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Ethics and Technology
TU DelftTU EindhovenUniversity of TwenteWageningen University
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The paradox of renewable energy

Cornucopia or frugality?

We buy second-hand coats. We put solar panels on our roofs when we have the luxury to do so. And we do our best to turn off the lights when we leave a room.

Why do we do this? Most people would say it’s because we care about climate change. We do not want the global temperature to rise too much, since that would cause all sorts of ecological and social disasters. We lower our energy use because we realise that there are and should be limits. For the same reasons, we aim to create renewable energy systems. If we harvest energy from wind, solar and tidal sources, we might mitigate climate change.

Transforming our entire energy system is easier said than done. After all, we must be able to make this transition. Not everyone can buy solar panels, and not every country has the means necessary to simply phase out extractive sectors without severe economical and ethical side effects. But some say that the energy transition is not a question of whether we can do it; it is rather a question of whether we want to do it. Not all actors have enough motivation to accept the sometimes disruptive climate measures that experts propose.

One needs a vision to motivate the masses. Visions paint a picture: they define a problem and a solution for the longterm. They have a sharing and a guiding function. First, they align actors; then, they steer them in a certain direction. So, what vision is needed to motivate this massive transition to a new energy system? It is obvious to say that no politician wants to write “in 2050, we must consume less” in their manifestos. Frugality is not a sexy virtue. Admitting that we must take into account certain limits does not ensure re-election.

This is where it gets interesting. Visionaries often state that green growth will lead to green jobs. And there will be no need to be cheap – in fact, renewable energy will be “too cheap to meter”, as the propaganda around nuclear energy seemed to proclaim in the 1960s. After all, the sun shines for free, and wind too can be taken for granted.

Renewable energy will be a cornucopia, there will be enough for everyone. And when we all have our own solar panels, energy poverty will be eradicated. Energy will be democratised and every human will have the opportunity to flourish. So, the vision is one of abundance, of an endless supply of energy, fuelling our ever-increasing needs. This vision ought to motivate citizens for the energy transition.

So, it seems that there will be no need for frugality in a green energy system. After all, when you have solar panels and the sun is shining, you probably produce more energy than you can consume. What harm does it do to leave the lights on, to keep the fridge open as long as we want to, and to buy saunas just because we can? The abundance-vision seems to entail that it we cannot waste green energy. The vision that motivates us to “act green” now promises us that there will be no need for scarcity in the future. In this sense, the vision seems inconsistent. The abundance-vision contradicts the same energy-saving efforts it wants to promote.

And the vision is not only inconsistent – it is wrong. The sun might be free, but the materials and technologies needed to extract energy from it are not. The same goes for wind, tidal, and for energy storage technologies that will be incredibly necessary to deal with the intermittency of renewables. Because the vision is wrong, it might also be dangerous. The vision assumes that the demand side is untouchable; it is the technology that should adapt to our ever-increasing energy needs. This might lead to crossing planetary boundaries anyway, or to major disappointment, societal disruption and huge inequalities when materials become too scarce.

The abundance-vision might work to motivate people for various climate measures in the 2020s. For that, it must be praised. But the vision has a dark side that should not be ignored: there are still planetary limits and we have to keep striving not to cross them. The assumption that renewable energy equals affluence should be questioned. Perhaps we need a new vision to motivate us in due time. Perhaps we should re-value frugality as a virtue and keep turning the lights off when we leave a room, even if we have shiny solar panels on our roofs.

About the author

The energy transition implies moving away from carbon towards renewable energy, and this transition needs to be just. Being part of the RELEASE-project, Nynke’s research is dedicated to energy justice, combining climate ethics and political philosophy. @nynkevanuffelen