Saturday, July 29, 2017

Fuelling Profits (1983)

Book Review from the December 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Energy a Guidebook. Janet Ramage (Oxford University Press. 1983).

Energy and food supply problems of capitalism are similar in that both are presented by the media in terms of unending crises and shortages. This contains a half-truth. Under capitalism production is geared to profits and therefore does not in general take place unless the goods can be marketed profitably. Thus capitalism is not geared to produce to satisfy the reasonable needs of the majority of the population. Nevertheless it has developed the means of production, including those in the fields of food and energy, to the extent that the creation of an abundance of wealth is now technically possible. So the popular idea of shortage is false.

In another respect the two problems are dissimilar. There are certainly unsatisfactory features about present day food production, in particular an excessive use of chemical fertilisers, but these can be remedied without altering the basic shape of agriculture. The energy problem is different in that the methods currently in use are in the main unacceptable from an environmental viewpoint.

The author of this book also has grave misgivings about the continued use of both fossil fuels (oil and coal) and nuclear power. While dearly sympathetic to the use of renewable resources, such as solar and wind power which are benign ecologically, Janet Ramage is quite unable to see any alternative to the capitalist mode of production. This leads her largely to suppress her actual desires in a monotonous succession of statistics designed to show how “uneconomic" these other methods are. One example of her mode of thinking is worth quoting: “How much of a resource is available depends on how much someone is prepared to pay to extract it, so rising international prices mean increasing local resources”. Here the author is so hooked on profitability that even the sense of the words “resources" and “availability” is changing with the fluctuation of the market. If oil and coal become scarcer and more expensive to extract, so the alternatives which are at present unprofitable will become relatively more profitable. This is the answer to those who suggest an “energy death” for capitalism through an atrophy of profitable sources.

The book provides useful technical information on a number of current energy production methods. The guide to terminology is helpful to socialists who will be required in the future to talk this language in arguing the case for the alternative to capitalism. We do not usually become confused over inches, miles and light years, all of which are measures of distance. However, at present we are much less familiar with the terms used for energy measurement, so definitions of megajoules, terrawatts, miilivats and tons of coal equivalent (t.c.c.) are helpful.

A comparison of consumption patterns of the USA, Switzerland, Great Britain and India shows the per capita figure for the last named running at only one thirtieth of the American value, reminding us again of the uneven development of the capitalist world. Indeed, much of India's domestic consumption — if that is the right word — is supplied from pre-capitalist, non-commercial sources and is difficult to measure by normal standards. Using per capita figures, however, is doubly confusing. It completely ignores the difference between worker and capitalist and also that between industrial and domestic use.

The book also performs a service in giving examples of renewable benign sources currently in use. A tidal power station at La Rance on the Brittany coast has been producing electricity for some 15 years. One of the most encouraging passages concerns solar energy. After emphasising that the cost per unit of electricity produced in this way is ten times that of nuclear power, the author draws attention to the growing number of houses in remote areas blossoming with little patches of silver-grey discs which are formed of photovoltaic cells. New methods of production have already caused the costs of solar cells to fall by a factor of more than ten in a decade. The main technical obstacle to overcome is that of storage, to counteract the unfortunate tendency for power to be required most when the sun is not shining. The storage problem is also hindering the development of the electric car as a means to overcome the stranglehold highly polluting oil has on road transport.

Janet Ramage's last paragraph reads:
   Or is there an altogether different alternative? How about a world-wide electric grid? It could use underground and ocean-floor super-conducting cables, and the power would come from solar farms in the world's major deserts, OTEC plants in tropical waters, and wave power-stations and wind turbine arrays in remote regions. No atmospheric pollution, no radioactive wastes. No wastes, no use of valuable agricultural land or previous fresh water. Would it work? Estimates of world annual energy demand in fifty years' time lie between 600 and 1.000 EJ. Using the data from earlier chapters, it isn’t difficult to find the size of installation for any selected contribution from each type of power plant. There are probably no insuperable technical problems. There is just one question. How do we get there from here?
In fact, although in a socialist society the world will function as one productive unit, it may not be necessary actually to construct a world-wide grid. With the probability of people living in smaller communities with modern energy-efficient communications reducing transport requirements, we may well see these communities self-sufficient in energy, although some provision for emergencies will be required. The environmentally benign, renewable methods are in many ways better suited to smaller scale operations, as shown to a certain extent by the instances where they are making headway at present. However, this is a small issue compared with the author's clear preference for it over the highly polluted alternatives to which she seems resigned. How do we get there from here? she asks. It should be obvious.
E. C. Edge

No comments: