Renewable != Sustainable

Benjamin Zycher writes,

there is nothing “clean” about renewables. There is the heavy-metal pollution created by the production process for wind turbines, along with their noise and flicker effects. There is the large problem of solar panel waste. There is the wildlife destruction caused by the production of renewable power. There is the land use both massive and unsightly, made necessary by the unconcentrated nature of renewable energy.

And above all: There is the increase — yes, increase — in the emissions of conventional effluents caused by the up-and-down cycling of the conventional backup generation units needed to avoid blackouts caused by the unreliability of wind and solar power.

(links omitted)

In Specialization and Trade, I make the point that sustainability is best measured by profitability at market prices. The attempt by environmentalists to second-guess prices is misguided. Recycling, if measured at market prices, is not sustainable. The use of renewable resources for energy, if assessed at market prices, is not sustainable. It is likely that from a strictly environmental point of view, practices like buying local and subsidizing renewable energy have adverse effects.

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16 Responses to Renewable != Sustainable

  1. Brandon Berg says:

    What about externalities? Putting aside the question of how well regulators can measure externalities (while acknowledging that this is, in practice, an important issue), basic economics tells us that market prices can in theory differ wildly from social costs, and it’s not clear to me that this isn’t true in practice as well.

    • Weir says:

      There were half a dozen externalities mentioned in the quote from Zycher. He lists them off, but somehow they’re unseen to regulators and politicians and the rent-seekers who keep using that word “green.”

      Seems like there are some pretty strong incentives to not notice the externalities their policies produce. The word “social” does the same job. As if there’s no overlap between a society and a market. As if prices just somehow come about with no input from the people paying them.

    • Max says:

      Regarding negative externalities, there is one point that should be discussed. Waste Treament is rarely figured into the equation of most power plants. However, modern Coal power plants can have an additional waste treament for CO2 for a certain amount of money (if you believe that CO2 is the big problem, it is made out to be, which I do not).
      Nuclear Power Plants need to figure in the costs for nuclear waste treatment (Salt Mine? Thorium Power Plant?).
      Of course, this also is true regarding so called renewable power sources.

      Recycling almost never makes sense, except if waste treatment is priced in, then sometimes recycling makes sense even with things like plastics. So if government would mandate garbage & waste handling to be priced in to the cost of the production in the first place, then maybe we would see a slightly different pictures (or not, since the economies & costs are not entirely clear there).

  2. Adrian Ratnapala says:

    To make this convincing, we need to know that AK is using the word “sustainable” in the same sense as the environmentalists.

    For example, environmentalist-style stainability might be that a given thing could go over the long term forever given the earth’s natural resource, perhaps on condition that government perpetually tips the scales in its favour.

    Whereas I suspect AK means something more like, an institution is sustainable if, once instituted, it is likely to stick around in recognizable form despite long-term shifts in political fashions.

    Now AK might have a legitimate argument that his own definition is more salient to various environmental issues — but that needs to be argued for explicitly, not by overloading the term “sustainable”.

  3. EMichael says:

    “there is nothing “clean” about renewables”

    Try “cleaner”.

    • Octavian says:

      Not necessarily. I think that was kind of the whole point of the post: just because a renewable generates less CO2 doesn’t mean it’s even necessarily better for the environment.

  4. Lord says:

    There is nothing sustainable about market prices that don’t include the costs of externalities or even the attempt to do so.

    • Octavian says:

      So if a company generates positive externalities, should the government be obligated to step in and pay that company, on behalf of taxpayers, the estimated value of the ‘social benefit?’

      Curiously, whenever people talk about externalities as justification for intervention, they always seem to only think about negative externalities.

      • Lord says:

        It already does so through monopolies, copyright, and patent law and often tax law, though probably too much so.

        • Octavian says:

          There are still plenty of industries (possibly most) where companies don’t even come close to capturing all the consumer surplus.

  5. Cmot says:

    Whenever I run into people bragging that they get their (utility provided) power from wind or solar I ask them if they ever have brown outs. When they they say never, I tell them that means they actually get none of their power from intermittent sources, that power from these sources must essentially thrown away (run into ground) while fossil plants are run flat out. Then they get angry, and eventually call me a racist, I think because that’s the worst thing they can imagine.

  6. collin says:

    This is terribly written to convert people from Renewable! energy and simply feels like it is written by the coal lobby:

    1) Does it CO in the long run?

    2) Of course there is use of carbon energies to manage to power needs. Stating that in 2017 needing a mix energy approach is still necessary.

    3) Of course all this is true in 2017 but we don’t know in the future.

    And finally if only carbon based energy is the cheapest, then they need to work with power companies and work to increase competition in this space to the consumer. Because in California (with 5 – 10 horizons) to get solar than buying from our power companies.

  7. Tom G says:

    The point about how profit measures sustainability is important — tho also dependent on the monetization of inputs & outputs so as to calculate profit.

    Names, including names of theories, are important. (Feminists are not wrong about the importance of language.) “Patterns of Sustainable Specialization & Trade” is too long to “catch on”.

    “Specialization & Trade” is long enough for a theory or area, like “Theory of Externalities”, “Government Choice”, “Keynesianism”, “Monetarism”, “Austrian Econ”, “Marxism”, or “Public Choice” (the wrong choice of the name of the theory, since it’s not the public choosing).

    On subsidizing renewables, “carrots for solar”, might be a less detrimental effect than further taxes & regulations against coal/ carbon, “sin taxes on oil, as sticks” to change behavior. And if in a democracy a majority of the voters want a change in behavior, gov’t subsidies are likely to have less total negative aspects than higher gov’t taxes.

  8. Tom G says:

    A big reduction in land use issues would be to put “car protective” solar panels over all Southern State gov’t parking lots, maybe 12 feet high.

    Trump could do this for both “stimulus” and to confound critics. Even if the total cost is less than current energy cost, it would be useful (not profitable) to have that knowledge available for costs & benefits to cover parking.

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