For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Richard Feynman

Consultant Dan

06 December 2012

Political power and the green economy

This was published today on the official Suntech blog, Suntech Connect.

Solar and wind industries share the same end goal of cleaner energy production worldwide — but each deploys vastly different technologies and methods to get there. How did each industry gain its following?

Let’s take a look.

Solar photovoltaic cells can be installed at any scale and made to work anywhere there is sunlight. Indeed, they can be built into the actual device that uses the electricity. On my desk, there is a solar-power calculator, and overhead there are satellites powered by solar panels.

Since solar is an easily distributed technology, it is becoming common across communities and is highly visible. Most people either have a personal experience with solar or know someone who does. When the positive experience of lowering power bills or generating green electricity is shared, public opinion is affected. That’s valuable political capital.

Wind turbines are very different. No wind turbine will ever directly power a wristwatch or generate electricity on Mars. Turbines deploy mechanical energy to drive electric generators. Wind farms require significant amounts of upfront capital, and must be built in particular localities, where there is a rich wind resource. Typically, this meant putting groups of many turbines together in rural or offshore locations.

For wind, the best way to gain political capital is for communities to literally invest in the technology and the outcome. In its purest form, this means community-owned wind cooperatives. This helps broaden and localize ownership of wind generators. The Danes are leaders in this area, with three-quarters of their wind turbine assets held not by corporations, but by farmers, locals and co-operatives.

At Hepburn Wind, Australia’s first community-owned generator, where I am a director, our locals are very engaged in what we do. Each of our two 2.05 MW turbines generate $15,000 (indexed annually) for the Hepburn Wind community fund, which is allocated to diverse, local, voluntary projects, which in turn strengthens our relationship with the community. The benefits of wind truly come full circle.

In sum, the seemingly wildfire spread of solar — driven primarily by accessibility and affordability of its technology — gives it power in the market of popular opinion. The advocacy solution for the sector is to continue to mobilise its vast consumer base into an electoral base: A solar nation loyal to green energy.

The solution for wind is to build its own support base, in wind regions, through local community ownership. Wind ownership does not need to become as widespread as solar’s in order to be politically powerful, because the population that matters is the community in the immediate, local vicinity. What will help with uptake is that the standard windmill design is being continually refined; every time a bigger model is deployed, it proves itself reliable and even more cost effective. People are now talking about 15MW wind turbines – that’s 15,000,000 Watts of capacity in a single structure.

On 18 November this year, the World Bank issued a report about climate change that reminds us how important solar and wind are for our future. Despite the clear facts presented by climate scientists for twenty years and echoed by the World Bank, coal and conventional utilities continue to dominate the energy market. They leverage this economic power for political influence, preventing action on climate change.

If we can build the social capital of solar and wind, in ways that suit these very different technologies, then we have the power to build a cleaner, greener world for all.

Update: Republished on 10 December 2012 by Climate Spectator.

Jo [Sat 29 Dec 2012, 11:30AM] said:

We need to build the social license for wind power and engage with solar supporters before the next election. And before the NSW & Vic State governments manage to kill it off. Don’t think Queensland is doing much for the cause either.

Dan Cass [Sat 29 Dec 2012, 5:05PM] said:

@Jo: thanks for the encouragement.

You are right to be worried about the dangerous attacks from the LNP at the state and federal level.

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