Wizards, Prophets, and Profits…. (on the Way to Clean Energy)

While everyone has been preoccupied with Covid-19, clean energy technology’s rapid advance has continued.

A thirty-year contract for a giant solar plant planned in Abu Dhabi got a record low bid of $0.0135 per kWh in April this year. This latest benchmark continues a shocking decline in renewable energy prices over the last decade. The International Energy Agency underestimated the fall in solar energy costs by a factor of 4 in their 2010 predictions. In some locations, it is already cheaper to build and operate new wind and solar than to run existing coal-fired power plants. Rameez Naam, an expert in clean energy development, admits the projections he made in 2015 about the future price of solar energy were not nearly optimistic enough. Solar energy, he says, is becoming “insanely, world-changingly cheap.” He predicts costs of a penny or two per kilowatt hour by the late 2030s in all but the most expensive, northern locations.

In a different part of the clean energy sector, the cost of batteries for electric vehicles is about to fall below $100 per kWh. Tesla and its partner Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. (CATL) are believed to have cracked this nut with an announcement expected in September. The $100/kWh mark is the threshold beneath which electric vehicles become cheaper than gas-powered cars. The Tesla-CATL partnership is also thought to have created a battery good for one million miles of driving. GM is also “almost there” in the quest for equally long-lived batteries. A million miles far exceeds what most drivers expect to get out a new car. It won’t be long before buying a gas-powered car will be an act of nostalgia rather than a rational economic choice. The purchase price, the performance, and the running costs of electric vehicles will be far more attractive.

Developments of this kind mean that two pieces of the energy transition – the cleaning up of the electrical grid and the removal of fossil fuels from personal transportation  – are now more or less inevitable. The dominoes are stacked and they have started to topple. There will certainly be obstacles. There will be a dead end or two and plenty of political resistance. But the switch is assured. However much you “Dig coal!” or want to “Drill, Baby, Drill!” there will be fewer and fewer fools willing to follow you.

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While these two developments make my heart leap with excitement, I have to confess they make one tiny part of my soul sink. Let me explain.

Charles Mann’s 2018 book The Wizard and the Prophet drew a contrast between two different ways of approaching environmental problems. Norman Borlaug, credited with driving the green revolution in agriculture, represents the wizards. William Vogt, who urged a careful respect for the lands’ carrying capacity, represents the prophets.  Wizards are optimistic about technology solving almost any problem you can ask of it. Prophets think what is needed is not a change in technology but a change in attitude. Both recognize the reality of a planetary crisis. They just have different ideas of what the crisis requires. One wants a different set of tools. The other wants a different set of values. Mann refers to Borlaug’s view as “techno-optimism” and Vogt’s as “apocalyptic environmentalism.”

I have always thought environmental problems are primarily problems in ethics. If you are concerned about pollution, it is because you see the moral significance of the lives of those who breathe it. If you are bothered by extinction, it’s because you hold the conviction that animals matter. If climate change keeps you up at night, it is because you grasp the injustices it creates for vulnerable people and for future generations.  Environmental change follows from holding strong enough ethical beliefs. I’m so convinced environmental problems are problems in ethics I have made it my day job to work on them. On the surface, this sounds like I’m more Vogtian than Borlaugian.

The fleeting sag of my soul at the recent clean energy news stems from how ethics seems to have lacked the power to solve the emissions problem. The ethics can sound commanding and feel motivating, but without the technological breakthroughs it can end up flailing ineffectually in the wings. A case in point for me is the electric car. I have wanted one for years, but I have not been able to will myself to put down such a serious chunk of change. The sacrifice seemed too great. My ethics must not have been strong enough.

This general despondency about doing the right thing based on ethical arguments has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. One of the conditions for a successful reopening of the economy was that people took seriously their moral responsibility to stay engaged in the fight. This meant listening to the experts, keeping their distance, and doing what they could to protect others. In the United States at least, this does not appear to have happened. The moral burden to do it right was not enough. As a nation, we failed at the simple responsibility to help keep others safe. We partied and we pretended everything was going to be okay. The results have been devastating. We’ve defaulted to waiting for a vaccine while the ethics flails in the wings.

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Demoralized as I am about ethics, I’m not yet ready to go full-on wizard. There are two reasons for this. First, Mann himself said at the start of his book that wizards and prophets are “less two ideal categories than two ends of a continuum.” This means you can be wizard-ish with prophet-like tendencies. Or you can be three-parts prophet to one-part wizard. You don’t have to choose. This seems to reflect where most people stand. They might change their behaviors in some domains while waiting for technological improvements in others.

The second reason not to go full wizard is a bit more hidden. Borlaug was pro-technology and incurably optimistic about science. But he was also deeply ethical. Only because he despaired at the poverty and hunger he saw in Minneapolis during the Great Depression did he go to Mexico to work on wheat. Only because he knew every life mattered did he spend his own life working on improving crop productivity around the world. Certainly there are important ethical questions about the relationship between the green revolution Borlaug initiated and the corporate quest for profits. Wizardry can end up being coopted. But the idea that with good enough wizards you can erase the need for prophets is false. Even wizards must take a stand on matters of morality.

As the coronavirus continues, it is worth celebrating the arrival of clean electricity and the electric vehicle future. It is being sped in part by technological advances. But how quick and how fair the clean energy transition turns out to be depends largely on a collective ethics. It requires pushing for justice, arguing for the right policies, and making a case for a speedy and equitable transition. For this you need prophets as much as you need wizards. So, for now, I’m planning on keeping my day job.

 

EV charging image by Chuttersnap via Flickr
Solar panels by American Public Power Association via Unsplash

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