Is Renewable Energy Not the Capitalist Dream?

19/05/2020

I am currently reading Merchants of Doubt, a 2010 book written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway about how a number of global issues have been corrupted by a small number of “experts” and powerful special interests. The topics covered are quite varied, from smoking, to environmental concerns like acid rain, to Reagan’s Star Wars plans, etc. Probably the most important one is climate change, which I have not reached yet, but it’s an obvious one. But why? The free market loving capitalists should be flocking to support renewable energy, not because they give a shit about the planet, but because it could be the freest market ever created.

Again, it is obvious why doubt is peddled over the reality of climate change, and I’ll get to that later, but claiming renewable sources of energy, particularly solar and battery storage, as a capitalist dream may need some explaining. This is something I had thought about last year when I was doing a fair bit of research into blockchain technology, but because I wasn’t necessarily reading the information in a political or economic context at the time, never made the connection.

In a post I wrote for the company I interned with briefly for university – which, along with a couple of others, never ended up being posted anyway, so I’ll borrow from it – I described how smart contracts could be used to disrupt or boost various sectors in profound ways. Second only to the impact they could have on the financial industry, energy creation and distribution could be completely overturned. With blockchain technology, individuals could become energy producers and traders, buying and selling energy that they produce or want without the need for a third party.

Rather than paying a power bill to whatever suppliers there are, using electricity produced using fossil fuels, communities could trade energy generated locally using renewables at prices the individuals set. These transactions can be carried out automatically using smart contracts, allowing people to sell excess energy and buy from others who match any criteria they set, e.g. within a certain price range or amount. Peer to Peer (P2P) trading has been studied and could be feasible if the technology was expanded and adopted. In fact, there are groups out there like Swytch and Power Ledger who have plans to realise this future, with ambitious targets of 100% renewable energy.

It certainly is a far better plan than an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which places an arbitrary cap on corporate emissions and allows companies to “trade” credit, a system that, while perhaps a minor starting point, would undoubtedly be exploited. It was a plan put forward by the Labor Party when they were still in power here (Australia), rather foolishly voted down by the Greens at the time, but not exactly the shining beacon of environmental policy its defenders believed it was.

A P2P system is also, given the usual definition, extremely capitalist (I mean, it could be anything, but I’m proving a point here!). Capitalists, particularly the US butchering of the term libertarians, are always stressing the value of “freedom” (never democracy), where individuals interact with each other in a “free market”. Using (ostensibly) informed decision making, consumers can choose what products and companies they will adopt and buy from. Without any understanding whatsoever, they also tend to talk about owning the product of your labour, which then can be used or sold as the producer sees fit.

In a P2P energy system, anyone can be a producer of energy and therefore the market will be filled with countless options for consumers to sift through to meet their needs, and allows them to compete fairly with existing markets. A product that is cheap and effortless to produce, with the excess able to be stored or sold cheaply as well, should definitely be more popular than current, expensive methods controlled by a relatively small number of suppliers. Shouldn’t it?

Alas, we do not exactly live in a “capitalist” society, or at least, not the utopian version peddled by “libertarians” to disguise the monstrosity our global economic system really is. For all the talk of a free market, renewables have been ignored in favour of trillions of dollars of global subsidies to fossil fuel industries, something that relies heavily on drastic governmental interference. The “informed consumer” is deceived by advertising and corporate media outlets that muddle the waters regarding climate change and the success of renewable energy sources.

The concept of everyone being a producer is crushed under the weight of corporate monopolies, forcing people to rent their labour for the profit of others and severely limiting their choices regarding the products they consume. All of this is, again, due to government interference, without which the farcical “capitalist” system we have now would collapse.

Renewable energy, if widely adopted with storage and blockchain technologies, should be the desire of any capitalist who truly follows the doctrine they profess to love. Given that the opposite is the case, it must therefore be concluded that either capitalism and freedom do not exist in the West (Milton Friedman assures us neither of those can exist without the other), or perhaps those spruiking such ideas are simply lying to further their own interests and profits at the expense of the majority.

All of the above, I feel.

Liked this? Read Anarchism and the Neutrality of Technology

Previous piece: Invoking 1984: Chomsky and Silber

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