Monday, March 05, 2007

Why the Free Market Fails Consumers in Sustainable Energy Innovation

Let’s start off with an assumption: humanity must rapidly replace our reliance on non-renewable energy sources with truly sustainable alternatives. The conventional wisdom—at least that advanced by corporate “Main-Stream Media”—is that free markets are the best source of innovation. Now a question: is free-market innovation the best way to develop viable, sustainable energy alternatives?

The free market will ignore solutions that can’t turn a profit. Any firm that fails to follow this simple maxim won’t be in business for long. The corollary to this maxim is that the free market will ignore any solution that cannot be controlled, either through property interests (enforceable intellectual property, monopoly licenses, etc.) or because economies of scale demand centralized operation. This means that free market innovation is structurally incompatible with a huge portion of the universe of possible energy solutions.

Free markets love non-renewable energy sources because they are readily controlled. In countries where mineral rights are privately owned (only the US and Canada), these resources can be controlled via property rights. In the rest of the world, they can be controlled equally easily through exclusive contracts with governments. But renewable energy presents a serious control challenge to the free market’s need to profit.

When confronted with this challenge, the free market attempts to adapt its usual tool, property, to the problem. Take ethanol and other biofuels, for example. This attempted solution to our energy problems can be controlled both through real property (ownership of the farm land that produces the raw materials) and through intellectual property (proprietary distilling processes, patented microbes that convert things to sugars, etc.). Never mind that biofuels provide a suspiciously poor energy return on investment and often require government subsidies, slave labor, or fossil fuel inputs, or that they don’t address more fundamental problems like the world’s ongoing growth in energy demand, topsoil depletion, or competition between food and energy. They can make money. Is this the best that free-market innovation can provide?

What about solar? The free market is investing huge resources into innovation in this field. Virtually all of it, however, is being invested in proprietary technology for photovoltaics. In other words, property, which can be controlled to produce a profit. Never mind that, while photovoltaics are a great way to produce electricity, they are a very poor way to produce energy (see my discussion on this point). Why does the free market almost entirely ignore the potentially rich conceptual space of passive solar design? Precisely because the obvious value in this area—that of refining and implementing vernacular technologies—cannot be effectively controlled through existing intellectual property mechanisms. If it can’t be controlled to produce a profit, then free market innovation is blind to its potential. Never mind that, in my opinion, passive solar design is the single most promising way to meet our future energy needs?

What about conservation? No very sexy, I know, but certainly an effective way to reduce our energy demand. The problem, again, is that the free market has a difficult time profiting off of it. Sure, the free market can innovate something to sell you that will help you conserve, but the actual act of conservation kills profits. I’m not talking about increased efficiency of our energy use (which, as classical economics tells us, lowers cost and frees up the consumer to expend the money saved in consumption elsewhere, thereby increasing the total standard of living—at least when measured as a function of consumption). No, I’m talking about actual conservation—just plain using less. This is anathema to free market economics. The idea that we could use less energy in total, and then invest the savings in non-economic goods such as leisure time or security-through-self-sufficiency, is highly problematic because it causes a cumulative decrease in GDP (leisure time doesn’t count as a “product”!). Imagine: “Here’s my business plan… I’m not going to sell anything, and when all is said and done, people will us less. We’ll get rich!” Sure, the free-market can provide the service of helping people conserve, but that’s a bit like a virus that kills its host before it can reproduce…

So, if free market innovation fails in the entire sphere of vernacular-design-based solution, and can’t even contemplate conservation-based solutions, then is it really the pinnacle of sustainable energy innovation? There is only one guaranteed result of relying on the free market to solve our energy problems in a world where production from fossil supplies is peaking: its solutions will never free us from energy dependency or energy scarcity. The free market will never produce a solution to this problem where consumers aren’t dependent on firms for the product they purchase, because to do so would fail to produce a profit. Similarly, the free market will never have the economic motivation to make energy cheaper (over the long-term)—it would be, by definition, irrational economic behavior to produce energy so cheaply that the total value of the world market for energy goes down.

If that’s what you’re looking for—depending on someone else for energy that is always getting more expensive—then the free market is your innovation engine of choice. If, however, you’d prefer secure and inexpensive energy, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Conservation and vernacular-design-based solutions are a good place to start… just don't expect to find much support for this argument, or ideas for conservation or vernacular-design-based solutions, in Main-Stream Media outlets. They have a profit motive, too, and if they can't sell your viewership to others who want to sell you a profit-orriented product, then the story is of no value.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

There are places where a free market idea can lead to sustainable energy, but there appears to be no marketing for it.

For example, natural solar power (trees and biomass), can be grown inexpensively with minimal labor inputs. Then, a simple technology called a gasifier can be used to convert them into a combustible gas, and that gas can be used to power an internal combustion engine like a generator. The technology has been around since WWII.

You can build your own gasifier for less than $1000 USD, buy a generator for $500 USD, and a hectare of eucalyptus will produce over 25 kWh per day of electricity using an exceedingly low tech solution that any 3rd world technician can repair.

The free market solution is there, but the marketing is so focused on unsustainable technologies such as PV solar that no one ever hears about this.

Certainly PV better caters to the lazy lifestyle of the American consumer, but honestly trees are easy to grow, cutting 40kg of wood everyday is cheaper than a gym membership, and even if you don't have land right by your house, you'd only need to go get a truckload of wood about once every 6 months, so your patch could be quite a distance away and still practical for many.

I'd love to get feedback from anyone on why nobody is pursuing this as a business idea? Why is the free market economy failing us here? It seems like there would be a big market for this.

I'm building my own gasifier to do this, but I'm curious why I couldn't simply buy one at the local hardware store. Baffled really.

Anonymous said...

About gasification- I don't know the details about the technology, but it seems to me there are at least 2 fundamental problems with this. first is the fact that it isn't sustainable, because you are turning topsoil into combustable gases. How will you put back into the soil the organic material that you gasify? Also, it seems to me that burning these gases will continue to produce CO2 emissions. This kind of thing may work on a small scale, kind of like burning wood for home heating, but not on a large scale, for producing electricity for hundreds of millions, or billions of people.

Robert D Feinman said...

I think you have identified the missing link to the theme that I've been pushing, using less and scaling back to a sustainable level of consumption.

So if capitalism can't support right sizing then we need an alternative. I've tried to discuss this but the transition question has always eluded me. Your injection of the profit motive will give me some food for thought.

This is as far as I've gotten to date:
Planning for a No-Growth Society

Anonymous said...

There is no such that as a "truly sustainable" alternative (your first sentence is wrong).

Sustainable means self-sustaining without additional energy inputs. This isn't something even remotely possible.

The simple conversion of sunlight to energy, in the form of photovoltics or even wind power (derived originally from solar energy), requires additional energy inputs in massive quantities in the form of metals, plastic, manufacturing, infrastructure, transportation, etc.

The same is true of nuclear energy, methane hydrates, hydrocarbons and on and on. Entropy rules. "Sustainable energy alternatives" simply do not exists.

Anything outside the solar cycle is ultimately, non-sustainable, no matter how hard we might try to redefine this or technowhiz it away.

And for this reason, all alternative energy sources will ultimately fail to meet our energy needs. Not because they don't work, but because they are non-sustainable and will eventually fail due to entropy.

Finally, the stored solar energy being consumed on the Earth represents hundreds of millions of years worth of solar energy, the primary one being hydrocarbons and methane hydrates. We are consuming 400,000 years worth of solar energy in a single year in the form of these "energy sinks".

In the not-too-distant future, when these energy sinks are consumed, we will be utterly unable to find the energy to exploit the solar energy, except for manual human labor.

This means that the world, should we survive, will ultimately revert back to a entirely "solar world", where mankind falls back into the shadows and is no longer able to harness the power and the technology and the civilizations that he once had.

Jeff Vail said...

I think you're nit-picking a bit. The Earth is not sustainable because in a few billion years the sun will become a red giant and incinerate it. There goes the neighborhood.

But I'd argue that there very much are "truly sustainable" alternatives, at least on a time scale that has any relevance to biological life on Earth. As you eventually conceded, alternatives that operate entirely within the solar cycle are, for all intents and purposes, "truly sustainable." Passive solar heating, cooling, and cooking--something that only requires metals and plastics when the free market tries to implement it, but which has worked fine for thousands of years of vernacular architecture--is "truly sustainable." Similarly, a well managed (in the permaculture sense) woodlot is truly sustainable.

These are only two simple examples--the point of the article is that we aren't looking in earnest for others because they aren't profitable.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

We need develop a new form of economics that fundamentally understands the gains that come from modelling evolutionary competition (of which the free market is a very crude model) Tied into a sustainable system that appreciates the value of raw resources. Yet at the same time not needing a top down administrative body to regulate it because that is highly inefficient.

Any solutions anyone…

Anonymous said...

In an increasingly energy-scarce environment, making a profit becomes quite similar to not making a profit. Money, in which profit is denominated, is itself denominated in energy: if there is a shortage of energy, it becomes rather hard to spend it, so it declines in value. And the more energy one invests in profit-making activities, the less energy will be left for spending, or reinvesting, the profits. Thus, in an environment where profit ceases to be, um, profitable, those not chasing after profits start to win outright in all sorts of ways, tangible and intangible over those still trying to "make a buck." I think that this will be fun to watch, while people are trying to wrap their heads around the idea that their money will be no good any more, and that trying to make more will only makes things worse faster.

Dmitry Orlov

Jeff Vail said...

Dmitry: that's an interesting point that you raise. I think that this argument in general faces a fundamental misconception that is blocking wider acceptance:

In a world where ongoing increase in resource consumption is possible over the long term (the case until now), then increases in total consumption are also possible over the long term. In such an environment, the classical free-market theory that competition and property rights will lead to increasing overall wealth is accurate (without discussing the distribution of that wealth, which is another issue entirely). HOWEVER, in an environment where such increases in resource consumption is no longer possible, the foundation of many of these free-market, macroeconomic arguments are no longer valid. I think this is the deeper theme here--and as a comment above pointed out, the broader peak in our world's ability to continually consume more resources (whenever that happens) will force a fundamental shift in economic mode. I think that we still have time to plan for this change, but not much...

Anonymous said...

Nice Article, Jeff.

Looks like you maybe got a little inspiration from our chat Saturday, as well, eh? I was reading and couldn't help thinking it sounded familiar:-)

It was fun to talk with you... keep the good stuff coming!

Janene

Jeff Vail said...

Janene-

Definitely! I just sent Rory an email:

"Thanks for the chance to join in your conversation. As usual, I'm sure I learned the most... here's an article that I wrote after thinking about some of the topics that we discussed, especially the comment that passive solar isn't grabbed by the free market because it is 'design based'"

For those of you not in the loop, I was fortunate enough to get to participate in the Southern Ishmael Conference this last weekend by conference call. Much of the discussion revolved around the question of why simple, elegant concepts like passive solar aren't more readily picked up by the broader "alternative energy community."

Rohan G said...

Come on people, get real! There is a vast amount of Marxist material pointing to post-capitalist solutions that is being ignored here. (Probably because a) Marxism is very... well, unfashionable and b) the Soviet experience doesn't inspire anyone in environmental sustainability terms.)

Look, it was an excellent post Jeff. The reason I say "get real" is because I think you are obliged to relate your dialogue with the large and existing work in this area. Maybe you just didn't know about it, I suppose. If that was the case - now you will.

Best regards
Rohan G

http://www.dsp.org.au/dsp/ECS/index.htm

http://www.marxsite.com/ecosocialism.html

http://climateandcapitalism.blogspot.com/

subscriber only http://www.cnsjournal.org/

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff --

Glad to be of service ;-)

Rohan -- problem with Marxism is that it is still founded on the principles of production. Sustainability, in any true sense, needs to find a different raison d'etra...

Janene

Rohan G said...

Janene, human beings are founded on the "principle of production". From way back in human prehistory, production has occured through the application of conscious thought and effort (labour) on to raw materials using tools. This is production - regardless of whether the tools are an industrial factory or a firestick - and was the motor force of human evolution (alongside the development of language).

The question is not, "How to we transcend the need to produce?" But rather, "How do we make production sustainable?"

Now people will say, "But Marxism has failed." "What can it possibly offer in terms of knowledge about how to become sustainable?"

I can only reply that Marxism provides the deepest critical analysis of the capitalist mode of production available. Please, try to put preconceptions aside and have a look at sites I posted above.

Whether you accept or reject Marxism is up to you. The pitty is that so many people pre-judge Marxism on the basis of the Soviet experience. However I don't blame people for holding that predjudice, given the nature of that experience.

Jeff Vail said...

Rohan,

I agree that we have much to learn from the Marxist critique, just as we do from anthropology, another vast realm of knowledge that is often discounted.

I think that Janene's point is that the Marxist critique arose out of an environment where econoics was the science of increasing surplus production through enhancing specialization. This is really the only context within which a class struggle is relevant. It is also a set of assumptions that, while quite fundamental, are increasingly inappropriate to a peak-resources world. This is where, I think, anthropology, merged with Marxism, can really begin to inform our solution...

Rohan G said...

Thank you Jeff for your prompt reply. I very much agree with your last sentence about the need to be informed by both Marxism and anthropology.

Accordingly, could please write a blog entry about Richard Smith's review of Jared Diamond's book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed"

[see here]
http://climateandcapitalism.blogspot.com/2007/02/engine-of-eco-collapse-jared-diamond.html

I know that Diamond informs your own work so this should be a topic of interest for you.

Best regards
Rohan G


P.S. I think the kernal of Marxism is not surplus production but post-private property relations and a rational, and sustainable, planned economy.

Hans Noeldner said...

Hi Jeff

This article - Why the Free Market Fails... does an excellent job of clarifying the limits of market economics to "do the right thing" vis a vis lowering consumption. And if ordinary people were merely "consumers", we'd be SOL. But fortunately we can choose to be "citizens" as well - neighbors, friends, teachers, students. And THAT is how the "vernacular technology" and plain old de-consumption can happen...

Ahavah bat Sarah said...

I read your article on energy bulletin's page, and I also read the editor's note at the bottom of it, where BA expresses some skepticism. He said you needed "more clarification." I would like to suggest that such clarification already exists - in the medical field. For example, if you go to an ER with pre-eclampsia or other dangerously high blood pressure, they hook up an IV and give you - magnesium. Yes, plain old magnesium. But you'll never see a doctor tell you to take magnesium supplements for your BP, because he gets all his treatment info from drug companies who can't patent or market a natural substance. So they push their statins and other toxic junk in place of the one natural thing that really, really works for all patients alike. Ditto for cholesterol - you'll never see your doctor say "take a niacin supplement," and so on. If they can't make money off of it, they don't care how inferior their product is - the real things that work WILL NOT be suggested to you.

Rohan G said...

Hans Noeldner:

But fortunately we can choose to be "citizens" as well - neighbors, friends, teachers, students. And THAT is how the "vernacular technology" and plain old de-consumption can happen...

me:

What you say is correct, Hans. However we have to be scientific about the power "good citizenry" versus the power of market forces.

See here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2018451,00.html


For example, I lack the considerable capital/income required to become mortgage home-buyer. As a renter, I have next to zero soverignty over my own home and can therefore make few adjustments to it. Likewise, organic food has environmental advantages over standard food, but it will always be a niche markets while it costs significantly more.

Let's be blunt, lifestyle environmentalism is a middle-class movement - for both cultural AND economic reasons.

The green movment has tended to ignore class; as if by adopting a new colour you can ignore or transcend the left / right ideological conflicts of the past.

Belief in the "power of the consumer" can be quite utopian. The market has a vested interest in deliberately disguising the impacts of consumption - on both the planet AND oneself. (Think of cigarette companies.)

The economic logic of capitalism is to drive ever higher levels of consumption. Voluntary consumption limitation is a counter force to this, but which one do you think is winning out in 'Western' countries?

Consumer power CAN be utilised. History shows that this force is most effective if it is backed by an organised political movement that also utilises collective action - The anti-Apartheid movement is a pertinent example.

Regards
Rohan G

Anonymous said...

In defense of the free market - its supposed to be free to fail on occasion. Energy prices in America are kept cheap so that the powers that be can stay that way. Chinese emporers did the same thing with food to maintain their reign. Without the pain, Americans have lost the signal to conserve energy. Sort of like economic daibetes.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with your article. Right now the market has worked because there is no technology that delivers a greater amount of energy for energy expended then oil and gas. If you think about it, the amount of energy concentrated in a mere 1 gal of gasoline is tremendous -- think about it -- it can move an 4,000 to 10,000 pound vehicle between 5 and 30 miles. And it costs less then a gallon of milk on average.

Thus conventional energy remains a tremendous baragain -- CO2 emissions and all. And don't forget there is the famous newsweek article of 30 years ago where scientists were then warning about the coming ice age. So despite the warming trend of the last couple of decades, we really don't know if it is one of earth's cycles or whether human activity has caused it -- despite the fact that convetional "wisdom" is that human activity has caused the earth to warm.

Bottom line is that few if any alternative technologies yet compete effectively with conventional fossil fuels.

That said, there is still a lot that can be done to use energy more effectively -- improve the incandescent light bulb where 95% of the energy goes up in heart, improve combustion technology, use solar where it is cost effective.

The market mechanism will work -- as prices of conventional sources rise then it becomes more economic to not only obtain sources that are more difficult to produce but also conservation technology becomes more cost effective. Further ..look at the data the Energy/GDP over the last few decades has improved tremendously.

Rohan G said...

Anonymous (comment posted 6.14 pm) exemplifies religious faith in market forces and their capacity to respond to social needs. In a way it is futile to argue with these economic fundamentalists. They belive this stuff as a matter of doctrine so that one may as well argue with a Catholic priest that god doesn't exist.

"The market mechanism will work -- as prices of conventional sources rise then it becomes more economic to not only obtain sources that are more difficult to produce but also conservation technology becomes more cost effective."

Imagine the hypothetical (but plausible) scenario that all bee species are going extinct. Scientists can't agree on the cause, and argue over whether parasites, industrial toxins or climatic changes are to blame. Bees no longer pollinate our agricultural crops effectively. Crop failure is widespread and threatens economic collapse.

Can Anonymous explain how market forces would resolve this situation? What would these newly more competitive alternatives to bee pollination be, and how would they operate effectively and profitably?

Good luck!

Rohan G


See here
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/03/14/wbees14.xml

Stephen Allen said...

This article addresses production of energy, but does not address the issue of conservation. So many technologies exist to reduce the amount of energy that we consume, and the payback is pretty quick. However, people are just too lazy to do anything about it for the most part. How long have CFL's been around. They use 80% less energy, and the cost difference is almost nothing now. But, people are still using their old bulbs that they grew up with. The free market has not failed people in creating energy efficient products. This is a rare case where the consumer has failed the free market and fails to explore the options that are out there.

Anonymous said...

your assumption is fudamentally flawed

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Nick said...

Jeff - This article is interesting, but it seems to miss a few points. Energy markets are, in many places (states like CA, MN, IA, WI, etc.) regulated markets, and not free markets. In these places, the decoupling of profits for utilities from energy sales has shown promise to provide a market incentive to reduce energy consumption. Here the thought process goes "if it costs more to build new capacity than to promote conservation (or efficiency), the decoupled market allows investment in conservation."

This will lead to a market system in the form of high-priced energy (think high priced as meaning distributed wind, solar, and biomass - maybe 1.5 to 2 times what many of us pay now) that provides a market barrier to new use because of the cost of operation. As fossil fuels become more scarce, their prices will increase beyond this wind/solar price cap and they will be used less. As technology improves, demand will likely increase overall as more energy can be extracted from each photon, each gust of wind, each acre of land. The problem is in three areas.

First, as is fairly widely discussed right now - climate effects. What impact does the continued use of fossil fuels until they are no longer financially viable have on the environment? Will this affect the ability of people to live quality lives in the future if it is left to an unrestrained market-based timeline? Will this affect the viability of our alternative solutions as the climate changes?

The second problem is time. Alternative energy technologies take a long time to develop and build on a scale that would impact the larger energy picture. As we've seen in the last decade, fossil fuels may prove to be unstable in terms of market prices - Katrina, oil speculators, the 2007-2008 spike in oil prices from whatever cause, supply disturbaces, political unrest, wars, etc. This can put us (locally, nationally, globally) in a precarious position with respect to energy supply. If oil prices spike due to decreasing supply, this will likely happen on a timescale that is much faster than alternatives can reasonably be put in place. This could cause serious problems.

Finally, the third problem is geography. Alternative energy sources are not necessarily located where existing population centers are. Current cities are often on ports, which works great for receiving disributed fossil fuels, but wind and solar are not so easily transported, and biofuels lose their appeal the further you get from the source. In short, populations will shift in noticeable ways in the coming decades. This will impact real estate prices (up close to energy sources, down in the abandonded cities), energy infrastructure balance, water resources, etc.

In short, I agree that an unrestrained market is not the best means to address these problems, but I think setting out what the problems are is the best way to direct useful policy. Another way to look at this - the free market will come up with a solution, but are we comfortable with what that would be?

Nick

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