The world’s dumbest idea: Taxing solar energy

We shouldn't be taxing these guys.	 (AP Photo/Shannon Dininny)

In a setback for the renewable energy movement, the state House in Oklahoma this week passed a bill that would levy a new fee on those who generate their own energy through solar equipment or wind turbines on their property. The measure, which sailed to passage on a near unanimous vote after no debate, is likely to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin.

The bill, known as S.B. 1456, will specifically target those who install power generation systems on their property and sell the excess energy back to the grid. However, those who already have such renewable systems installed will not be affected.

Still, it’s the new customers who will rapidly make up the majority, even in a traditional oil-and-gas powerhouse like Oklahoma. That’s because the cost of solar power systems has beendrastically falling for the last five years. Solar installations nationwide are going to shoot up to an estimated 45 gigawatts in 2014, a new record, and are projected to grow even more in coming years as solar prices fall further and fossil fuel extraction gets harder and more expensive.

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Can Google Go 100 Percent Renewable?

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This week, Google announced in a blog post a new $80 million investment in solar energy in California and Arizona, bringing its total investments in renewable energy since 2010 to over $1 billion. It’s just the latest step in an ongoing project by Google to keep at the forefront of the green energy industry.

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, Rick Needham, Google’s director of energy and sustainability, explained Google’s shift into the renewable energy industry:

“When Google thinks about sustainability, one of the big areas that we think about is energy because that’s fundamentally a core piece of what drives our company. We think what can we do as a company to make sure we’re operating sustainably and the ways we can enable a more sustainable world. We ask what can we do to get us to a place where clean energy is an option for everyone.” [The Guardian]

He adds that Google’s ultimate aim is to derive 100 percent of its energy usage from renewable sources:

“We want to be 100 percent renewable. We don’t have a date set for that target, but with our investments, we aim to move the market in that direction.” [The Guardian]

Besides attaining the dream of clean and sustainable energy, I can think of three business reasons why Google might want to go totally green.

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On My Enthusiasm For Solar Energy

I am a solar energy enthusiast. The energetic parts of the universe are clustered around stars. We sit here on this dusty ball of rock and water, heated continually by the Sun. The difference between when we face toward our local star and when we face away from it is — in the most literal sense — day and night. Our lives on Earth are already solar-powered; the plants (and plant-eating animals) we eat get their energy from photosynthesis. The trees and other biomass we have used for energy for much of our history, as well as the fossil fuel reserves we use today are forms of stored solar energy from earlier organisms that died and were trapped under the Earth. Wind energy and tidal energy are perturbations of dynamical systems heated by solar energy. Even the nuclear energy we use extracted from fissionable uranium and plutonium is stored from supernovae in early stars that exploded and pushed the complex elements — including the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in our bodies — out across the universe.

It is not so much a question of whether we use solar energy, but whether we use direct solar energy, or some derivative form. As our civilisation has advanced and grown, we have had to tap into larger sources to meet the demand for cheap and easily-accessible energy. Our technological sophistication and understanding of basic physics and chemistry has had to grow with our energy hunger to take advantage of different forms of energy; windmills, steam engines, oil refineries, cold water reactors and photovoltaic panels, and so on. In the long run, it is a mathematical certainty that to sustain our civilisation at present levels, or to grow and increase energy consumption we must transition to renewable energy both because quantities of fossil fuels and star fuels like uranium and plutonium on Earth are finite.

The availability of direct solar energy on Earth dwarfs other energy sources, including renewable energy:

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All that is necessary in the long run for renewable energy sustainability is that the level of output exceeds the level of input enough to provide a reliable energy source. Even at current solar efficiencies — and thus assuming that the technology won’t improve — photovoltaic solar generates seven times more energy than it takes to generate:

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While this is not currently as good as oil or natural gas or coal, it already beats shale oil and biofuels. The beautiful thing about solar energy is that there is so much of it that the technology does not have to be greatly efficient. And prices are falling and efficiencies are improving. While some renewables like wind and hydroelectric are more efficient, they are not abundant enough to even cover the bulk of our energy needs today. In the short run, combined with hydroelectric and wind and nuclear there is a real basis for long-term renewable energy sustainability. To smooth the transition, renewable technology needs investment and development.

In the long run, while obviously renewables still cost a lot more than non-renewables in the marketplace, but we have already established that that cannot last forever. Even the supply of uranium is limited. While we may discover superior technologies like cold fusion, we should be completely prepared for the eventuality that we don’t discover a better technology. While photovoltaic solar remains the largest and most long-term source of available energy — and thus the best hope for the continuation and expansion of sustainable human civilisation — it should receive a bulk of funding and development, and we should assume that in the very long run it should meet the bulk of our energy needs. There are still challenges like solar energy storage, but these challenges are being surmounted with improved battery technologies, and improved distribution technologies such as microgrids. 

Of course, if the photovoltaic solar price trend known as the Swanson Effect that has seen solar fall over 99% in cost since the 1970s continues, then solar will reach and exceed parity with other energy sources and be crowned the winner by the market based simply on  low cost. After all, solar energy is superabundant compared to the alternatives, so it would not be at all surprising for it to become the cheapest. But even if the Swanson Effect does not play out and solar does not become super-cheap, direct photovoltaic solar is extremely likely to play a major role in continued human civilisation on this planet and elsewhere.

The Long Run

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Niall Ferguson’s misunderstanding of Keynes led me to the question of how humans should balance the present against the long run?

It’s hard for us primates to have a real clue about the long run — the chain of events that may occur, the kind of world that will form. In the long run — the billions of years for which Earth has existed — modern human civilisation is a flash, a momentary pulsation of order imposed by primates on the face of the Earth — modern cities, roads, ports, oil wells, telecommunications and so forth built up over a little more than a century, a little more than two or three frail human lifespans.

Human projections of the direction of the future are notoriously unreliable. Professional futurists who devote careers to mapping the trajectory of human and earthly progress are often far wide of the mark. And in the realm of markets and economics, human projectional abilities are notoriously awful — only 0.4% of money managers beat the market over ten years.

As humans, our only window to the future is our imaginations. We cannot know the future, but we can imagine it as Ludwig Lachmann once noted. And in a world where everyone is working from unique internal models and expectations — for a very general example, Keynesians expecting zero rates and deflation, Austrians expecting rising rates and inflation — divergent human imaginations and expectations is an ingredient for chaos that renders assumptions of equilibrium hopelessly idealistic.

A tiny minority of fundamental investors can beat the market — Keynes himself trounced the market between 1926 and 1946, for example by following principles of value investing (like Benjamin Graham later advocated). But like in poker, while virtually everyone at the table believes they can beat the game in the long run — through, perhaps, virtues of good judgement, or good luck, or some combination of the two — the historical record shows that the vast majority of predictors are chumps. And for what it’s worth, markets are a harder game to win than games like poker. In poker, precise probabilities can be assigned to outcomes — there are no unknown unknowns in a deck of playing cards. In the market — and other fields of complex, messy human action — we cannot assign precise probabilities to anything. We are left with pure Bayesianism, with probabilities merely reflecting subjective human judgments about the future. And in valuing assets, as Keynes noted we are not even searching for the prettiest face, but for a prediction of what the market will deem to be the prettiest face.

This means that long run fears whether held by an individual or a minority or a majority are but ethereal whispers on the wind, far-fetched possibilities. It means that present crises like mass unemployment have a crushing weight of importance that potential imagined future crises do not have, and can never have until they are upon us. As the fighters of potential future demons — or in the European case, self-imposed present demons — suffer from high unemployment and weak growth in the present (which in turn create other problems — deterioration of skills, mass social and political disillusionment, etc) this becomes more and more dazzlingly apparent.

But in the long run, the historical record shows that crises certainly happen, even if they are not the ones that we might initially imagine (although they are very often something that someone imagined, however obscure). Human history is pockmarked by material crises — unemployment, displacement, failed crops, drought, marauders and vagabonds, volcanism, feudalism, slavery, invasion, a thousand terrors that might snuff out life, snuff out our unbroken genetic line back into the depths antiquity, prehistory and the saga of human and prehuman evolution. While we cannot predict the future, we can prepare and robustify during the boom so that we might have sufficient resources to deal with a crisis in the slump. Traditionally, this meant storing crops in granaries during good harvests to offset the potential damage by future famines and saving money in times of economic plenty to disburse when the economy turned downward.  In the modern context of globalisation and long, snaking supply chains it might also mean bolstering energy independence by developing wind and solar and nuclear energy resources as a decentralised replacement to fossil fuels. It might mean the decentralisation of production through widespread molecular manufacturing and disassembly technologies. In the most literal and brutal sense — that of human extinction — it might mean colonising space to spread and diversify the human genome throughout the cosmos.

Ultimately, we prepare for an uncertain future by acting in the present. The long run begins now, and now is all we have.

The Next Industrial Revolution

Large, centrally-directed systems are inherently fragile. Think of the human body; a spontaneous, unexpected blow to the head can kill an otherwise healthy creature; all the healthy cells and tissue in the legs, arms, torso and so forth killed through dependency on the brain’s functionality. Interdependent systems are only ever as strong as their weakest critical link, and very often a critical link can fail through nothing more than bad luck.

Yet the human body does not exist in isolation. Humans as a species are a decentralised network. Each individual may be in himself or herself a fragile, interdependent system, but the wider network of humanity is a robust independent system. One group of humans may die in an avalanche or drown at sea, but their death does not affect the survival of the wider population. The human genome has survived plagues, volcanoes, hurricanes, asteroid impacts and so on through its decentralisation.

In economics, such principles are also applicable. Modern, high-technology civilisation is very centralised and homogenised. Prices and availability are affected by events half way around the world; a war in the middle east, the closure of the Suez Canal or Strait of Hormuz, an earthquake in China, flooding in Thailand, or a tidal wave in Indonesia all have ramifications to global markets, simply because of the interconnectedness of globalisation. The computer I am typing this into is a complex mixture — the cumulative culmination of millions of hours of work, as well as resources and manufacturing processes across the globe. It incorporates tellurium, indium, cobalt, gallium, and manganese mined in Africa. Neodymium mined in China. Plastics forged out of Saudi Crude. Bauxite mined in Brazil. Memory manufactured in Korea, semiconductors forged in Germany, glass made in the United States. And gallons and gallons of oil to ship all the resources and components around the world, ’til they are finally assembled in China, and shipped once again around the world to the consumer. And that manufacturing process stands upon the shoulders of centuries of scientific research, and years of product development, testing, and marketing. It is a huge mesh of interdependent processes. And the disruption of any one of these processes can mean disruption for the system as a whole. The fragility of interconnection is the great hidden danger underlying our modern economic and technological paradigms.

And even if the risks of global trade disruptions do not materialise in the near-term, as the finite supply of oil dwindles in coming years, the costs of constantly shipping so much around and around the world may prove unsustainable.

It is my view that the reality of costlier oil is set over the coming years to spur a new industrial revolution — a very welcome side-effect of which will be increased social and industrial decentralisation. Looming on the horizon are technologies which can decentralise the means of production and the means of energy generation.

3D printers — machines that can assemble molecules into larger pre-designed objects are pioneering a whole new way of making things. This could well rewrite the rules of manufacturing in much the same way as the rise of personal computing discombobulated the traditional world of computing.

3D printers have existed in large-scale industry for years. But at a cost of $100,000 to $1m, few individuals could ever afford one. Fortunately, improved technology and lowered costs are making such machines more viable for home use. Industrial 3D printers now cost from just $15,000, and home versions for little more than $1,000. Obviously, there are still significant hurdles. 3D printing is still a relatively crude technology, so far incapable of producing complex finished goods. And molecular assembly still requires resources to run on — at least until the technology of molecular disassembly becomes viable, allowing for 3D printers to run on, for example, waste. But the potential for more and more individuals to gain the capacity to manufacture at home — thereby reducing dependency on oil and the global trade grid — is a huge incentive to further development. The next Apple or Microsoft could well be the company that develops and brings home-based 3D printing to the wider marketplace by making it simple and accessible and cheap.

Decentralised manufacturing goes hand-in-hand with decentralised energy generation, because manufacturing requires energy input. Microgrids are localised groupings of energy generation that can vary from city-size to individual-size. The latter is gradually becoming more and more economically viable as the costs of solar panels, wind turbines (etc) for energy generation, and lithium and graphene batteries (etc) for home energy storage fall, and efficiencies rise. Although generally connected to a larger national electricity grid, the connection can be disconnected, and a microgrid can function autonomously if the national grid were to fail (for example) as a result of natural disaster or war.

Having access to a robust and independent energy supply and home-manufacturing facilities would be very empowering for individuals and local communities and allow a higher degree of independence from governments and corporations. Home-based microgrids can allow the autonomous and decentralised powering and recharging of not just home appliances like cooking equipment, computers, 3D printers, lights, and food growing equipment, but also electric vehicles and mobile communications equipment. Home-based 3D printing can allow for autonomous and decentralised design and manufacturing of useful tools and equipment.

The choice that we face as individuals and organisations is whether or not we choose to continue to live with the costs and risks of the modern globalised mode of production, or whether we decide to invest in insulating ourselves from some of the dangers. The more individuals and organisations that invest in these technologies that allow us to create robust decentralised energy generation and production systems, the more costs should fall.

Decentralisation has allowed our species to survive and flourish through millions of years of turbulent and unpredictable history. I believe that decentralisation can allow our young civilisation to survive and flourish in the same manner.

What Peak Oil?

Is peak oil imminent? Lots of people seem to think so.

The data (released by BP a company who have a vested interest in oil scarcity) don’t agree. Proved reserves keep increasing:

The oil in the ground will run out some day. But as the discovery of proven reserves continues to significantly outpace the rate of extraction, the claims that we’re facing immediate shortages looks trashy.

Some may try to cast doubt on these figures, saying that BP are counting inaccessible reserves, and that we must accept that while there are huge quantities of shale oil in the ground, the era of cheap and readily accessible oil is over. They might cite the idea that oil prices are much higher than they were ten years ago. Yet this is mostly a monetary phenomenon resulting from excessive money creation beyond the economy’s productive capacity. Priced in gold, oil is still very cheap — almost as cheap as it has ever been:

The argument that the vast majority of counted reserves are economically inaccessible is fundamentally flawed. In the long run there is only one equation that really matters in determining whether oil is extractable, and that is whether there is a net energy gain; whether energy-in exceeds energy-out. If there’s a net energy gain, it’s feasible. Certainly, we are moving toward a higher cost of energy extraction. Shale oil (for example) has a lower net energy gain than conventional oil, but still typically produces five times as much energy as is consumed in extraction.

But the Earth’s extractable hydrocarbons will eventually dry up, whether that’s in 500 years or 200 years. If we want humanity to have a long-term future on Earth, we need to move to renewables; solar, hydroelectric, thorium, synthetic hydrocarbons. And the market will ensure that, eventually — as the cost of renewable energy continues to fall, more and more of us will adopt it. I don’t buy the myth that markets are stupid — if humanity needs renewable energy (I believe we do) the market will see to it (I believe that is slowly happening). Markets are just the sum of human preferences.

According to the International Renewable Energy Institute:

Power from renewable energy sources is getting cheaper every year, according to a study released Wednesday, challenging long-standing myths that clean energy technology is too expensive to adopt. The costs associated with extracting power from solar panels has fallen as much as 60 percent in just the past few years.The price of  from other renewables, including wind, , concentrating solar power and biomass, was also falling.

So no. I’m not lying awake at night worrying about imminent peak oil. There’s plenty of extractable oil, and renewable energy will eventually supplement and replace it. But will politics get in the way of energy extraction? The United States has huge hydrocarbon reserves, yet regulation is preventing drilling and shipment, leaving America dependent on foreign oil. And the oil companies themselves are largely to blame — after Deepwater Horizon, should anyone be surprised that politicians and the public want to strangle the oil industry?

If there’s an imminent energy crisis, it will be man-made. It will come out of the United States’ dependency on foreign oil. Or out of an environmental catastrophe caused by mismanagement and graft (protected cartels like the energy industry always lead to mismanagement). Or out of excessive red tape. Or war.