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Re-evaluating solar, hydro and wind power as the climate solution

Think local and appropriate

Current analyses assume that renewable energy technologies like electric vehicles, wind power and solar power are the answer to limited oil reserves. Those assumptions should be re-examined before we commit more resources to their development.

For instance, we know fossil fuels, combustion engines, and environmental toxins created by industrial pollution are the greatest perpetrators of climate change. Therefore, increasing reliance on renewable energies, converting combustion engines to electric, and reversing pollution through stricter regulations are an obvious solution to climate change and disaster resilience, right?

Not necessarily.

Re-evaluating solar, hydro-electric and wind power

A prevailing belief is that modern life is dependent on securing a large and constant source of energy that is distributed over a vast energy infrastructure grid. When the source of that power is intermittent, like wind and solar, the power grid requires a method of generating, storing, and distributing energy for nighttime, cloud cover, and windless days.

Weather patterns routinely interrupt both solar and wind power generation, making them unreliable for large-scale implementation. Solar power tends to take up large amounts of space, which is great for deserts, but not so great elsewhere.

Roughly 66% of Washington State’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power. Dams are a stable source of energy, but their environmental costs are high. The proposed removal of the Snake River dams may help salmon but could cripple energy production.

Other potential solutions, like improved battery and capacitor technology, are as yet unable to provide the long-term stable power storage capacity needed to keep large power grids stable for 24/7 energy consumption. Because it is unclear when these technological innovations will emerge, it is unwise to create energy policy around them. Other emerging technologies, smaller in scale, are a better way to increase energy autonomy. Geothermal plants that use water and heat seem to offer a solution yet are strangely omitted from most conversations about renewable energy

Are electric vehicles reliable and efficient?

Another widely held assumption is that electric vehicles are the only solution to combustion engines, but their mass implementation has several drawbacks. The primary issue is that if the energy grid is weakened or offline people can’t charge their vehicle.

Another drawback is simply the cost to convert our current gasoline-centric system. Converting to an electrical vehicle infrastructure would already be quite expensive, before factoring in the need for the government to subsidize the exchange of combustion vehicles for electric alternatives. Despite what Jen Psaki and Pete Buttigieg claim, most people simply cannot afford to purchase electric vehicles without massive government subsidies.

Electric cars are also susceptible to being hacked. Modern electric vehicles, many hybrids, and even common combustible vehicles have proven vulnerabilities that can be exploited to stop or even remotely drive those vehicles. This represents a major security risk should rogue states or others decide they want to halt the economy.

The click of a button or a software vulnerability or other glitch could halt all traffic. This scenario is not science fiction—hackers at DefCon, an annual hacking conference, regularly hold competitions to see if they can remotely hack into electric vehicles and control them.

In any case, the multi-year failure of the global climate accords and regulatory capture by the energy industry and their lobbyists continues to stall progress on all fronts. Enforcement of existing laws and fines for breaking them are routinely evaded or minimized by multinational corporations.

Determining appropriate energy production methods

While energy analysts and policy makers work for change nationally, others are working to create sustainable systems at local and even personal levels. The guidelines for generating clean, sustainable energy always begin with: is this technology appropriate to the context?

Microgrids, microhydro, water wheels, rocket mass heaters, rocket stoves, geothermal, microsolar, microwind, windmills, biodiesel, regenerative agriculture, victory gardens, aquaculture, hydroponics, natural building, and permaculture are all examples of appropriate technology.

Energy independence is a worthy goal for nations, and it may prove futile to try to shift focus away from wind, hydroelectric, and solar power. Alternatively, individuals and groups can strive for energy autonomy on a local scale.  Can you produce energy without reliance on “the grid?”

Do you have a long-term plan if the electricity is out for months or becomes intermittent due to rolling blackouts? If you rent or live in an urban setting, can you help build a living economy with interdependent food and energy sharing? What are your contingency plans for transportation should oil and gas become unobtainable?

Working cooperatively to achieve climate change resilience

Alongside off-grid technologies and local food sovereignty, biodiesel-electric hybrid cooperatives may offer an alternative to current oil and gas dependence. Without our modern electricity grids, fossil-fuel reliant transportation and food distribution systems, most grocery stores would run out of food within three days.

By increasing bioregional food sovereignty and energy independence through off-grid technologies and small-scale regenerative agriculture we can decrease reliance on foreign energy imports and reduce the impact climate change and geopolitics have on our daily lives.

Alternative fuels like biodiesel were ruled out years ago because growing biofuel is considered environmentally disruptive due to the unimaginative monocropping practices of industrialized agriculture. Reimagining our fuel systems as biodiesel cooperatives, like the Baltimore Biodiesel Cooperative (BBC), can enable people to localize production and distribution, which can then power fleets of converted vehicles

BBC is a non-profit organization in Maryland dedicated to the promotion and sale of environmentally sustainable biodiesel fuel. Bioregional biodiesel fuel cooperatives could rapidly reduce local dependence on gasoline and replace it with a renewable fuel that is appropriate to our existing infrastructures. Combined with reforestation efforts, decentralized biofuel production cooperatives could alleviate dependence on foreign oil.

Addressing the housing crisis that helped create the energy crisis

We shouldn’t rely on fossil fuels burned hundreds of miles away to heat our homes when microhydro, microsolar, good insulation and rocket mass heaters are able to be integrated into initial designs for affordable housing.

As the conversation around the lack of affordable housing continues, local activists can integrate “appropriate technology” into their advocacy or choose to start a biodiesel cooperative. Such an approach would enable Olympia to address rising fuel costs over the long term.

The building and transportation industries have much to learn from the art of appropriate technology and innovation is desperately needed. At the root of the current energy crisis is the housing and city design crisis. The growing number of unhoused people in Olympia and beyond urgently points to providing more affordable housing that integrates the permaculture principles listed here.

This was written as a paper for the Winter 2022 Program “Art, Culture, and Social Entrepreneurship on the Silk Roads,” at The Evergreen State College by @GuerrillaThink, a distributed identity composed of eleven individuals who identify as Greeners, changemakers, and coop-operatives.


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