By Kumar David –
Let’s approach ecological morality rationally: Capitalism and the war on renewable energy
“Man has lost the capacity to foresee or to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.” ~ Albert Schweitzer
It seems that every generation has to learn the same lessons anew. Fifty-five years ago with the publication of Silent Spring the environmental movement was born and millions, especially young people, have since been inspired by a concern for the planet. Ecology and climate change are now everyday terms. Rachel Carson was no wide-eyed environmental evangelist, she was a sober and rational scientist and as the celebrated April 1963 CBS interview-programme with the author of Silent Spring, watched by nearly 15 million people, pointed out: “In spite of her view that pesticide safeguards are inadequate, Miss Carson does not advocate discontinuing the use of pesticides immediately. Instead she proposes a gradual shift to other methods of pest control”.
This is an approach contradicted by our President’s and our government’s uninformed and peremptory termination of the proposed Sampoor power-plant, rejecting the views of experts who offered a scheme for gradual elimination of coal; for example my ‘Short Circuit at Sampoor’ on 25 Sept 2016. Clean-coal is less, but of course not free of pollution; all energy production, renewables too, pollutes in some form; it’s a matter of ensuring that the earth can absorb man’s imprint.
Today the object of my wrath is covetous capitalism which will sell even its mother for profit and in particular capitalism’s high-class strumpet and mouthpiece The Economist. I take objection to its 25 February issue which splashes across the front cover the provocative blast “Clean Energy; its Dirty Secret”. The magazine follows up with a lead article and a longer piece entitled ‘Wind and Solar Power are Disrupting Electricity Systems’ which argue that penetration of renewable energy sources at decreasing costs undercuts the profitability of investors in conventional power plant and “disrupts” the smooth growth of the supply industry. This wacko line of reasoning says cheap, clean, energy is bad for society because it is bad for investors (read capitalism).
Shock to our morality
The reasoning goes like this and I quote from the Economist:
“It is no longer far-fetched to think that the world is entering an era of clean, unlimited and cheap power; about time, too. There is a $20trn hitch, though. To get from here to there requires huge amounts of investment over the next few decades, to replace old smog-belching power plants and to upgrade the pylons and wires that bring electricity to consumers. Normally investors like putting their money into electricity because it offers reliable returns. Yet green energy has a dirty secret. The more it is deployed, the more it lowers the price of power from any source. That makes it hard to manage the transition to a carbon-free future, during which many generating technologies, clean and dirty, need to remain profitable if the lights are to stay on.
“Policymakers are already seeing this inconvenient truth as a reason to put the brakes on renewable energy. In parts of Europe and China, investment in renewables is slowing as subsidies are cut back. At its heart, the problem is that government-supported renewable energy has been imposed on a market designed in a different era. For much of the 20th century, electricity was made and moved by vertically integrated, state-controlled monopolies. From the 1980s onwards, many of these were broken up, privatised and liberalised, so that market forces could determine where best to invest. Yet everywhere the pressure to decarbonise power supply has brought the state creeping back into markets. This is disruptive for three reasons. The first is the subsidy system itself. The other two are inherent to the nature of wind and solar: their intermittency and their very low running costs”.
The cat is out of the bag. Since the operating cost of renewables is low (fuel cost in the case of solar and wind is zero) the scope for investors to make profits is emasculated. So out with clean energy! How much more diabolical and obtuse can capitalism’s global trollop get?
I fought the government’s bovine decision to dump Sampoor and scuttle the Japanese clean-coal power-plant planned for the next plot of land on the Sampoor peninsula for the opposite reason; higher costs and paradoxically, in the long run, denigration of environmentalism itself. The blunder is going to cost Lanka an additional cumulative power generating cost, up to 2023, of Rs 220 billion. This does not include losses to economy and industry from likely power cuts. When this happens the public will turn against environmentalism. Naïve environmentalists therefore are shooting themselves in the foot.
This caving in to an ignoramus lobby fits a larger pattern. The government is blundering on all fronts and it funks confronting the chaos engineered by the Joint Opposition (JO). The latest is doctors on wildcat strike, but taking-on the GMOA and breaking the strike is a challenge pussycat Ranil and befuddled Sirisena have ducked. A spate of gangland style shootings, obstinate campaigns by disabled ex-soldiers, disruption and blockades everywhere, these are grist to the JO’s mill. It is no longer a joke to fret that S&R wish to throw in the towel in 2020 and confine themselves to a one-term administration. Surely isn’t this more likely than that they are forlorn lovers sworn to a mutual suicide pact?
The killing fields of Monsanto and Union Carbide
This piece alternates between a critique of profit-motivated homicide by global business and the rational balancing of environmental imperatives with societies needs. To put the latter in context I mean the Sampoor debate. Global public opinion is too intelligent for the Economist’s dirty campaign to foul up clean energy or Donald Trump’s idiocy on climate-change to prevail. The former will be ridiculed out of court; the latter is in retreat. However, it is sobering to recount the onslaught that Monsanto, American Cyanamid, Union Carbide, Du Pont, the pesticide industry, trade groups and the Manufacturing Chemist’s Association unleashed on Silent Spring and its author in the early 1960s. Billions of dollars were at stake so the merchants of death spent millions in an attempt to shore up their poisons.
Monsanto, the vilest, released millions of copies of a parody mocking Carson. The industry slated her work as alarmist, an emotional outburst and inaccurate (actually the book is meticulously researched and reliable science). The Agricultural Chemicals Association, the biggest chamber of pesticide makers called Silent Spring “more poisonous than the pesticides she condemned”. There were McCarthy style missives to Congress and press releases describing Rachael Carson as a closet communist hell-bent on destroying the “free world”. When profit is threatened earth knows no fury like capitalism spurned. And there was no shortage of insinuation and smugness playing on Miss Carson’s gender.
It is unnecessary to refute the Economist’s preposterous baloney. In summary its point is this: The promotion of clean energy requires state intervention therefore privatisation of electricity utilities is being reversed; this by definition is bad. So down with clean energy! Surely even the Economist can’t be so obtuse as to imagine that it can get away with so absurdly ideological a rant!
The problem at Sampoor is not greenhouse gases; Lanka’s contribution is minuscule and well below the permitted cap. The problem is local; the misery of people living in the vicinity. The CEB has unpardonably neglected its environmental obligations. The horrible truth at Norochcholi is fine fly-ash carried up to 3 km down-wind from the ash dump. With the right waste management tools this could have been circumvented; world class plants control ash and eliminate coal dust. People from Sampoor who have visited villages downwind of Norochcholi will never agree to live near a power station even if the CEB promises the sun and the moon.
We have to take an overview; a cumulative cost of Rs220+ billion, no greenhouse gases in excess of international obligations, advanced containment technologies, but psychological distress for the local population, or what else? The alternatives are candid; either scarp the project or resettle local people in good quality homes and lands elsewhere.
What would the latter cost? Let’s calculate for1000 families. Minister Swaminathan estimated 825 families in June 2015. If it takes Rs 1 million per family to relocate to new homes, lands, schools, health and other services, 1000 families will cost Rs 1 billion. That’s two orders of magnitude below Rs220 billion. Even if the number of families and cost per family were two or three times higher, the total is miniscule, comparatively. One must not be hoodwinked by the oil and LNG mafia, one must gradually disengage from coal, one must not cave in to naive greens, or to rapacious capitalism. Miss Carson would have approved of a balanced approach such as this.