Drop of Knowledge: Sustainable Solar Power

Drop of Knowledge: Sustainable Solar Power

gemasolarThough we aren’t much concerned with precisely what shade of green our politics is, post-scarcity anarchism does concern itself with ecological health and the use of technology to improve it. It’s important that we understand the reality of both, if we hope to advocate for either one:

By all accounts, solar power is definitely less carbon-intensive than conventional power. It’s no magic bullet, but it will be a pillar of our sustainable future. Solar has become much cheaper in recent years, but this is primarily due to PV manufacturing moving to China, and that comes with a major loss in sustainability. This is especially problematic because solar PV is not carbon-negative as soon as it is built: It has to offset the pollution created through its production by producing power free of pollution.

What this means is that we can only build so much solar PV at once and still hope to maintain a lower rate of pollution. The maximum rate that we can do this depends on the amount of pollution that their production releases: The growth rate of solar electricity must be less than the rate that the energy gets paid back. In other words, the capitalist “plan” of letting the free market take care of rolling out solar by lowering the costs is paradoxical: The more costs are lowered, the more pollution is produced, the lower the rate of sustainable deployment, the faster the technology will be deployed by the market.

Wealthy, first-world countries in temperate climates are not the best candidates for sustainable solar installation. The amount and duration of sun they receive increases the payback time, and so lowers the possible rate of deployment. Poor, third-world countries with dirty infrastructure are likewise not the best candidates for sustainable solar production. The use of dirty energy technologies increases the amount of carbon they must offset, and so lowers the possible rate of deployment. Unfortunately, with both sides beholden to the forces of capitalism, the economically-viable strategy is precisely the worst possible strategy to achieve sustainability.

Energy from intermittent power sources obviously requires energy storage, but also requires overproduction. In order to fulfill all the demand for energy without interruption, we need to generate around triple the amount of energy we expect to use, and store quite a bit of it, as well. Strategies to achieve renewable electricity need to account for the intermittent production in their deployment goals. Batteries, while the most viable technology for energy storage, come with similar problems as the solar panels: Their cost is decreasing primarily due to Chinese manufacturing, and come with more embodied pollution as a result. Knowledge of power is power.

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