Thoughts on energy (3 of 3): The political impacts of renewables or nuclear
again: on “Business as Usual”, of course.
Renewables reshuffle POLITICAL power
On one side (ignoring for a moment all the issues listed in part 1) the progress of renewables enhances the global leadership of China, which has invested heavily in those technologies.
But regardless of China’s role in it, the real transformation intrinsical in renewables is the reduction of political influence of fossil fuel exporters and their allies. In case you did not notice, that last sentence is an alias for “turning the whole world upside down”. First of all, globally: think how different would be today’s world politics if most of the planet’s energy reserves for a whole century had not been concentrated in the tiny Middle East region. Not every nation has oil, gas or coal inside its borders, but almost every nation has at least some wind, solar, geothermal or biomass it can call its own. Renewables can mitigate some of the root causes of geopolitical instability and conflict.
But of course, the same applies at the local level. “Renewable energy” means that the energy every single household needs to not freeze, or to preserve and cook food comes, more or less literally, straight from above, as directly as possible. It does not come from some remote government-owned or government-friendly corporation that is practically impossible to control, or even to talk to. Distributed energy generation is one less reason for social conflict, in the long run.
It’s not “what energy source”, it’s “who”
So, renewables can “mitigate some of the root causes of geopolitical instability and conflict”, both globally and locally. But the same can and should do nuclear power. If that is the goal of the people managing the energy transformation, of course. What energy source we use is never less important of questions like:
- where are the (nuclear, solar, thermal, eolic, whatever) power plants? That is, how far from their users?
- Who owns and controls them? For whom?
Your friendly neighborhood nuclear plant
Have you ever realized that, if there were nuclear power generators cheap and small enough (a few cabinets?) to feed just one neighborhood, or big apartment building, nuclear power may have the same beneficial political effects of renewables? Imagine a world where every single mountain valley, or city building, is master of its own nuclear generator. A nuclear generator small enough that the single, surrounding community it serves gets exclusive, full benefits and responsibility for it (and its waste). A nuclear generator small enough that, if it ever blows up, it only affects THAT single, small community and area (and I understand that today’s new designs may be orders of magnitured safer than, say, the Fukushima ones).
Important: I do not know if such micro-nuclear plants are feasible soon, or soon enough. I am writing this also to solicit feedback on the topic. Because I am finding myself thinking that, at the point we are now, my main remaining issue with nuclear may be if it is so big that it can exist only at state, or even macro-region level. Maybe the problem of nuclear plants is that there are not enough small enough nuclear plants to distribute and minimize both environmental and political risks. One last thing:
It’s not just “who”. It also is “how much”
Here is another thing to never forget, as obvious as it is: even if we could go 100% renewables (or nuclear), we may just end up with the same conflicts and power dynamics of yesteryear, just fighting over other raw resources, in other parts of the planets. Why? Because “We Don’t Mine Enough Rare Earth Metals to Replace Fossil Fuels With Renewable Energy”. Not at affordable prices and political costs, at least. Or if the goal is “business as usual” in the last 60⁄70 years. Nuclear carries the same risk, I guess.
But this simply means that, in order to be free, healthy and fair to all its citizens, any community has to reduce as much as possible its energy needs and waste before starting to swap fossil fuels with anything else. Please note I said “as much as possible” to be free, healthy and fair, not “let’s go back to the caves”. That just means getting rid of “distortions” like these:
- Bitcoin and lots of other stuff like it which are First (no: “Rich”) World systems for energy misuse, and not even a good fit for renewables: “in most jurisdictions Bitcoin mining most likely promotes increased and continuing use of coal”
- the (unsurprising) lack of equal opportunities of adoption of renewables: in the USA, for example, African American- and Hispanic-majority communities are installing less solar
The main, long term impact of renewables or nuclear is the one that would be valuable even if environmental problems did not exist: they change the structure and placement of political power. And the least energy you need, from whatever source, the greater your freedom is.
World peace and real human and social progress are not a matter of smart cities, cars, homes… They are a matter of political independence on energy, and of its fair, smart rationing. Yes, this is the same conclusion one would arrive even if all she had in mind were global warming and climate change. But it is not my fault.
Image source: maps of active nuclear power plants worldwide