How Not To Do Renewable Energy: A Case for Systemic Change

I am in favor of using renewable energy as one way to replace fossil fuels as a  power source. I don’t write about that on this blog as much as I used to, because I came to realize that simply writing about solutions is insufficient. Between nuclear energy, renewable energy, and an abundance of ways to decrease energy consumption, we’ve had the tools to solve the climate crisis for decades. The problem is not a lack of solutions, or even a lack of popular desire for change. The problem is that the US government serves neither the will, nor the interests of the people.  It serves the interests of capitalists – those who own for a living, rather than selling their labor. That makes sense, right? In a capitalist society, the government serves capitalists. There are exceptions to that, of course, but the vast majority of those rights and guarantees came as grudging concessions in the face of mass uprisings and disaster. Further, once rights are won, like a fair wage or the right to abortion (one of the times we arguably gained rights without a mass movement), they are under constant attack, and can be lost again.

I’ve talked before about how climate change is not the only environmental crisis facing us, though it’s unquestionably the biggest. Chemical pollution, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss are also taking an increasing toll on the ecosystems that make our world habitable, and all of those problems are amplified by the rising temperature. It’s possible that, as climate chaos causes crop failures and escalating disasters, we’ll see the capitalists looking to cash in on the energy transition win out over fossil fuels and the would-be post-apocalyptic warlords. What that would not do is stop the chemical pollution and habitat destruction, or end the brutal exploitation and disregard for human life that still fuels the engines of capitalism. This was on my mind today, because I was recently reminded of a good example of why I don’t think we can leave it all to the current system.

One of the big problems with solar energy is at it requires a lot of surface area, and there’s not really any way to get around that. In my opinion, the way we ought to be rolling out photovoltaic power is by putting solar panels on roofs, and over things like parking lots, wherever we can. There is a lot of existing surface area that’s exposed to the sun, and that could be used to generate electricity or heat water, without claiming more land. Without doing something like destroying a delicate desert ecosystem to put up a solar farm. From May of last year:

Over the last few years, this swathe of desert has been steadily carpeted with one of the world’s largest concentrations of solar power plants, forming a sprawling photovoltaic sea. On the ground, the scale is almost incomprehensible. The Riverside East Solar Energy Zone – the ground zero of California’s solar energy boom – stretches for 150,000 acres, making it 10 times the size of Manhattan.


“When people look across the desert, they just see scrubby little plants that look dead half the time,” says Robin Kobaly, a botanist who worked at the BLM for over 20 years as a wildlife biologist before founding the Summertree Institute, an environmental education non-profit. “But they are missing 90% of the story – which is underground.”

Her book, The Desert Underground, features illustrated cross-sections that reveal the hidden universe of roots extended up to 150ft below the surface, supported by branching networks of fungal mycelium. “This is how we need to look at the desert,” she says, turning a diagram from her book upside-down. “It’s an underground forest – just as majestic and important as a giant redwood forest, but we can’t see it.”

The reason this root network is so valuable, she argues, because it operates as an enormous “carbon sink” where plants breathe in carbon dioxide at the surface and out underground, forming layers of sedimentary rock known as caliche. “If left undisturbed, the carbon can remain stored for thousands of years,’” she says.

Desert plants are some of the oldest carbon-capturers around: Mojave yuccas can be up to 2,500 years old, while the humble creosote bush can live for over 10,000 years. These plants also sequester carbon in the form of glomalin, a protein secreted around the fungal threads connected to the plants’ roots, thought to store a third of the world’s soil carbon. “By digging these plants up,” says Kobaly, “we are removing the most efficient carbon sequestration units on the planet – and releasing millennia of stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the solar panels we are replacing them with have a lifespan of around 25 years.”

See, when a corporation sets up solar panels, under our current system, they’re not doing so for the benefit of the environment. They’re doing it for money, because that’s how things work in this system. That means that they have the exact same incentives as every other corporation that destroys habitat in the name of profits and “progress”. I want more solar energy, but if we’re doing it like this, because it’s more profitable than tackling the more complex process of using existing spaces like rooftops and parking lots, then we’re better off spending that money on nuclear power.

How the transition is done will make a big difference when it comes to the resilience of the planet’s ecosystems, and capitalism does not value things like biodiversity, despite all the effort that’s gone into framing its value in dollars. We can see this in the destruction discussed above, or with the ill-considered placement of wind turbines leading to landslides in Scotland and Northern Ireland. And so, “climate action” must encompass systemic change. The political and economic structures that govern our lives must be replaced, or we will be forever stuck dealing with half-measures and habitat destruction, on top of the burdens imposed by our unstable climate.

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