The Meaning of Green Energy

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.[1] 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,[2] 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?[3] 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?[4]

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.

[4] 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

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Challenges Ahead: Brown’s 12,000 MW Local Renewables Target

Jerry Brown led off his conference of 250 high level renewable energy stakeholders July 25-26, 2011 by calling for a “more secure, more sustainable, more American” energy system. The conference was organized to help chart the path to 12,000 MW of local renewable power by 2020, as called for by the Governor.

Key to achieving the 12,000 megawatts will be overcoming significant obstacles, among them being bureaucratic approval and permitting barriers, grid integration and interconnect difficulties, and finding appropriate amounts of investment capital. And, of course, building political consensus.

The conference started off with a bang as the governor, referring to some of these obstacles, blatantly asserted that “some kind of opposition you have to crush.”

With that auspicious beginning, and after the Governor and press cameras had departed, two intensive days of deliberation began. The by-invitation-only participants consisted of about 50% renewable industry representatives and consultants, 25% government personnel (the governor’s staff, energy agency commissioners and staff, a few legislators, and county and regional agency representatives), and the remainder representing  investor-owned and municipal utilities, a few unions, financial institutions, environmentalists, and a smattering of decentralized/distributed generation advocates.

There seemed to be a great deal of consensus at the conference about the need to streamline renewable energy project approvals across the plethora of government agencies that are often involved, and also about the need for utilities to be more forthcoming about technical data required by project developers. There was much less consensus, however, about what kind of projects would be developed, where, and by whom.

In fact, the main contention at the conference was between those who emphasized least cost of energy as the main criteria for decentralized generation projects and those who stressed other values, such as local economic development, jobs, equity, community health, and the like. The conflict was framed in many ways, but emerged most directly between those parties who advocated for large projects (5 – 20 MW) through a renewable auction mechanism (RAM and those who advocated for community-scale projects (0 -5 MW) promoted through a feed-in tariff mechanism.

Not surprisingly, the utilities and big developers like Recurrent Energy were pushing the least-cost criteria, calling for the 12,000 MW to be developed as larger 10 -20 MW ground-mounted solar PV projects close to transmission substations and selected through a RAM program. Surprisingly, they were joined by The Utility Reform Network (TURN), which argued that this approach would result in the least cost of energy and hence best protection of ratepayers.

The other side included the Los Angeles Business Council, the California Environmental Justice Alliance, the Clean Coalition, the Local Clean Energy Alliance, Solar Done Right, and other long-time decentralized generation advocates who called for the 12,000 MW to be developed as smaller-scale projects in urbanized areas where economic recovery, jobs, equity, and health are key goals. These parties argued for a comprehensive feed-in tariff program that would promote this type of local renewable development. They also argued against the prevailing assumption that larger scale projects are less expensive, pointing not only to rapidly declining prices for solar PV installations, but to a fuller set of socio-economic costs and benefits, which the big players conveniently ignored.

Amidst the palpable jubilation of the renewable energy industry over Brown’s commitment to local renewable energy, the Governor’s conference revealed emerging battle lines over how the 12,000 MW target will be deployed. Will California’s “local” renewable energy projects primarily represent the interests of the big industry players or the interests of local communities?

This is a question for which the stakes are high; whether California will go down the old road (simply calling it something new) or whether it will take a qualitatively different approach. If the representation of invitees at this conference is indicative of the Governor’s leanings, there is reason for concern, if not alarm. Despite Brown’s campaign platform of more democracy and more local control, there was very little community present at this conference.

A political battle over who will benefit from decentralized/distributed generation of renewable energy is shaping up. This is a battle for which our communities will need to mobilize if we are not to be first marginalized and then regarded as an opposition to be crushed.

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