The World's #1 Renewable Energy Network for News, Information, and Companies.
Untitled Document

Is Sustainability Talk a Distraction from What Really Matters?

Most talk of "energy efficiency" and “sustainability” is insidious or naïve, or even misdirected. We all should switch off the lights when we leave a room, use efficient, gas-fired tankless water heaters (even when they are uneconomical), and work in LEED certified buildings. Intelligent thermostats — Nest, for instance — may regulate our air-conditioning to assure comfort while generating savings, and shaving “peak” load on the electricity grid. Using LED lamps and star rated appliances is admirable too. These solutions and behaviors, while praiseworthy, are beside the point; we should rather favor “supply action” before demand response.

While environmentally conscious behavior is essential for the planet’s health, a better battle toward the same objective is to diminish emissions at the source — power plants and petroleum-based transport. Between them they account for over 60 percent of GHG emissions, while residences and office buildings account for about 11 percent, according to the EPA (see Figure 1, right). 

Emissions as Smoking

Consider smoking as an analogy. Yes, smoking causes cancer and people should be encouraged to give up the habit. Taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products, and smoking bans in enclosed spaces, do discourage buying and use at the retail level. Research money to cure tobacco addiction is fine too. But would it not be better to focus on cigarette factories and diminish supply of the tobacco plant?

The Drug Enforcement Administration chases drug lords across foreign lands and seas, disrupts their supply chains, and destroys fields growing poppy. What could be the fossil-fuelled energy equivalent?

Imagine if carbon dioxide were visible like black smoke — plumes come out of households, and the messages on TVs and roadside displays say: “The Environmentalist General has determined that such emissions are dangerous to the planet and your health.” Fair enough, but just outside the city, some giant power plant emits huge amounts of smoke, from multiple chimneys, continuously. If we cut the smoke from the chimneys and create clean electricity, the little smoke plumes from individual homes may diminish, and matter little.

When the electricity value chain is regarded as a whole, nipping emissions in the bud makes a lot of sense.

Is there a tacit understanding among certain stakeholders to focus on green buildings, appliances, and people’s habits in order to divert attention from the emissions sources? 

Sustainability? Oh, Please!

Just as “efficiency” efforts are misdirected, so also is the talk of "sustainability."

The word likely originated with Gro Harlem Brundtland’s report, Our Common Future, where the term “sustainable development” was first introduced. That makes sense — we wish for development, but with inter-generational equity. As trustees of the bounty of the earth, we wish to leave behind a habitable planet with resources for future inhabitants.

Former Vice President Al Gore and his colleague David Blood coined Sustainable Capitalism; this advances the dialogue because it recommends a means toward sustainable development. 

But much is lost in leaping from the adjective “sustainable” to the noun “sustainability.” The latter neither states the challenge to be addressed with practical clarity nor proposes any means toward it. In fact, combine “sustainability” with “climate change” or “global warming,” and we enter the realm of sappy kitsch and futile meetings among international bureaucrats. Actionability is largely lost.

Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) mandating a certain amount of renewable energy in the overall generation mix, in given timeframes, is an interim step. When centrally generated, say from concentrated solar, RPS does not dislodge the existing paradigm — it shores up the present grid topology.

Only distributed generation, starting with rooftop solar and progressing to microgrids, dislodges the present paradigm. What is needed is full-blown competition for electricity, with numerous service providers to choose from and a variety of solutions. Technologies allow this; a new generation of entrepreneurs has to define new business models.

Utility and oil industry executives are likely delighted at all the noise from sustainability, efficiency, and climate change. It means little will change while everyone feels virtuous. The focus overwhelmingly should instead be on clean, distributed power generation, and progressively diminishing amounts of traditional, grid-delivered, coal-generated electricity.

Restructuring Electricity Business 

From a business perspective, this means industry structure has to change. The entire edifice of centralized generation with gigantic transmission and distribution, and the regulated monopoly structure, is obsolete. How do we go from today to the future?

In the case of telecom, it began with improbable entrepreneurs betting against impossible odds. William McGowan, a founder of MCI, had a prominent role in breaking up the AT&T monopoly. This quote from Entrepreneur describes it succinctly: "To implement its long-distance service, MCI's networks needed to be connected to local telephone networks, which were owned by subsidiaries of AT&T. When AT&T refused to allow any interconnections except at exorbitant prices, MCI filed a lawsuit against the company in 1974, charging that it was violating antitrust laws by restricting access to its local telephone network [emphasis added]."

Microgrid operators likely have similar rights to the local electricity networks, through colocation at the sub-station. When and who will claim them?

Further, during the trial, MCI had presented numerous AT&T documents that revealed a long-standing policy to destroy any long-distance competition. This prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to file its own lawsuit against AT&T. To avoid a trial, AT&T negotiated a settlement in 1984, agreeing to divest its local "Baby Bell" companies and give up control of the local telephone networks [emphasis added].” And thus began competition in the telephone industry.

The history of electricity is no less dramatic, except for the present interregnum of about 50 some years. This relative calm in the electricity business parallels what happened in telecommunications, which was also once regarded as utilities, though few now would. With solar developments, such as distributed generation, electric utilities are at an inflection point, ripe for a new generation of McGowans.

In charting a new industry trajectory, all talk of sustainability, and dare one say it, climate change, is a distraction. Not because it is unimportant but because the lesson has been learned — the climate change message has been absorbed. The focus now ought to be on the core of sustainability, which is energy in general, and first, electricity.

Lead image: Power plant via Shutterstock

Untitled Document

RELATED ARTICLES

Stolen Solar Panels and Sabotage A Challenge for Powering India With Renewable Energy

Anindya Upadhyay, Bloomberg Disappointment spread across Tarun Singh’s face when he saw that parts of his solar power microgrid in eastern India’...

States Already Seek To Delay Clean Power Plan

Andrew Harris, Bloomberg Fifteen states led by coal-rich West Virginia asked a federal court to stall Obama administration rules intended to c...

Suntech Parent Company Buys Majority Share of US-based Suniva

Ehren Goossens Shunfeng International Clean Energy Ltd., the Hong Kong-based solar company controlled by billionaire Zheng Jianming,...

Sunrise in Pakistan as the Country Delves into Solar PV

Robert Harker Pakistan has joined the list of countries that are exploring solar power as a means to bridge critical energy generat...

PRESS RELEASES

Array Technologies’ DuraTrack HZ v3 Continues to (R)evolutionize at SPI

Array Technologies, Inc. (ATI) prepares to showcase its recently launched tracking syst...

Appalachian's Energy Center assists counties with landfill gas to energy projects

The Appalachian Energy Center at Appalachian State University recently completed a proj...

Early Bird Registration Deadline for GRC Annual Meeting is This Week

The deadline for early-bird rates for registration for the biggest annual geothermal ev...

Redesigned HydroWorld.com Video Gallery

Hydropower news and information, and interesting promotional announcements are now avai...

FEATURED BLOGS

Transitioning to Net-Zero Living

Judith and Jeffrey adore living in Belfast, Maine – a quaint harbor town of Belfast, Maine. They previously res...

The True Cost of Electric Vehicles in Australia

In order to avoid increased congestion, further greenhouse warming and lessen Australia’s reliance on imported ...

The Coming Multi-trillion Dollar Energy Investment Drive

In coming years, a multi-trillion dollar low-emission energy investment drive will get underway. Three catalysts wil...

The Perfect Elevator Pitch

The elevator pitch is a concise statement that grabs attention and communicates value, ideally leading to a next step...

FINANCIAL NEWS

Mahesh Bhave is a Visiting Professor of Strategy at Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, India since Fall 2010. His home is San Diego. He has worked in product management, strategy, and business development positions at Hughes, Sprint, and C...

CURRENT MAGAZINE ISSUE

Volume 18, Issue 4
1507REW_C11

STAY CONNECTED

To register for our free
e-Newsletters, subscribe today:

SOCIAL ACTIVITY

Tweet the Editors! @jennrunyon

FEATURED PARTNERS



EVENTS

Doing Business in South Africa – in partnership with GWEC, the Glob...

Wind Energy in South Africa has been expanding dramatically, growing fro...

Intersolar North America 2016

Exhibition: July 12 - 14, 2016; Conference: July 11 - 13, 2016 Intersola...

Intersolar South America 2015

Exhibition and Conference: September 1-3, 2015 Intersolar South America ...

COMPANY BLOGS

The Proof Is Not Always In The Pudding

One of the best ways to turn a skeptical prospect into a buyer is to giv...

Pushing Beyond The Cushion

Efficiency projects are all too often viewed as “optional” o...

Less Is More

When you’re giving a presentation, one of the easiest things to do...

NEWSLETTERS

Renewable Energy: Subscribe Now

Solar Energy: Subscribe Now

Wind Energy: Subscribe Now

Geothermal Energy: Subscribe Now

Bioenergy: Subscribe Now  

 

FEATURED PARTNERS