanity, not primarily the biosphere, that is the key here. What a great misunderstanding if these must be at odds or in conflict. Understanding where technologies sit in our cultural formation, how they help to shape our desires and understandings of self and the ‘good life’, what they tell us about our relation to the natural world and each other are considerations that may help us to tread warily when we are again asked to place our faith in technological achievement rather than social processes and critical interpretation.