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On-Demand or “On-Supply”: Renewable Energy and a Sustainable Ethics January 2, 2007

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Uncategorized.
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A recent article in the New York Times by Matthew Wald, highlights one of the main challenges for renewable power, in particular wind energy, its intermittent nature. In some places wind is more reliable and stronger than others but still it is of course not entirely predictable or constant. As with wind, sun is also not constant, though again it is stronger and more consistent in some areas than others. Geothermal power is consistent but, in current harvest strategies, is limited in its geographic dispersal. With massive infrastructure and regular yearly precipitation, hydroelectric is consistent but geographically limited and in many cases disruptive of other natural resources or farmland and human habitation. Wave and tidal power are limited to coastal areas and have not been fully developed.

With almost universal recognition now that carbon-neutral or carbon negative energy solutions are the future of energy generation, what holds back even greater investment in clean renewable energy is the lack of an “on-demand” alternative to the use of fossil fuels or fissionable nuclear fuels. Another way to put this is that the power industry does not yet have a workable, renewable source of “baseline” power rather than an intermittent or supplemental power source to reduce peak or local demand.

Likely Technological Solutions

As Wald’s article points out, the wind industry advocates an integration of the electric grid across the nation if not the continent to allow wind-rich areas to supply wind-poor areas with power.   South Dakota, for instance, is reckoned to have the potential to supply 35% of US electric demand with wind power though it does not yet have the transmission capacity to supply its neighbors with electricity.  The pooling of renewable energy resources, be they wind, solar, tidal or wave energy, through connecting different regions via the electric grid makes a good deal of sense. A connected grid allows for regional and national markets for clean power and smoothes discrepancies between supply and demand.

Another technical solution to the intermittency of many renewable resources is the development of new generation technologies that tap into more constant energy sources that are still renewable. Notable among these efforts is the Kitegen project profiled in Wired and other news sources. Kitegen, the brainchild of Italian physicist Massimo Ippolito, is a theoretically well-grounded, proposed wind power generation system that uses highflying kites mounted on a horizontal carousel. These kites tap into the almost constant winds of the upper troposphere in certain regions of the world including Europe and North America. The building of large tidal or wave energy generation plants, as well as more complete exploitation of geothermal energy are two areas to increase the amount of predictable renewable power. The more complete exploitation of solar power, the most widely dispersed and consistent renewable resource, will also reduce the amount of baseline power generation resources required by reducing peak power draw during daylight hours.

Finally, clean energy storage solutions have yet to be fully developed to smooth over spikes and troughs in clean renewable power generation and demand. Hydrogen generation from electrolysis has been the highest profile proposal, though considerable questions have arisen about the overall efficiency of the cycle through which hydrogren is isolated, stored and then used to generate electricity in a PEM fuel cell (25% efficiency). The development of battery technology and the creation of a broader “electron economy” offers greater efficiencies, though the ultimate form of how electric energy would be stored (chemical batteries, compressed air, pumped hydroelectric storage, flywheels etc.) is still open to discussion and much technical development.

Nuclear power, using uranium or thorium as fuel, may or may not be the less carbon intensive solution to the generation of baseline power. If the rise in spot-market prices for uranium is any indication, many think that a round of investment in nuclear plants is upcoming. It is premature to conclude that there will not be a more desirable renewable energy solution for generating baseline power.

“On-demand” power

Let’s retreat just a little from the position of a technological optimist for a moment and ask whether the molding of renewable energy sources to substitute for the fossil and nuclear fueled electric power is desirable from the point of view of sustainability as a philosophy of economics and of life.

Baseline electric power is a utility, a commodity, something that we take for granted. It is available to us “on-demand” and furthermore is expected to be of uniform quality and usefulness to us. Increasingly in our society with increased globalization of production and the reliance upon air and ocean transport, more and more goods are available to us “on-demand” and have other characteristics of commodities.

With current technology multiplied numbers of times, if we were to turn to renewable energy to supply our energy needs, we would not yet have the seamless “on-demand” infrastructure that we currently enjoy. That this “on-demand” infrastructure endangers our future well-being has not been the paramount concern of most actors in the energy sector.

If we suddenly weight the need to cut greenhouse gases much higher in the scheme of values we place upon energy, the notion of or the actual return to an “on-supply” energy economy is a possibility though not necessarily a desirable outcome.

“On-supply”: The wages of poverty or the re-valuation of resources?

The highest valued individual goods in our economy are clearly “on-supply”. Rare art, one- or few-of-a-kind houses or automobiles are often bid up beyond their asking prices because the demand is greater than the supply and supply will foreseeably never catch up with demand. These goods are not available to everyone because everyone does not have the means to buy or the access to them. On the other hand, there are most often “on-demand” alternatives to these rarities that fulfill the same use functions though not their status functions. Could we view renewable, clean power similarly? Currently the rareness of renewable energy gives it a prestige that helps increase the valuation of its environmental benefits. Yet this prestige comes in part in contrast to the easy availability of power generated by polluting means.

But in economies and eras where “on-supply” is the rule rather than the exception, we are often talking about circumstances that are considered to be undesirable by most people.  Immigration patterns show that people throughout the world desire to live in economies where there is an abundance of goods even if they cannot afford many of those goods. The citizens of the old Soviet bloc know what it was like to live in a time and place where goods were available “on-supply”. This led to a predictably higher subjective valuation of individual goods, like tropical fruits from Cuba, yet an overall sharply lower subjective valuation of the entire circumstance of being dependent upon an intermittent supply. Most of us prefer to have our desires at least theoretically fulfilled immediately or to have control over the circumstances under which they might be fulfilled.

If we look back to an era where globalization was not nearly as complete as it is today, societies, when they did not have a comparison with other contemporary societies with abundant and regular supply of desirable consumer goods, accepted seasonality and intermittency of supply. One accepted that one could not enjoy everything at any time, even if one had substantial means and were relatively wealthy. For example, when refrigeration was a luxury, ice cream was only enjoyed on special occasions rather than something that one could eat at any time with only modest expenditure. Marketers continue to create value by artfully limiting supply to increase the subjective value that the market will place upon their goods.

“On-supply” as a sustainable value

Not only is “on-supply” a condition of lack or a marketing technique, increasingly in the leadership of the culture of sustainability, what I am calling “on-supply” has become something of a value in itself. The praise of local, seasonal food, Treehugger’s 100 mile Thanksgiving challenge, etc. are a reversal of historical trends toward designing an economy that can fulfill wishes “on-demand”. The Slow Food movement, part of this trend, even blurs the distinction between consumer and producer, calling itself a “co-producer” of food by supporting certain types of production and distribution over others.

If one limits oneself to ONLY seasonal or locally available ingredients, one foregoes what is available from distant lands and off-season. This ETHICAL CHOICE becomes a driving economic force however if the food system were to be restructured to favor local and seasonal ingredients over distantly produced ingredients. In the future, there might very well be a policy of agricultural and fuel subsidy that will produce lower prices for these foods as opposed to imported or out of season foods.

The use of recycled or reused materials in the production of clothing or other finished goods also introduces an “on-supply” element into consumer goods that previously was considered to be undesirable for the consumer and the producer. For instance, the eco-fashionable Swiss bag maker Freitag, uses used truck tarps to construct its bags, with the designs influenced by the tarp’s original design. The currently available designs are limited by which tarps have become available to Freitag, though one can design one’s own bag online at Freitag’s website by using an interactive web tool that orders your choice of cuts on available tarp material in their inventory.

Balancing “on-demand” with “on-supply”

A turn ENTIRELY to “on-supply” as an ethical choice or as a condition of future survival of a favorable climate system would seem to be premature. “On-demand” utilities and services are such enormous human achievements and of such great use to us that we would and do soon miss them when they are unavailable to us.

A designation of renewable energy sources as a group as by their nature “on-supply” may also be premature. With a number of plausible technological advances, renewable energy might very well be able provide the consistent flow of energy upon which we have come to depend upon. But the design of that system may be more complex than our current system with multiple energy sources and storage devices.

A sustainable economic ethic, however, would also be more conscious of the human and natural resources that go into the production and delivery of a good or service, more so than the “on-demand” consumer world. A growth in “on-supply” goods and services brings home to people the value of natural and/or human resources that go into the production of products and services. If nothing else, sustainable economics and ethics point to sense of gratitude for natural resources and human offerings, a gratitude that would not only be felt but also be reflect in monetary valuations and acted upon in people’s work and exchange activities.

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Comments»

1. Spanx Zanzan - April 27, 2010

A little off topic perhaps, but a plea for you to consider the ethics of buying items like designer clothes. Do try and think about, for example, the things the item is made from, the human rights of the factories where they’re made and the green credentials of retailers. And try to share rather than throwing away. Thanks!!!!


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