Solar and Coal in the LA Times

One of my excellent students from USC, David Hale Feinberg, brought this story from the LA Times to my attention. The story concerns a partnership between SolarReserve and Rocketdyne–shuttle engine manufacturers. The technology uses heliostat mirrors to heat up molten salt. I’m still learning about energy technologies, so this is pretty interesting stuff.

Contrast this with the lead story in this morning’s LA Times on mountain top removal. The contrast helps us understand three major lessons about energy and renewables.

First, if the history of the energy industry is any lesson, the Barstow plant is where the future resides: high capital requirements favor existing corporate actors over small-scale, local producers, no matter how much some environmental advocates believe that local businesses are the key to sustainability. If you want faster implementation of petroleum substitutes, energy creation won’t be small-scale production.

Second–again from history–the renewables coming online will be substituted for future energy demand, not replacements for existing energy sources, at least in the short term. New energy supply is not a conservation strategy in the same way that unplugging your electronics is. New supply means that new demand is met via cleaner sources, not that old sources necessarily diminish in productivity.

Third, the mountaintop removal story brings home, at least to me, how our failures in social policy contribute to environmental loss. At a time when everybody is lecturing me on the importance of ‘green jobs’ we don’t have the policy language to talk about transitioning miners from their current livelihood to different employment. This is very sticky problem; these areas of West Virginia are both gloriously beautiful and deeply impoverished, and there are few ready substitute employers. Think about the losses that accrued to tobacco farmers as Americans moved away from smoking in the mainstream.

Americans don’t have the cultural capacity to think about that type of assistance as anything other than “welfare”–a shaming word. And yet, Coase applies here: to those of us who want to stop mountaintop removal, financially supporting their transition to new work can be both efficient and socially desirable even if it takes some time. Moreover, it isn’t as though the activity isn’t valuable: we would need to think about ways to change feedstocks for electricity generation to reduce the demand for coal. In other words, it’s not enough to just want an activity to stop because it is unsightly or environmentally bad.