Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Down the rabbit hole

I thought it might be nice to put up on the front page a recent comment by Chris. He states:

I can't quite get my intuition around this counter-intuitive concept. I'd like to try to develop some points that still bamboozle me:

1. Equating dollars to energy: For the purposes of example let's make up an economy, let's call it Moldova, which is powered 100% by coal-fired power plants. Say Moldova is a pretty dodgy place and the coal-fired power plants are running break even: so it costs the same amount of Mol-dollars to produce the energy as what they sell it for. Intuitively we would expect that this system could work; that the Moldovians, however poor they may be, would have electricity. However if we substitute the words coal-fired power plant with solar panels it becomes impossible. In both examples the cost of production equals the price of their product. It's easy to understand that if in the process of creating the solar panel we require the same amount of electricity than it produces over it's lifetime we gain nothing since we can easily equate apples with apples. However when we equate dollars with energy, one dollar spent on buying a solar panel (e.g. $1 = 1Wh) only produces 1Wh back again we gain nothing from the process. Thinking this way, equating $ with Wh, how can our poor Moldovians still use their electric milking machines?

2. I'm trying hard not to believe that we gain nothing from buying solar panels. Assuming they cost (like in Moldova) the same as the value of the energy they produce. We spend a dollar on a solar panel: this dollar in infinitely divided as it swims upstream through peoples wallets, and through this process looses it's identity as my 'green' dollar and comes out representing the total resource inputs of our economy, probably more a brownish sludgy colour now. So it doesn't matter if I temporarily green wash my dollar or spend it to create a burning petrol feature-fountain in my front yard: it's all the same. However I reckon by buying a solar panel I change the resource inputs of our economy: so my dollar swims up a slightly altered stream, it still arrives a brownish sludgy dollar, but a slightly greener one.
However after my solar panel is online, the total resource pool of the economy increases, energy becomes cheaper and consumption increases to fill in the space my green dollar bought: so total polluting is not reduced. Arrghh! I thought I was arguing for solar panels!! damn. BUT.. if the federal government wants to stimulate the economy they should spend it on solar panels? Since they would be growing the economy without increasing pollution. I've lost my point. Anyway what do you think?


My response:

Chris. You have some very neat logical arguments here. And there is no real answer to the first one. I have been pondering this problem for about a year. I get the feeling we are getting very close to the bottom of the rabbit hole, with only one remaining theoretical explanation. Chaos! (complex adaptive systems to be more precise)

While I have given the impression that tracing resource inputs to the economy up the tree can be envisaged much like a never ending family tree, there are interactions along the way that make it a complex system, and the capacity to learn and change also makes it adaptive. There are two major problems with such systems; (1) an action cannot be isolated from the rest of the system (thus one product cannot be isolated as good or bad), and (2) the way to change the whole system is uncertain, given the complexity of actions in response to change within the system.

Further, there are major problems in my theoretical argument against solar panels due to time and technology. For starters, the energy we used to construct the power plant was from half a century ago, which came from power plants and oil wells built a century ago, which were constructed from… well you get the picture (maybe read my Hunger, humans or happiness blog). Without this previous energy use, we would not have current energy production. Thus we could arguably trace back infinitely through time the energy requirements of producing a given product, which may be a sum total of all energy use in history!

In light of these and other issues that arose in lunchroom economics discussions, I developed a ‘Theory of Private Property’, which suggests that somehow economic growth (but not human welfare) is fundamentally linked to the creation of private property. How to develop this into a comprehensive and useful theory presently escapes me, but I am yet to find contrary evidence to dispute the relationship. The point of such a theory would be to suggest that solar power cannot contribute to growth because it doesn’t involve the use of land (whereas fossil fuelled energy can due to the continued consumption of land in the form of coal or oil). If we could attach a right to the sunshine, it may help. The solar energy producers would pay rents on the rights to the sunshine.

Anyway, while that was not a short answer, it does begin to raise some important points that one might consider before proclaiming a specific behaviour as good or bad.

1 comment:

  1. Having a re-read of my response has made me rethink a little the comment on solar power. It does in fact require land to produce energy - it must be located somewhere. And, the materials to make the solar panels (in whatever form they may take) requires land as a source of the materials. Thus it could be a replacement energy source growth environment.

    mmm... there may be more on this issue again in future.