Capitalism Hates the Sun

This summer, three energy related stories are unfolding in California: Governor Davis is spending $6.6 billion in tax money to buy off a handful of energy companies in an attempt to avoid rolling blackouts; despite the ransom payments, rolling blackouts are expected to happen almost daily anyway; and meanwhile, billions of watts of solar energy are falling from the sky on millions of rooftops across the state, and are going to waste, unused.

At the very least, it is highly ironic that here in the “sunshine state”, where it is sunny pretty much all year long, people are worried about an energy “shortage.” In reality, energy is all around us – we just don’t realize it.

Current solar technology is already adequate to provide most if not all energy for water heating, and solar electric technology is quickly becoming price competitive with fossil fuel powered electricity. And that’s without any appreciable corporate or government support for years. There’s even lots of Do It Yourself solar opportunities: each clothesline replaces a fossil fueled drier and those camping solar showers can be heated up in an hour, hung on a hook in your regular shower and used instead of a fossil fueled shower until you get the permanent solar water system put on the roof.

The reason why no one seems to be talking about just getting rid of the dirty, private, corporate electrical generators and replacing them with decentralized, clean solar technology is because solar power is bad for capitalism.

“What?” you say.

Its true that initially, when you spend money to install solar systems, it can be “good” for companies that supply and install the systems. But ultimately, capitalism requires constant growth to survive. And once you install solar, it produces power for free for decades, with no one to pay.

Meeting people’s needs for energy is basically irrelevant for the capitalist system: what is really important serving the system’s internal needs.

Solar, where installed in a decentralized fashion, reduces dependence on market transactions and makes folks more independent. That’s bad if capitalism is to keep expanding. Extractive industries like fossil fuel production, in contrast, are perfect for capitalism because, since these fuels run out at any particular location, there’s always room for more expansion of production.

What would happen if California Governor Davis spent the $6.6 billion he plans to spend this summer on solar panels instead of paying off the fossil fuel Mafia? Either way, whether he spends the money or not, there are going to be blackouts. Perhaps a summer of blackouts might not be so bad if at the end of the summer, there was something to show for it.

How much solar power does $6.6 billion buy?

According to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which has installed 750 residential rooftop photo voltaic solar systems since 1993, a 2000 watt system costs about $9,000 and supplies more power than an average household needs.. Such a system produces 3,600 kw/hours per year, and has a greater than 30 year expected lifetime. It pays for itself in about 10 years. Moreover, each 2000 watt system prevents 3.7 tons of coal from being burned, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 10,000 pounds. And, according to SMUD, “it looks cool!”

For $6.6 billion, you could put solar systems on 75,000 houses, assuming SMUD cost estimates. SMUD talks about how they’ve brought down costs with “volume purchasing”, but 750 systems in 8 years isn’t very much volume. For $6.6 billion, each system would be cheaper, so maybe 100,000 houses could go solar.

The “peak demand” for power, when its so scarce there are blackouts and when the energy cartel reaps their most obscene profits, is in the middle of the day, just when solar power is supplying the most power. Would 100,000 roof solar systems help during peak demand? It wouldn’t hurt, and what is the $6.6 billion poured down the private energy deregulation rat hole buying? Blackouts.

Sometimes I sit on the front porch watching the waves and waves of traffic going by and think how modern industrial society is like a little kid playing in the mud, oblivious to the mess he or she is making. Here we are on this most beautiful planet blessed with strong wind and lots of sun. Instead of taking advantage of these resources, we dig up the ground everywhere and burn what we find, gradually choking the pure air with smog and carbon dioxide. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are up 30% since the start of the industrial revolution, and at this rate, they’ll go up another 150 percent in the next 100 years.

The temporary electrical shortages in California aren’t the real issue. This issue is how we can allow the sun’s rays to go waste on a million rooftops, while burning fossil fuels as if there’s no tomorrow.