Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Why we need to study the humanities

Last month, I wrote about the announcement of the concentrated solar power project planned in the Sahara. I expressed my disbelief that anyone could believe that imports of renewable energy would not constitute the same kind of security vulnerabilities that imports of fossil fuels already do.

After that post, I visited Desertec's website and found the following at the top of the FAQs:

Is this simply another way in which Europe will exploit Africa? What are the benefits for the MENA communities?

  • The current situation is based on exploiting limited resources like gas and oil, but solar energy is practically unlimited and as such, the owners can’t be "exploited".
This answer shows an astonishing ignorance of history. Basically, we have turned over a lot of financial resources to a bunch of engineers, and if they can figure out that the technology will work, then of course there will be no societal problems, right? After all, we didn't come across any social upheaval in any of our engineering classes.

So here is a synopsis from someone who did spend some time looking into what colonialism and the history of oil exploration were. The people who decide whether locals are being exploited are not the European engineers behind the project, nor the politicians representing local people when contracts are negotiated and signed. Rather, these agreements can potentially be called into question at any moment by anyone affected.

Imagine a democratic uprising like the one we are witnessing in Iran (I understand that Iran is not part of the Desertec project; I merely mention it because of the current political protests). If a new government takes power after such a revolution, the new government might want to represent the people better. It might then look at these contracts with European energy firms and realize that there is quite a hefty margin. For instance, Europeans might be importing this electricity for two or three cents less than they can produce it at home. Since these investments are literally stranded in these foreign countries, this new government -- not the one that negotiated and signed the original contracts -- might then decide that there is nothing to stop them from charging a tax that will bring the price of electricity up to the rates that Europeans already pay at home.

At that point, power from the Sahara will cost exactly as much as power from Europe, so the very purpose of the project -- providing cheaper renewable electricity to Europe -- will have been ruined. Europe will then be caught between a rock and a hard place: if we are getting a large chunk of our electricity from the Sahara at that point (say, 15 percent), we will not be able to do without this power. The whole thing will become a way of making these Saharan countries richer, and when non-democratic countries follow the example of the country with the democratic revolution, we will then be funding states that we have serious human rights problems with.

It has all happened before with oil and gas, and it will not be any different with renewables.

In retrospect, another fact seems astounding: this project was all over the news even though nothing has happened at all. A number of major firms have merely announced that they will be conducting some meetings. I suppose you can not only be too big to fail, but also too big to ignore.

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