We hear about green energy all the time: 50% green, 100% green, light green, deep green, and so forth. But what exactly does green energy really mean?
Let’s step back for a second. We know that energy—fossil-fuel energy in particular—has been one of the main enablers of capital accumulation in recent times. It has provided the physical basis for the huge industrialization and more recent globalization upon which the 1% have built their political and economic empire: cheap fossil fuels for modern industry, electric power, international goods transport, and military hegemony. That’s very green, indeed, if we think about green as the color of the huge wealth amassed by a fraction of the world’s population, a wealth based on the exponential growth in energy use over the last 150 years.
Until recently, we characterized energy only by the measurable number of BTU’s, or joules, or kWhrs of work (choose your unit of measurement) that the energy could deliver. But with the advent of the global climate crisis and the recognition that greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuels are threatening future generations (if not our own), we started to also characterize energy by its carbon intensity: how much carbon dioxide emissions are associated with the extraction of work from an energy source. Accordingly, fossil fuels are very carbon intensive and most renewable energy is much less so.
In fact, the carbon intensity of energy has even been commodified—per the great ingenuity of our economic system—so that the carbon content of energy can be bought and sold separately from the energy itself. The commodification of carbon intensity is captured in carbon allowances and renewable energy credits (RECs) and their corresponding markets. For example, you can actually make fossil-fuel based energy generation and consumption benign by simply buying the carbon allowances or RECs of someone else’s renewable energy. This is Wall Street’s scheme for saving the planet.
But why stop with the carbon-intensity attribute of energy? Aren’t there other characteristics of energy that are equally, if not more important? What about attributes that capture the social, economic, and environmental relationships embodied in energy?
Take for example, the World Bank’s financing in South Africa—just after the Copenhagen climate summit—of the 4th largest coal-fired power plant in the world. This plant is to provide cheap electricity for South Africa’s foreign-owned mineral extraction industry, with low-cost electricity made possible by a 127% increases in electricity rates for poor South Africans. The country’s coal and minerals and ecosystem are being used to expatriate profits to foreign bankers and industrialists. So the electricity generated by this coal-fired power plant can be characterized as a hostile, destructive energy. It is used to exploit the resources, people, and environment of South Africa to further the power and wealth of international capital at the expense of the South African people.
Or take for another example, the Black Mesa (Arizona) Solar Initiative, an effort of Native Americans to create a community-owned solar energy cooperative to harness their local renewable energy potential by developing 20 – 200 MW solar PV and wind facilities on abandoned mine land. This development could provide electricity to people whose land has been ruined (through coal mining and coal-fired power plants) to generate power that the Navajo and Hopi themselves cannot tap as it courses though transmission lines destined for Los Angeles. The local renewable energy development on Black Mesa can be characterized as a positive, liberating energy. It would be used to address rampant unemployment and poverty, and to strengthen the economic and social fabric of these tribes in their historic battle for cultural and economic survival.
Two very different kinds of energy: one oppressive, the other liberatory.
In other words, there are attributes of energy that express what we call the political economy of energy: who develops it, who owns it, for what purpose, and to whose benefit.
So when we say green energy, what does that really mean? Does it mean renewable energy from remote industrial-scale solar farms: energy that destroys the desert ecosystem and fleeces urban communities to pay lucrative dividends to investor-owned utility stockholders? Does it mean renewable Community Choice energy purchased from Shell Energy North America—a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, arguably one of the most climate-hostile fossil-fuel corporations in the world?
Obviously, saying that energy is green does not tell us a whole lot about the political economy of that energy—not enough to make that energy desirable and certainly not enough to know if it contributes to a sustainable energy future.
An earlier version of this post was first published in Solar Times, 1st Quarter 2012, page 5.
 Shell is renowned for the carbon intensity of its products, its efforts to undermine international and national climate accords, and, more recently, for its pre-emptive strike against environmental organizations. See http://www.foeeurope.org/corporates/Extractives/shellbigdirtysecret_June09.pdf