“Whenever something is wrong, something is too big.”
In energy, what is hyped as new and transformative is often not. Renewable energies predate the fossil-fuel era—and with a 100 percent market share, no less. Wind power and solar power have a nineteenth century history, not only a twentieth. Fuel cell physics was developed in the mid-19th century. Electric vehicles dominated the transportation market until the internal combustion engine took over a century ago. Energy conservation/efficiency is as old as energy itself.
Enter the environmental panacea of smallness, the fourth strand in the philosophical underpinnings of the Church of Climate. Other movements behind the global aspirations to control climate change from the enhanced greenhouse effect in this series were Deep Ecology, Malthusianism, and Conservationism. (The political roots of the Paris climate agreement, involving Enron CEO Ken Lay and President George H. W. Bush, were explored here.)
For many decades, the small-is-beautiful movement has influenced energy thinking and public policy. Getting beyond central-station power plants and their energies (natural gas, coal, oil, and uranium) has been an environmental movement within a movement.
In energy policy, smallness is manifested in distributed generation (DT) as an alternative to power plants, the technology of choice from the days of Thomas Edison and Samuel Insull (Bradley 2011, Part I). Fuel cells yesterday and rooftop solar today; the mantra continues.
Beyond Baseload, Fossil Fuels?
“The use of the term ‘baseload’ generation is no longer helpful for purposes of planning and operating today’s electricity system,” concludes a recent study sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council. According to another just released analysis, cosponsored by the American Wind Energy Association, the power system is benefitting from “both grid-connected and distributed solar and wind generation” as well as “growing adaptation of small-scale, decentralized generating technologies on customers’ premises,” upending “the economics of older fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants in many parts of the country.”
In a front-page article in the Houston Chronicle, “Tech Out to Disrupt Power Industry,” author James Osborne sees a new energy future. “Out are centralized, fossil-fuel-fired plants sending electricity in one direction.” He continues:
In are rooftop solar systems, smart thermostats, home battery systems and wind farms. All are controlled by computer algorithms and updated hardware that pull in and analyze thousands of data points on weather, pricing and electricity consumption to create a power grid that can shift demand when supplies run thin and rely more on renewable energy.
The catch? “‘In a few years, maybe a couple decades, when we look back we will be surprised we used to burn all this fossil fuel,’ said Amit Narayan, founder and CEO of AutoGrid, a startup outside San Francisco. ‘There’s fundamentally no reason to do that anymore’.”
Where have we heard this before? Perhaps in Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen’s 1994 book, Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution:
Fortuitously, technology is being developed to link each fuel cell, flywheel, and air conditioner electronically, allowing the grid to operate as a single “smart” system that avoids overloading lines and turns off decentralized generators when crews are repairing wires (p. 258).
Back-to-nature with high-tech? Time to live affordably and sustainably off the grid? A new energy of era? Energy fundamentals have not really changed; distributed generation is very expensive and infrastructure heavy.
“Small is Beautiful”
The “small is beautiful” movement can be traced to E. F. Schumacher, who in the 1950s warned the Federation of British Industry that “the first signs of a world oil famine” were “visible” (quoted in Bradley 2009, p. 227). The “voice in the wilderness” (quoted in Bradley 2009, p. 227) came of age with his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.
Soon, he found himself in the company of Queen Elizabeth and Royal Dutch Shell at home, and California Governor Jerry Brown and President Jimmy Carter abroad. During the energy crises, he became a hero of thousands of newly minted neo-Malthusians as the new guru of less-is-more (Bradley, 2009, p. 228).
Schumacher’s Malthusianism became spiritual when he left atheism for Zen Buddhism. A Buddhist economy, he said, would make “the distinction between ‘renewable’ and ‘non-renewable’ resources.” Affluence and materialism were bad. “Modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man,” he wrote (Bradley, 2009, p. 227).
Crossing the ideas of other market critics such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Ehrlich, and Amory Lovins, Schumacher sought to replace “the philosophy of materialism” with a “magnanimous kind of prudence,” leading to “justice, fortitude, and temperantia, which means knowing when enough is enough” (Bradley, 2009, pp. 227–28).
Smallness, Not Growth
Another well-timed book, Limits to Growth (1972), sponsored by The Club of Rome, predicted “collapse,” because the “basic behavioral mode of the world system is exponential growth of population and capital” (quoted in Bradley, 2009, p. 234). After their book was completed (it would sell 9 million copies in 29 languages), Dennis and Donella Meadows retreated to a New Hampshire farm “to learn about homesteading and wait for the coming collapse.” Going small, they would wait … and wait.
Kenneth Boulding challenged his fellow economists to reconsider economic growth. “Bigger is not necessarily better,” he wrote. “For the poor, growth in income is entirely desirable; for the rich, it may simply mean corruption and luxury.” He urged “a fundamental change in human consciousness,” one that admittedly would require “an adjustment of our ethical, religious, and national systems which may be quite traumatic” (Bradley, p. 239).
On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, Sir Roy Harrod similarly decried the “religious … grand objective” of economic growth embedded in neoclassical economics (Nikiforuk, p. 144).
In The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude (2012), Andew Nikiforuk pleaded for a new approach to living. “A haphazard and improbable emancipation movement has begun to take shape,” he posited.
Around the world, families and groups of individuals are walking away in ever growing numbers from petroleum and the inanimate slave culture of frantic consumption. They are exchanging quantity for quality and relearning the practical arts. Those seeking liberty eat slowly, travel locally, plant gardens, work ethically, build communities, share tools, and eschew bigness in economic and political life. Above all, they are relearning what it means to live within their means, with grace (p. 249).
“A world of completely isolated and self-sufficient economies could conceivably be a peaceful one,” stated Benjamin Higgins and Jean Downing Higgins in Economic Development of a Small Planet (1979). “And in these days of energy shortage, a higher degree of self-sufficiency, achieved by using local renewable materials wherever possible, could … lead to a rich variety of indigenous efforts rather than increasing world uniformity, and to greater independence” (p. 265).
In the same year, Barbara Ward in Progress for a Small Planet spoke of “the new emphasis on smaller and leaner units of production” (p. 136) as part of “a balanced and conserving planet” (p. 277).
In 1994, Flavin and Lenssen wrote about “a new breed of smaller electricity generators” that was challenging the paradigm of “large central stations.” Gas-fired, these units soon may be obliterated by even smaller, more modular generating and storage technologies that are now rapidly entering the market, including fuel cells, rooftop solar generators, and flywheels. Together, these inventions could make power generation at the household level economical (pp. 256–57).
In 2007, Joseph Romm looked to distributed generation as a way beyond central-station electricity. “Cogen and other on-site power systems, such as solar panels, are called distributed energy as opposed to large central-station power plants, like coal or nuclear,” he explained. “Their market penetration is limited by barriers that have nothing to do with their cost or performance—especially the countless obstacles and fees that major utilities can place in their way” (pp. 167–68). Only bad play stood in the way of this ready technology, in his view.
Some decades ago, electricity from fuel cells was the next big thing. The battery-like designs, fueled by natural gas, could be sited almost anywhere, even providing “power from the basement” (Bradley, 2018, chapter 13).
The principle of combining energy and oxygen to create electric current and water was proven in 1839. The modern fuel cell was developed at Cambridge University in the mid-twentieth century. By the early 1970s, nearly 50 companies, most of them US businesses, had invested north of $50 million (several hundred million in today’s dollars) to commercialize the technology. Major firms were involved, including Exxon, Arco, and Westinghouse (Bradley, 2018, chapter 13).
Fuel cells became popular discourse as part of a postcarbon energy future. In this scenario, renewables would create hydrogen (via electrolysis of water) for the home or business or industry. Distributed generation would supplant the power grid. “In the United States,” Christopher Flavin reported in 1996, “the race is on” (p. 14). The leader was ONSI Corporation, a United Technologies unit that had just completed the world’s first fuel-cell manufacturing facility to produce dozens of units annually at half the cost of earlier models. Allied Signal, IBM, Dow Chemical, and Ballard Power Systems were also in the fuel-cell market, leading Flavin to predict that “a commercial takeoff for fuel cells is likely within the next decade” (p. 14).
It would not happen. “Fuel cells continue to face major challenges,” summarized Daniel Yergin in 2011. “The fuel cells themselves—the device that converts hydrogen or another chemical feedstock into electricity—are expensive and will require substantial investment and breakthroughs for commercialization” (Yergin, p. 707). And today, virtually no environmental organization touts this technology, probably because natural gas is no longer considered a bridge fuel to sustainability (as back in the 1990s) but, according to Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, “a gangplank to a destabilized climate and an impoverished economy” (Bryce, p. 275).
Central-station power, enjoying scale economies in production and from mass diversified consumption (to improve load factors), remains king compared to distributed generation for grid energy. (Off-grid is another, free-market story.)
In Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists (1999), Peter Huber documented that “The Hard technology of modern capitalism is fantastically efficient” (p. 146). “Generally speaking,” he writes, “the greenest fuels are the ones that contain the most energy per pound of material that must be mined, trucked, pumped, piped, and burnt” (p. 105). Dilute renewables such as electricity from wind and solar are environmentally suspect because of their huge land dedication, among other factors.
Robert Bryce has also noted the superior density and thus performance of fossil fuels, as well as uranium. “Density is green” because we can wring “more energy and more food from smaller pieces of land” (p. xxii).
Natural economies of scale and grid reliability emerge from a let the consumer decide energy policy. In a free society, small, medium, and large can be beautiful.
Bradley, Robert. Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy. Salem, MA: M & M Scrivener Press, 2009.
Bradley, Robert. Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons and Scrivener Publishing, 2011.
Bradley, Robert. Enron Ascending: The Forgotten Years, 1984–1996. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons and Scrivener Publishing, 2018.
Bryce, Robert. Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper. New York: Public Affairs, 2014.
Flavin, Christopher, and Nicholas Lenssen. Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.
Flavin, Christopher. “Power Shock: The Next Energy Revolution.” World Watch, January/February 1996, 10–19.
Higgins, Benjamin, and Jean Downing Higgins. Economic Development of a Small Planet. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1979.
Huber, Peter. Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
Meadows, Donella, et al. The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books, 1972.
Nikiforuk, Andrew. The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. Toronto: Greystone Books, 2012.
Romm, Joseph. Hell and High Water: Global Warming—the Solution and the Politics—And What We Should Do. New York: William Morrow, 2007.
Schumacher, E. F. Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. London: Blond & Biggs, 1973.
Ward, Barbara. Progress for a Small Planet. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.
Yergin, Daniel. The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
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