The politics of solar energy

Wynand Boshoff says the full ramifications of the emerging energy dispensation are difficult to calculate

The politics of solar energy 

30 May 2018

Before the industrial revolution, energy supply was not much of a political issue. Virtually all energy was biological, either in the form of human and animal muscle, or wood for burning. The most important exception was wind for water transport. All these energy sources were available without taxation, even if not evenly spread across the globe.

New energy sources was not the trigger for industrialisation, but it soon became necessary. The realisation of how much power steam can exercise, led to the making of a whole lot of fire. If huge deposits of coal and crude oil had not been discovered, steam power would quickly have run out of… well, steam, because there was just so many trees to cut down.

Since roughly 1800 the deposits of these energy sources, together with exploitable mineral resources, determined the destiny of countries, empires, unfortunate peoples living in resource rich areas without the means to profit from it, and fortunate peoples who exactly knew how to do so.

Electricity generation got momentum during the twentieth century. Economies of scale counted. Whether it was the private sector or the state who invested sufficiently to supply a country of electricity, acquired notable power in the process. The same goes for the sophisticated process to produce petroleum products, on which virtually all transport came to depend. Where states do not wield its power by being the suppliers of energy, it has the opportunity to tax it heavily, as production is highly concentrated.

A reasonable assumption is that earth should at some time run out of coal and oil. We were caught off-guard, however, when we realised that the sky is the limit – or rather the atmosphere’s ability to absorb the resultant pollution. Both stimuli highlighted the possibilities of nuclear power, which promised to be both cheap and clean. In reality it never became cheap, and although not “dirty”, really dangerous if anything goes wrong.

Solar power had been an elusive solution for several decades. If all green plants on earth absorb less than one percent of incoming solar radiation, then there is still an abundance to harness. However, the cost of producing photovoltaic panels and the sun’s uncanny habit of shining only by day, were important impediments.

Regarding the panels, increasing effectiveness as well as reducing production costs have been driving prices down for nearly a decade now. The past few years also saw the price of electricity storage (batteries) decreasing, while its effectiveness increases. Calculated with a write-off period of ten years, a system with photovoltaic generation when the sun shines and battery storage for sun-less periods, competes favourably with retail electricity prices. And prices are still coming down.

The political ramifications of the emerging energy dispensation are difficult to calculate. Regions which had not been reached by the electricity grid can directly proceed to solar power and even gain a competitive advantage. Having abundant sunshine can be the present-day equivalent of the discovery of coal or crude oil.

The democratising of energy supply to individual families or business persons may, however, be the most important result. Nobody can be taxed for, or prevented from collecting firewood or sunshine on his own property. The common good would be served by using the clever Internet of Things to collect and distribute this power. If authorities prefer to prohibit it, they may find themselves completely without these paying customers, who will probably prefer energy independence. To prohibit thát, would be to enact another unenforceable law. 

It is difficult to conceive that a state would legislate against a comparative advantage. But then, a government who regard successful business persons as capitalist exploiters to be taxed blind, might attempt to do so. It is the responsibility of citizens to stop that from happening.

Wynand Boshoff is provincial leader of the Freedom Front Plus in the Northern Cape.