their 1996 book "Who Owns the Sun?", solar energy campaigners Daniel
Berman and John O’Connor rightly declared that "democracy is a false
promise if it does not include the power to steer the energy economy". It’s
a crucial point that not even Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth appear to have
grasped; should we really be leaving it to the oil companies to create the solar
Climate change is arguably the greatest threat facing humanity. Society’s
addiction to fossil fuels – hard-wired by corporate greed and government
handouts to the fossil fuel industry in the form of tax benefits and subsidies -
is driving us relentlessly down a highway of self-destruction. Diverting from
such a suicidal course will require a twin revolution: switching to renewable
energy generation and, at the same time, boosting the power of local democracy.
This may seem an odd combination at first sight, but the reasoning behind it
encapsulates precisely why opposing economic globalization and replacing it with
an ecological alternative is so important for the well-being of people and the
Here in the UK, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has just told
the British government in a new report that carbon dioxide emissions must fall
by 60 per cent in the next 50 years if there is to be any realistic possibility
of even "a tolerable effect on the climate". But how likely are such
"huge cuts" while transnational corporations dictate how society
produces and consumes energy? According to the San Francisco-based Transnational
Resource and Action Center (TRAC), "Big Oil’s long-term strategy is still
dictated by the urge to explore". New exploration as well as oil or gas
pipelines threaten the survival of peoples in the Amazon basin, Southeast Asia,
and North America. BP Amoco, the world’s largest solar company, is committed to
spending $5 billion in the next 5 years on oil exploration and production in the
sensitive environment of Alaska alone. This dwarfs the trifling sum of $45
million recently spent on its solar business division. Meanwhile, Shell proudly
proclaims that it is "focusing [its] energies on developing [renewable
energy] solutions" even as its annual reports project fossil fuel growth
and depict maps highlighting the global reach of its oil and gas enterprises.
Shell’s investment in renewables is only 10 per cent of the oil giant’s spending
on hydrocarbon exploration ($1 billion annually), 0.8 per cent of its global
investment ($12 billion) and only 0.06 per cent of its global sales ($171
billion): a drop in the barrel, in other words. Other companies such as the
combined Exxon-Mobil, the world’s largest oil corporation, are doing even less
to develop renewables.
In the global economy, the unsustainable expansion of corporate activities into
ever-larger markets means that there is an almost irresistible force driving the
formation of mega-companies of all types. Growth demands further growth, and if
companies do not expand in today’s "internationally competitive"
markets they stagnate and die. Smaller enterprises are swallowed up whole or
trampled underfoot in the stampede to maintain or increase returns on short-term
investment, or even simply to repay loan capital. The business of generating
energy is no different in this respect to other industrial operations; there is
an inherent trend away from small-scale, community-based enterprises towards
large-scale, centralised operations. It should therefore come as no surprise
that oil companies are engaged in a frenzy of mergers in a similar manner to
news corporations, investment firms and biotech industries. Describing the
ongoing BP Amoco merger, The Independent newspaper in London coolly reported
that "the existing cost reduction plan involves 10,000 redundancies, of
which 6,000 have already been achieved". At Exxon and Mobil, job losses
will exceed 9,000. As TRAC notes, Exxon had already been cutting jobs at the
rate of 4 per cent every year for over a decade.
than pursuing such a destructive energy policy – in which corporations continue
to overload the atmosphere with global-warming gases, destroy jobs and damage
sensitive ecosystems – society could be using local renewable energy sources.
These come in many forms: wind, wave, solar, geothermal, small-scale hydro,
biomass fuels. Some of these are available at every location around the globe.
Consequently, small-scale decentralised economies would be able to make use of a
range of local energy sources for local needs. On the other hand, large
industrialised economies with urbanised centres are locked into centralised
power sources that convert fossil fuel or nuclear power into electricity, which
is then transmitted over hundreds or even thousands of miles. This is extremely
wasteful: two-thirds of the energy in fossil fuels is lost in the production and
transmission process. Electricity is an indefensible luxury for 90 per cent of
our energy uses. Lighting and heating homes, for example, can be made much more
energy-efficient by adopting "passive" solar building designs,
low-energy lights and tight insulation.
Energy efficiency is vastly underexploited. US journalist Ross Gelbspan points
out that "as a bridge to a new energy era", the economics panel of the
UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified a number of steps,
called "no regrets" policies. At virtually no cost, these could reduce
greenhouse gas emissions by around 20 per cent. They include such simple steps
as implementing known efficiency and conservation techniques, planting more
trees (to absorb carbon dioxide), and instituting international standards for
energy-efficient appliances. Such measures should be encouraged at the same time
as a switch to green energy. Removing fossil fuel and nuclear tax credits and
subsidies which currently promote the destruction of the global environment and
diverting them to windmill farms, home-based fuel cells, photovoltaic panels and
hydrogen fuel plants would provide the necessary boost to propel renewable
energy into the big league of global industry. Renewable energy analyst
Scott Sklar estimates that for every million dollars spent on oil and gas
exploration, only 1.5 jobs are created; for every million on coal mining, 4.4
jobs. But for every million spent on making solar water heaters, 14 jobs are
created. For manufacturing solar electricity panels, 17 jobs. For electricity
from biomass and waste, 23 jobs.
modern "civilisation", the population tends to cluster in large cities
in which a high-consumption lifestyle is encouraged. Profligate energy use,
international trade and the concentration of millions of people in urban centres
are therefore intimately linked. This is why a decentralised, solar-based
economy must go hand in hand with a revitalised locally-based democracy; one
cannot succeed without the other. What would such a society look like? Based on
suggestions presented by Berman and O’Connor in "Who Owns the Sun?", a
blueprint for a solar society would incorporate:
ownership of energy – just as is the case with water or schools in some
countries and American states.
investment in renewable energy technologies and building design, by
diverting tax breaks and subsidies from fossil fuel and nuclear energy.
to loans, tax credits and rebates for photovoltaics, solar water heating,
wind and small-scale hydro generators, and other forms of renewable
energy-generating and energy-saving technologies.
metering (i.e. monitoring electricity flows) and rate-based incentives, so
that independent home- and business-based electricity producers are paid the
same price for electricity they supply to the grid as they would be required
to pay for the grid power if they used it.
between industry, government and local communities to oversee the new green
industries, in order to ensure that the public knows what is being produced
in a factory, by what means, and how any wastes and by-products will be
government legislation to ensure that all this is carried out.
of the above will happen if we simply leave it to the giant oil corporations to
tinker with solar renewables – as Shell and BP Amoco are doing – while they
bulldoze ahead with exploration and production of new oil and gas reservoirs.
Citizen control over a decentralised solar economy is in direct competition with
the profit imperative of such large companies. The present policy of governments
and mainstream environmental organisations is to leave it up to fossil-fuel
corporations and big utility companies to bring about a solar revolution. As
Berman and O’Connor warn: this will "guarantee that the coming Solar Age
will arrive a century behind its time, and that it will be every bit as
autocratic as today’s fossil-fuel economy". Decentralised renewable energy
directed by local communities will only be won at the expense of the private
energy monopolies who are currently engaged in cut-throat competition to protect
and expand their share of the energy market. Warlike metaphors abound in company
rhetoric. Earlier this year, Shell group chairman Mark Moody-Stuart glowingly
described his company as "a great fleet of destroyers and torpedo
boats". It’s time to scuttle this fossil-fuel armada and launch a new fleet
of solar-driven vessels fit for the twenty-first century.
Cromwell is an oceanographer and writer in Southampton, UK. His first book
"Private Planet" will be published later this year by Jon Carpenter