Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Energy Policy: No Time for Business as Usual

A reply to Dr. Val Finlayson

Ernest Partridge

Weber State College -- October 13, 1977


A response to an address by Dr. Val Finlayson, the Director of Research and Development at Utah Power and Light Co.  The occasion was a panel, "Energy and Man's Environment," sponsored by the Utah Endowment for the Humanities. As the opening paragraph indicates, this paper was prepared in haste and on short notice.


I am grateful for the opportunity to appear, in Dr. Olson's behalf and my own, as a respondent to Dr. Finlayson's paper. I will apologize just this once for the manifest results of the brief time available to me to prepare these remarks  -- I was asked only yesterday to fill in for my colleague who was, in turn, abruptly advised of a time conflict. Accordingly, I have had little opportunity to research, document, or refine my remarks. Please forgive, therefore, any extemporaneous replies in the discussion that might be taken from the top of my head. Most of the documented points that I will make in the body of this reply will be from a single source -- Dr. Barry Commoner's informative and provocative book, The Poverty of Power (New York: Bantam, 1976) -- which I would urge you all to read.

In the brief time at his disposal, Dr. Finlayson has covered some vitally significant ground. Because of the scope of his endeavor and the brevity of his time, much has been left unsaid. This, of course, is unavoidable, and I can well feel much sympathy for the difficulties thus involved. Still, I think a few questions might be raised concerning some omissions from his paper. In all, I would like to raise a few brief points and close with two more extended responses.

First, Dr. Finlayson describes electricity as a "more useful and environmentally acceptable form of energy." In the short view, there is much to be said for this assessment. For instance, in the context of the private home, the description seems apt. But in the long view, this remark may lend an erroneous impression. In point of fact, electricity is not, strictly speaking, an "energy source" at all. It is an "energy conveyer." Nature supplies us with no electricity; rather, it supplies the primary sources of electricity. Thus the "environmental impact" and cost of electricity must include the impact and cost of producing electricity -- be it from oil, gas, nuclear fission, the sun, or whatever. Moreover, this assessment must include the necessary energy loss due to conversion and conveyance.

Secondly, Dr. Finlayson lists Utah's energy resources. But the list does not include Utah's cleanest energy resource, namely a combination of (a) sunlight, (b) in a desert climate, (c) falling upon abundant and cheap open spaces. I will have much more to say shortly about solar energy.

Third, missing from Dr. Finlayson's list of energy sources is the promising resource of bio-mass and the recycling of agricultural and municipal wastes. Such processes produce such highly efficient and clean fuels as methane and methanol (combustion products are CO2 and water) and as a bonus, a supply of such basic resources as metals, glass, and fertilizers.

Fourth, Dr. Finlayson criticizes President Carter's energy plan as "a social plan to redistribute the wealth in the nation." I should like to hear his reply to the charge that existing arrangements, and even more, some proposals of the energy industry would also "redistribute wealth" -- namely from consumers to the energy companies.

I would like to turn now to a consideration of what I believe to be the most promising area of energy research and development -- an energy source that is clean, abundant, renewable. diversified, and potentially inexpensive. I mean, of course, the constant and eternal sun. I would suggest, with many physicists and ecologists, that the light at the end of the energy tunnel is sunlight. But our energy companies, and their representatives in Washington, do not seem to agree. Witness the 1978 research budget for ERDA: $1.7 billion for nuclear energy and $421 million for solar energy. And this solar budget is a quantum jump from a few years ago. In 1973, it was much worse. Federal expenditures then "for the development of practical uses of solar energy amounted to less than one percent of the total energy-research budget." [Commoner - 114].

Is solar power technologically practical? For some consumer uses it is both practical and in use. Dr. Commoner reports:

To provide enough power for the household's space heat under most demanding conditions (December in the central part of the United States) W.E. Morrow of MIT estimates that about 1300 square feet of [solar] collector would be needed, or a square about 36 feet on edge. This is slightly more than the roof area of a typical suburban two-story home. [Commoner - 125].

He continues:

It is of interest, therefore, to determine the collector area that would be required to meet the nation's need for electric power. According to Morrow, if the entire present U.S. output of electric power were to be produced by solar-powered steam-electric generators of the central-tower design, operating at 30-percent efficiency (an attainable figure), about 780 square miles of collectors would be needed. This represents about .03 of the land area used for farming, or about 2 percent of the land area used for roads. There is room enough. [Commoner - 126]

But isn't solar heat prohibitively expensive? Again, I quote from The Poverty of Power:

Solar installations to provide between 50 and 75 percent of the low-quality energy for space heat and hot water are now economically advantageous in certain places (such as Albuquerque) and in other places under limited circumstances (for example, in St. Louis if the solar equipment is installed by the house-holder). Given that the present costs of solar collectors are based on small-scale manufacture and should fall significantly as production is expanded, and given that conventional energy prices are increasing rapidly, such mixed solar/conventional installations could become the most economical alternative in most parts of the United States within the next few years. [Commoner - 141]

Direct production of electricity can now be achieved by photovoltaic or "solar" cells, but at an enormous cost: $10,000 per kilowatt of generating capacity, as against about $300. per kw. of capacity from power plants. But solar cells are now laboriously assembled by hand. If capital commitment and research and development funds were generously applied to this promising energy source, surely we could develop mass production techniques that would reduce this cost to a competitive fraction. We await, in this field, a move from the spinning wheel to the power shuttle loom. And just imagine the result: sunlight on your roof made immediately available for the electrical appliances in your house, with surplus home-made electricity converted by electrolysis into hydrogen. This pollution-free fuel could then be reconverted, at night and on cloudy days, back to the utilities through the transmission lines or gas mains, thus reversing the meters on your house. You might conceivably get a check, rather than a bill, during those summer months that you were away from home and your solar cells kept operating. The opportunities are enormous and technologically quite feasible. Yet somehow we hear little of these opportunities from the energy companies.

Dr. Commoner's summary of the advantages of solar power will serve as my own:

There is a broader lesson to be learned in what we know the the special properties of solar energy. Since it is radiant energy, it is an ephemeral thing; unless it is used, it is quickly transformed into heat and lost to space. Unlike oil or uranium, sunlight is not a commodity to be bought and sold; it cannot be possessed; its value is not inherent, but derives from its use--the outcome of its relation to a process, to a a task. Solar energy enjoins us to attend to the task; to find the best way to link the task to resources; to cherish the resources that nature lends us; to find value in their social use, rather than profit in their private possession. [Commoner - 144]

Commoner's final clause, I believe, may suggest a motive for the otherwise mysterious indifference of private industry, and it's congressional interest-representatives in Congress, to a commitment to solar energy. A contemplation of social and technological potentialities against legislative and interest-bound realities, can only lead the informed spectator to a savage but unavailing rage.

My final comment follows Dr. Finlayson's remark that "The no-growth' community has found survival in the energy issue, but their ill-directed efforts are falling on deaf ears."

Of all the questions to arise out of environmental and energy debates, perhaps the most pointless and unproductive is: "Are you or are you not in favor of growth?" This question, I believe, is roughly comparable to: "Do you approve of human behavior?" or "Are you in favor of government in general?" I submit that anyone who answers such questions with a single "yes" or "no," deserves no further hearing. The only proper beginning response, of course, is "yes and no -- it all depends."

Let me suggest a complex answer to this inappropriately simple question: "Do you approve of Growth?" No, I don't approve of growth:

_____ in crime

_____ in pollution levels

_____ in social unrest

_____ in disease

_____ in aimless T.V. viewing

Yes, I do approve of growth:

_____ in literacy and artistic sensitivity

_____ in life span and health

_____ in social order

_____ in human freedom

_____ in knowledge and intelligence

_____ in human benevolence and happiness

"But do you approve of growth in energy use?"

It all depends. No, if it involves the growth of items in the first list. Yes, if it furthers the growth of items in the second list. And we have not even asked the question, "Which kind of energy use?" In short, yes, if energy and economic growth serve human welfare. No,, if we make such growth the end to which human institutions and culture must serve, and perchance be sacrificed, as means. But don't ask, "Do you believe in growth? -- period." Don't ask, and expect an intelligent, yet direct answer.

If we treat energy growth not as an end but as a means to human welfare, we may have occasion to return to the discourse of social policy and planning the simple word "enough." When God told Adam and Noah to "replenish the earth" we might assume he believed man intelligent enough to stop when the task was complete. When I reached my late teens, my growth in stature ceased. I was tall enough. Had I continued, I would soon have become gigantic, developed kidney and heart failure, and died. I did not, however, cease to grow in girth, and my health and appearance have suffered accordingly.

Should our economy and energy output grow? Of course -- so long as such growth is consistent with long-term human welfare. Until, that is, we have grown enough. What is "enough"? That is a question for intelligent and informed policy analysts, legislators, and citizens to decide. But in these deliberations, let us avoid the dogma of constant growth. In the words of Ed Abbey, that precious and irreplaceable irritant to Utah complacency, "Growth, for the sake of growth, is the ideology of the cancer cell."



Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .