This article was originally published in The World Socialist, Winter 1986/7 edition. Updated: October 1996
In any consideration of existing social problems, the question of energy supply is of prime importance. It is self-evident that the task of providing decent conditions of life for the whole human population must include providing an adequate supply of energy. To solve the world’s housing problem, including provision for heating, cooking and lighting, to expand world transport services, to increase world food production, to provide a sufficient supply of durable goods for all people, plus the expansion of the means of production which these would require, will arguably involve a greatly increased supply of world energy.
But the problem is not simply one of supplying energy, using any means available in an indiscriminate manner. The production of energy has considerable impact upon the environment, so it is important that the methods used should take this factor into account. Why, for example, has capitalism been so slow to take up the opportunity to develop renewable energy sources, as opposed to the burning of fossil fuels and nuclear power?
Capitalism has not provided us with an integrated world strategy of productive development , which is aimed directly at the satisfaction of human needs and can be socially controlled so as to avoid any destructive effects on the environment. The result of this was highlighted in a recent London Guardian editorial:
We live in a solar-powered world, yet nearly two and a half billion people – most of them living in very hot climates – are desperately short of energy with which to improve their existence. There are two energy crises; the one we know about, in which 21 per cent of the world’s population guzzles 70 per cent of the world’s commercial energy output, mostly in the form of pollutant causing stored sunlight – fossil fuels. The other energy crisis is barely perceived and the proceedings of the UN World Solar Summit which has been grappling with it for the last two days have been barely reported. It is the crisis in which 40 per cent of the world’s population still lives at a basic subsistence level without any form of electricity.(1)
From a practical point of view, society has available a wide range of technical options and there are large reserves of skill, labour and materials, yet at the same time we suffer from a chronic inability to take these up in a free and consciously regulated manner. It is not only that under world capitalism there are economic barriers to producing enough energy for needs. What does become available on the energy markets is produced by methods which in themselves generate further social problems. The present structure of world energy supply involves an unnecessary waste of useful resources; it is destructive of the environment; it produces severe secondary problems and it is fraught with dangers. For more information, see (Global Warming).
This is the position that we are in now and world capitalism provides no foreseeable means for getting out of it. What has been the background to the problems associated with energy supply, which at the present time are worsening? The existing structure of energy supply and the particular production framework of economic forces and a military development which has resulted from them. It is simply impossible to freely deploy the technical options which now exist in response to human needs within this existing economic and military framework.
So constraining have been these economic forces that, until recently in the more industrialised countries, the most used energy source was still coal, the source on which the industrial revolution was based over two hundred years ago. Most electricity is generated today by huge steam-driven turbines. In 1990, coal was burnt to produce this steam in 32% of world energy production. Oil was used most (36%) followed by natural gas (19%) – and nuclear fission (4%).
Burning fossil fuels, including coal and oil, besides preventing them from being used as raw materials for the manufacture of their various derivatives, contributes to atmospheric pollution. The relatively primitive method of burning non-renewable fossil fuels remains the cheapest energy source available to capitalist production Despite the wide range of technical possibilities which now exist, it is still the case that hundreds of millions of people throughout the world either gather or buy firewood as their main energy source.
Hydro-electric power is generated and since the end of World War II there has been the development of nuclear power. The latter was never selected as a desirable energy source in its own right but arose on the basis of arms development. It is still a marginal energy source. The use of solar-based techniques is even more marginal.
Nuclear Power – The Military Option
Yet, over fifty years ago, in the 1930’s, two simultaneous developments occurred which involved wide potentialities for the future of energy supply. One was the theoretical work on the splitting of the atom and the other was the discovery of the photo-voltaic mechanism which enabled sunlight to be converted into electricity.
From a purely technical point of view, research and development could have gone in the direction either of nuclear power or solar cells. Notwithstanding the merits, technical or otherwise, of either option, the reasons why solar technology was pushed into a backwater of research and development were both economic and military. It was the implications for arms development which gave impetus to the nuclear programme.
It was the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb. This crash military project which in a perverse way indicates how quickly society can move when it becomes committed, involved tens of thousands of workers, including the cream of scientific talent in the field of applied physics. By 1945 it had cost 2 billion dollars. The enormity of this effort can be understood in the context that, in 1944 in America, the value of the Gross National Product was 98 billion dollars.
After World War II this military application of nuclear technology did not diminish, so that between 1945 and 1956 the Atomic Energy Weapons Programme had cost 15 billion dollars. This included the development of the hydrogen bomb and resulted in a huge scientific and industrial establishment committed to the nuclear arms programme. At this time companies such as Westinghouse and General Electric were manufacturing nuclear reactors mainly for the US Navy.
These developments in America were paralleled in other countries for the same military reasons so that in Russia, Britain and later France the scientific/ technical/ industrial basis sometimes known as the military-industrial complex came into existence. It was with this background that President Eisenhower introduced his so-called Atoms for Peace campaign in the 1950s. Essentially, the nuclear energy programme resulted from an attempt to capitalise on the immense cash resources which had been poured into the military use of nuclear technology.
Threat To Vested Interests
But this was not the only reason why research and development into the practical application of the photo-voltaic mechanism was not taken up. Solar technology was subject to attack by the powerful utilities in America, whose industries were based on the use of fossil fuels. It is little known that in some places of climatic advantage, simple solar installations had been in use for some time. For example by 1897, of all the homes in Southern California 30 percent had solar water heaters.
By 1940 in Southern Florida, 80 percent of all new homes utilised solar water heaters. Once these installations, which were simply metal boilers under glass, were fixed in place, all they required was a cheap water supply plus the abundant southern sunshine over which no capitalist enterprise could hold a monopoly. These installations gave householders a degree of independence from the large capitalist utilities which were in the business of selling gas and also electricity generated from the burning of coal and oil.
The use of solar boilers for heating water was one thing but the possible practical application of the photo-voltaic cell for converting sunlight into electricity was a far more serious threat to the capitalist interests which were vested in the control and marketing of fossil fuels. Centralised power stations, generating electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear sources, enable capitalist enterprises or governments to maintain complete control of the energy source and the marketing of the products. With solar devices, once installed, the energy source is freely available. This is why particularly in America the public utilities launched an organised attack on research and development of solar energy, ranging from political lobbying to massive advertising campaigns.
In the face of the development of the nuclear arms programme and its spill-over into nuclear power and the pressure exerted by the heavily capitalised coal, oil and gas interests, the development of the highly adaptable and environmentally safe solar sources has been largely neglected. For example in the late 1970’s, when the British government was spending upwards of £230 million per year on nuclear energy research it was spending only £l.1 million per year on renewable, solar-based technologies.
During the seventies the Carter administration in the U.S.A. did express interest in solar techniques following a sharp increase in the price of oil and problems which nuclear power stations had encountered. This was set aside by the Reagan administration and funding for this kind of research was again reduced.
It is true that some research is being done by oil companies and other capitalist enterprises but this is inevitably suspect. The bias arising from their profit-based interest in the subject will at best direct this research into channels determined by their economic interest.
This interest was explicit in the following text from an advertisement:
The Arizona sun shines 296 days a year. APS solar engineers are working at the Sky Harbor Photo-VoItaic Solar Project to capture that remarkable energy source. We are proud to be the leaders in the development of solar energy.
22,000 solar cells in 80 arrays provides enough electricity for about 40 average sized homes. But Arizona has more than a million homes – plus factories – offices – plus farms – that need electricity.
Solar may supply a reasonable amount of electricity some time in the next century but it is simply not practical nor economical to meet Arizona’s electrical needs to-day. This is why we are using coal and nuclear for large scale use now to meet Arizona’s electrical needs.
Nuclear and coal now to meet Arizona’s electrical needs.(2)
Problems of Present Energy System
The factors which have determined the existing structure of the world’s energy system have been the economic factors of the profit system in association with the military strategies adopted by the world’s most powerful industrialised capitalist nations, including state capitalist Russia.
There is now widespread concern about the problems arising from this system. Inevitably, the continued increase in the number of nuclear power stations results in a steady build-up of radioactivity in the environment, with an ever greater problem of how to deal with high level radioactive waste. Accidents like Chernobyl with their horrendous results are part of the existing nuclear energy programme.
Sections of the scientific community and environmentalists are also extremely concerned over the effects of the continuous release of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal (Global Warming). Burning fossil fuels also contributes to the phenomenon known as acid rain with its effects like the destruction of forests in the northern hemisphere, the killing off of life in lakes and rivers, and general soil deterioration.
The task of cleaning up industry, particularly regarding the use of fossil fuels, is costly. This is why we have only seen some small, reluctant steps towards tackling the problem. At present, capitalism is even neglecting advanced fossil combustion technologies which can increase the efficiency by which electricity is generated from fossil fuels. Technologies such as fluidized bed combustion, gas turbines, coal gasification combined-cycle etc, cause 17-40% less greenhouse gas emissions. They have only been introduced by the OECD nations and not by other nations in the process of industrialisation, for example China, where coal use is set to grow rapidly.
Merits Of Renewable Energy Sources
Many scientists have emphasised the need to replace the use of fossil fuels with the use of renewable sources of energy, such as wind power, wave power and photo-voltaic devices. The need for global consensus as a basis for carrying this through is also stressed by these scientists, though they are pessimistic about achieving this.
The advantages of these renewable sources were summed up in a Ford Foundation Report as follows:-
Direct Solar Energy. Unlike all other forms of energy available to humans in large quantities, solar radiation is pure energy which is not associated with any material. As a result, some types of solar energy systems, once constructed, can maintain a constant inventory of facilities and materials, releasing nothing but useful and waste energy at the same rate as the absorbed solar radiation. For example, operating solar electric cells convert some of the incident solar radiation directly into electrical energy and eradiate, reflect or discharge the rest. The process produces no waste materials that must be accumulated or released to the environment . . . In contrast, use of fossil fuels or any type of nuclear energy requires the addition of mass (fuel) to an energy supply system and either the accumulation of increasing stockpiles of waste products (such as ashes, sulphur, carbon dioxide, or radioactive isotopes) within the system or their release to the environment.
The merits of solar-based technologies and the need for world co-operation in dealing with the problems of energy supply have also been stressed by Janet Ramage in her work Energy – A Guide Book. In her view, the challenge of solar techniques is one of utilising the energy which the sun delivers to the earth at a rate equal to nearly 20,000 times its primary energy consumption and that this challenge presents itself as a technique for collection and conversion. Postulating such a technical solution as a result of co-operation on a world scale she states:
How about a world-wide electric grid? It could use underground and ocean floor super conducting cables, and the power would come from solar farms in the world’s major deserts, Ocean Thermal Electric Conversion plants in tropical waters, and wave power stations and wind turbine arrays in remote regions. No atmospheric pollution, no radioactive wastes, no use of valuable agricultural land or precious water. There are probably no insuperable technical problems. There is just one question. How do we get there from here?
Urgent Need For World Co-Operation
This vital question is essentially about the reasons why the existing world capitalist system cannot take up the technical possibilities which now exist for the setting up of a safe and adequate world energy system. This question also takes us out of the sphere of applied science and technology and inevitably into the sphere of world economics and politics.
The urgent need for world co-operation in dealing with the problems of world energy supply cannot be realised within the social productive relations and the existing economic and military framework through which these operate. Continued world capitalist society means inevitably that the world will remain staked out as an armed camp and the divisions will remain those of competing national economic interests. The organisation of world society will remain subject to the national economic and military strategies which express prevailing national capitalist class interests. In the field of energy supply, as in every other field, such resources, skills and production methods which are taken up will be determined by the economic imperatives of the market system or consistent with the existing national economic or military strategies.
It is completely impossible under capitalism for humanity to use the earth’s resources for the benefit of all people, and it is equally impossible for it to deploy the accumulated knowledge, the skills and the techniques of production which now exist in a direct relationship with human needs on a basis of world-wide co-operation.
Yet there is in fact no barrier presented by any alleged inability of people to co-operate in their mutual interests. On the contrary, this ability to co-operate is universal. What is required is for this inherent ability to co-operate to be mobilised politically as a world movement acting independently of the existing economic, political and military power structures.
This movement already exists as the movement for world socialism. It is vital that those who see the need for world co-operation in dealing with the problems facing all of humanity should join its ranks to swell its voice of sanity and thereby contribute to the work of preparing practical programmes of action which could be implemented once the socialist political objective is achieved. This political objective is one of democratically gaining political control with a view to taking the means of production and the earth’s resources out of the hands of the world’s capitalist class and placing them at the free disposal of the whole world’s community.
Establishing A Safe World Energy System
How could world socialism set about the work of establishing a world energy system which would be adequate for the material needs of the world community but which could also work within the natural systems of the environment in a non-destructive way?
Two factors have to be accepted. First, the overall amount of energy supply required in socialism as part of its general strategy of productive development would be immense, arguably greater than the amount which capitalism currently produces.
There would of course be great savings and a more efficient use of available energy supplies compared with what happens today under capitalism. Studies carried out in the 1970s demonstrated that more than one-half of the daily energy consumption is wasted due to losses induced by technology and human negligence.
Socialism would have no difficulty in adopting the various techniques of conservation which are well known. Moreover, under capitalism, a vast amount of energy fuels the world’s military machines and its armaments production, and these amounts would become available for human needs. The anarchic pattern of capitalist trade involves more waste of energy, whereas socialism would be able to rationalise world distribution on a world, regional and local basis.
At the present time there are millions of employments which may be necessary for the market system but which would be unnecessary in a society organised solely for human needs (World Without Accountants). These employments are serviced partly by the energy industry, so this represents further amounts of energy which could become available for useful consumption.
But notwithstanding these savings, it can still be argued that the strategy of productive development which would be necessary in socialism to establish a structure of production adequate for needs would initially require a vastly increased energy supply, as for example with the need to solve the world’s housing problem, even if a stable level would eventually be reached.
Secondly, world socialism would have to begin with the structure of energy supply which it had taken over. It could not scrap this overnight and this means that some production methods which may be considered undesirable would have to be used for a time. We can envisage that world socialism would have to begin the work of adapting the existing system, phasing out its undesirable features whilst at the same time expanding the structure using methods which have been democratically agreed.
In this work socialism would be able to use the planet as a single resource held in common by all people. This means that socialism would be able to use the various geographical advantages which may exist in any location as part of an integrated world energy system.
Without anticipating any final decisions which would be made as to the particular technologies or combination of technologies which would be adapted and developed in socialism, it is worth noting that the various solar-based technologies which at present impress themselves on some sections of the scientific community as being desirable would be well suited to socialism.
Removal Of Economic Barriers
One point to emphasise is that, with regard to any technique which might be developed, socialism would not be bound by the economics of market competition to use methods which embodied the least amounts of labour in their production. Nor could arms development play any possible part in determining the technology which is taken up.
Though the solar-based technologies do not, at the present time, present themselves as the most labour efficient methods of energy production in relation to energy output, this would not be a barrier to their development in socialism, in the circumstances where they were deemed to be the most socially desirable methods.
Also, given the resources which socialism would be able to freely apply to the research and development of the solar-based technologies they do hold the promise of being suitable techniques for one important reason, which can be added to the fact that they are environmentally safe. It is self-evident that in its various forms such as wind and wave power and direct sunlight, solar energy is available to the planet in vast quantities as part of a self-perpetuating natural system which requires no material fuel. The problem of solar technologies is one of effective collection and conversion into usable forms of energy such as electricity.
What this could mean in practice is that once the social effort necessary for setting up the network of installations required for an integrated solar-based world energy system had been undertaken, this system would be available for permanent collection and conversion, requiring only routine maintenance. This looks forward in a very practical way to a position of society whereby the problem of energy supply could be solved on a permanent basis. It could operate with a durable system of world-wide installations requiring no added materials except for those necessary for routine maintenance.
Moreover, the solar-based technologies can be highly adaptable in the scale of their use. They can include what Janet Ramage has envisaged as a single world-wide grid supplied with electricity generated by large and permanent power stations in different world locations. But solar techniques can also be used on a small scale with locally placed devices dedicated to specialised local functions.
This can be single installations providing heat or electricity for single homes, factories or workshops. It should be stressed further that the technical possibilities are wider than those which have been mentioned. There are the immense possibilities presented by geo-thermal techniques. In looking outwards at the solar source; we can forget that beneath our feet there exists a core of molten heat which could be tapped as it already has been in Iceland and other places.
In the long run, humanity’s greatest productive resource lies in the innovative genius of our species. The essential problem is one of how to establish a society in which this genius can find its fullest expression directly for human needs, and to answer the question of why this genius remains so constrained within the existing national economic, military and political structures.
Nuclear fission is a quite reckless way of just raising steam to turn turbines. Even if nuclear power stations were as safe as they are officially claimed to be, they still represent a threat to the biosphere in that any increase in the level of radioactivity is dangerous because of the role it plays in provoking mutations.
Such mutations are already brought about by normal background radiation, coming from the Earth’s rocks and from space, but it is very rare that such mutations are favourable; more likely to be unfavourable to the organism affected. Any increase in the level of radioactivity beyond its natural level is bound too increase the number of mutations and so the number of unfavourable ones. Future generations will rightly regard the decision to utilise nuclear power on a widening scale for electricity generation let alone for military purposes, as an act of folly, especially as right from the start it was known that there was no satisfactory solution to the problem of disposing of the radioactive waste that inevitably results from the process. Dumping this in the sea or burying it in the ground is merely to pollute a part of the biosphere for generations to come.
There exist, however, ecologically less damaging alternatives for generating electricity. Turbines can be turned by water, wind and tidal power or by steam raised by the heat of the sun’s rays. These are not only clean ways of generating electricity – they do not pollute the biosphere – but have the additional advantage of being based on renewable natural processes.
At present, the most widely used sources of renewable energy are hydroelectric power and biomass. It may also be possible to make the burning of fossil fuels less environmentally intrusive. The eventual choice must be left for the majority to decide after a full consideration of the facts.
Author: P. Lawrence
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- (1) The Guardian 18/9/96 – The Other Energy Crisis
- (2) World Socialist – Winter 1986/7
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