Distributed P2P energy plays vs. Green Capitalism

Excerpted from Kevin Carson:

“I hear frequently from a doctoral student named Keith Taylor, who’s researching electrical power cooperatives and decentralized models for developing wind power. He’s sent me quite a bit of material, over the past year or so, on the extent to which government “alternative energy” policy systematically privileges large-scale, conventional corporate business models and expensive proprietary technology.

The government’s refundable tax credits, for example, don’t go to rural electric co-ops because they’re tax-exempt. Sounds only fair, right? But the thing is the credits are refundable — which means that if a business pays any taxes at all the credits it’s eligible for don’t have to bear any relation to the amount of taxes actually paid. It’s like a $20,000 welfare check that kicks in when you earn a single dollar in wage income, but is unavailable to the unemployed. So the credits are, in fact, a massive subsidy to the largest corporate wind farms.

The government’s wind-power agenda is closely tied to the “smart grid,” which emphasizes reducing the cost of transmitting power from giant wind farms situated far from the point of consumption. As such, it gives a competitive advantage to centralized blockbuster projects — like the kind T. Boone Pickens wants to invest in — at the expense of small, decentralized producers scaled to local demand (the lean, demand-pull model favored by the Rocky Mountain Institute).

It’s no coincidence that Pickens is a leading proponent of the “progressive” or “green” model of capitalism, along with people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Bono and Richard Florida. This model wants to turn technological progress, and particularly green technology, into the engine of accumulation for a new phase of capitalism.

The problem is that this economic model requires capitalizing the increased productivity from new technology as a source of profit. And the only way to do that is to enclose it through “intellectual property” law and other forms of legal monopoly. This is the model advocated by economist John Romer, he of the “new growth theory,” who sees technological progress as the new engine of growth. The only way increased productivity can cause GDP to grow is if some form of monopoly prevents market competition from socializing the productivity gains. And Romer explicitly advocates “intellectual property” law as a way to do just that.

The original vision of the Internet, on the part of Bill Gates and the other apostles of “progressive” cognitive capitalism, was the “Information Superhighway”: a glorified cable TV system, with the vast majority of its capacity taken up with unidirectional one-to-many communications, streaming proprietary content to households. Like Tom Peters, Gates was a champion of networks and the flattening of hierarchies — so long as the networks could be domesticated within a residual corporate framework enforced by “intellectual property.”

People like Pickens and Buffett are all for ending the country’s dependency on foreign oil, by promoting wind and other forms of alternative energy — so long as they can guarantee themselves profits by controlling the terms on which the energy is produced and sold.”

Here is an example of how this tension plays out, by Adam Schwartz, President of the Green Guild Biodiesel Coop:

“As many of you already know, the Green Guild has not had fuel in stock for several months. This has been an long and ongoing saga for this coop, but is also part of a greater crisis within the biodiesel industry. In the past few years, big biodiesel interests and soybean lobbyists have consolidated the biodiesel market and set up regulations that make it prohibitively expensive for small grassroots producers like farmers, coops and DIYers to make biodiesel. This has resulted in a top down fuel system that has sought to mimic the profitable big oil model and doesn’t stop to reconsider heinous things like importing soy oil from deforested zones in Brazil. However, in troubling economic times, when communities should be seeking local alternatives to stimulate local economies, we are stuck in red tape and restrictions based on the old way of doing things. We are stuck with a vulnerable system; by being reliant on a relatively small number of multi-million gallon facilities, we have lost community control of our own energy resources once again.

This winter, as the Congress allowed a critical $1/gallon tax credit to expire, the biodiesel industry took a huge hit. Overnight, prices skyrocketed and plants began to close for good, while the crackdown on small local producers has continued. In Virginia new legislation made it illegal to transport vegetable oil without a commercial license, essentially forcing an already marginalized biodiesel community to go completely underground. This all happened despite an organized resistance from biodiesel producers, users and farmers on the ground. And now, in perhaps the most critical moment for alternative fuels, during the BP Gulf Oil Spill, one of the worst environmental disasters of our time, when supply and demand for renewable, local fuel should be at its highest, we are way off track. What would happen if the US government were to allow subsidies for the petroleum industry to expire and we were forced to pay the real cost of oil at the pump?; an estimated $10-15/gallon. There would be hell to pay in Washington, yet we do not demand support for renewables with the same fervor.

I think there is an important lesson to learn here: nothing grows from the top down. I believe that the best way to really grow long lasting alternatives to a fossil fuel economy is through grassroots initiatives. As a community-based coop, we have been both a small time producer and a bulk purchaser, giving us insight into both realms of the biodiesel world. Purchasing fuel from big producers via middle men suppliers has been frustrating and difficult. As a small coop we have very little purchasing power in relation to big fleets.”

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