Pathfinders – Capitalism unplugged
Last month Norway announced a huge ocean-floor mining project, doubtless the first of many such endeavours and probably not a huge surprise to Standard readers (Pathfinders, February 2023) or anyone following the halting progress of the green energy transition (GET). Capitalism is not about meeting real needs but about making profits, so when it comes to personal mobility, free mass public transport is not on the table. Instead, the market has fixated on electric vehicle (EV) production, and the bigger the EV the bigger the profit, with what’s been called the ‘EV obesity epidemic’ largely cancelling out the environmental gains of having an EV in the first place. And big cars need big batteries – the battery in a GMC Hummer EV weighs the same as a Honda Civic. Meanwhile, since the cheapest battery materials are in China, by which no manufacturer wants to be held hostage, or Congo with its child-labour practices, it makes good economic sense to dredge up the ocean floor and devastate an unknown virgin ecosystem instead.
The difficulties of obtaining lithium are well known, however there are many competing designs of EV battery which don’t necessarily rely on sensitive and volatile liquid lithium, or on nickel or cobalt. But there are pros and cons with each. Solid-state batteries won’t explode, but production is hard to scale up. Sodium-metal is readily available, but heavy, and subject to electrode corrosion. Hydrogel operates at -20C and is robust enough to be run over by a car, but offers lower performance. Even quantum batteries are being proposed, though theoretical for now. How all this pans out will be instructive. In socialism it would be a matter of picking the overall best. In capitalism it’s the market that will decide, based on a variety of fluctuating economic and political factors that often have little to do with the technology. ‘The GET doesn’t just depend on the right tech, or metal availability, but is also about supply chains, government incentives and business plans – these will determine the market for which batteries can be implemented at scale’ (Economist, 25 October). Currently China is poised to sweep the world with cheap EVs, but major regional markets may respond with tariff-barrier protectionism, as the US is already doing.
In any case there’s a bigger problem. Where is all the clean electricity to come from? There is a paradox here in that decarbonising transport means decarbonising electricity, but rapidly increasing electricity demand will make that decarbonisation more difficult. In countries like Norway, where hydropower is a major part of the energy mix, the break-even point for EVs over combustion vehicles is around 8,400 miles, whereas in coal-dependent Poland and China, it’s around 78,000 miles. Even when the electricity is supposed to be green it sometimes isn’t. The Drax power station in Yorkshire supplies 12 percent of the UK’s supposedly clean energy by chopping down and burning trees.
Globally, electricity generation will have to triple or quadruple if COP28 fossil phase-out pledges are to be honoured. Thus far, the capitalist world is not coping very well. New renewable power stations are not keeping pace with the retirement of old fossil plants. Already the regulatory body overseeing the North American power grid is predicting power outages in most regions of the US and Canada, starting as early as this year. If the world’s richest country is coming unplugged, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.
As an aside, one thing driving the recent and unsustainable surge in electricity demand – and this will infuriate socialists if nobody else – is Bitcoin mining, which requires vast amounts of electricity to generate useless virtual currency for greedy investors to speculate over. Bitcoin mining also sends 30,000 tonnes of used hardware to landfill every year, and wastes precious water too, for cooling the server farms, with just one Bitcoin transaction using a swimming pool’s worth.
Apart from such capitalist silliness, there is a massive grid bottleneck, where extra renewable sources can’t come on line because the current grids aren’t designed to support them (December Pathfinders). Existing transformers get hot and need to cool at night, but overnight EV charging, domestic electric heating or A/C on hot nights mean they won’t get the chance, so they will blow, causing outages. Heavier transformers are needed but the poles aren’t designed to carry them, and power lines also need upgrading to allow EVs to feed back into the grid. To meet 2050 climate targets, the US would need a million miles of new lines, but only installed 18,000 miles in the decade 2010-2020, meaning they would have to increase installation rates by a factor of 20. Overall, upgrading all this is estimated to cost tens of billions for the US, and globally around $20 trillion (tinyurl.com/4kbn8s5d). And that’s without considering the slow roll-out of charging infrastructure by governments under intense pressure from other priorities, like health provision, domestic subsidies or arms for Ukraine. And then there’s the fact that many roads, multi-storey car parks and bridges aren’t designed for much heavier EVs.
The word ‘omnishambles’ comes to mind, but for capitalism that’s really just normal business practice. A cooperative socialist society of democratic common ownership would still have to undertake a green energy transition, but it would only have to deal with the technical problems. With no markets, no trade and no money, it wouldn’t have to put up with the GET staggering, pausing or going into reverse every time the oil price went up or down, some country started a war, or looming elections motivated careerist politicians to pander to their pet NIMBY supporters. And with no salaried employment, the highways wouldn’t be crammed with miserable wage slaves forced to commute every day in order to pay for food, housing, and the electric vehicle they’ve had to buy just to get to work. Once we get rid of the obsolete market system, things will become so much simpler.