Social Barriers to Renewable Energy Landscapes

The Geographical Review, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Social Barriers to Renewable Energy Landscapes


Social barriers to renewable energy landscapes*.

We are addicted to electricity. To most of us it is indispensable; it powers almost everything we need and like. Those of us with access see its continuous supply as essential to a lifestyle we would like to maintain. Those with little or no access see its greater availability as a way out of a lifestyle we would like to improve. But there is a problem. As demand increases, so too do the varied penalties the environment has to absorb in order to produce it. Flooded canyons, radioactive waste, lost mountaintops, and global warming are just a few of the better-known costs.

As these costs have expanded, our first instinct has been to try to shrink them using technical fixes. For example, a new and safer generation of nuclear reactors is on the drawing board, and we are spending great sums to develop cleaner ways to mine and burn coal. We are hoping, even betting, that such potential innovations can rescue the status quo and avoid cuts to the use of electricity that has become such an important component of modern well-being. The question is whether this is a wise wager; there is growing suspicion that it is not (Marx 1964; Mumford 1967; Winner 1986; Gould 1993; Thayer 1994).

We may be able to identify another approach. One option is for us to recast the long-running play of modern-day electricity supply. We could do this if we were to replace the tired actors we have relied on for so long and turn to some fresh understudies who can step in and take their place. These new actors are members of a troupe called "the renewables," and we judge that three of them have the greatest near-term promise: geothermal, wind, and solar. These substitute forms of energy have many advantages: They are all locally available, sustainable, have low to zero emissions, and--in the case of solar and wind--do not need to be cooled with water. With these advantages, one may wonder, Why have we been so slow to develop them more robustly? What has been holding us back?

One possible explanation for this sluggish pace is that these new players are still in training, that they need more work, that they are--to use less metaphorical terms--encumbered by technical issues. This premise, however, is open to question. For example, when we examine it more closely, we find that the conversion efficiency of photovoltaic cells has not changed significantly for more than a decade, that standardized wind turbines are now routinely mass-produced in several countries, such as Denmark and China, and that few if any important mysteries remain in the operation of most geothermal power plants.

The other possible reason for the holdup tugs us in a completely different direction: Social barriers are blocking our way. That is to say, people are creating the problems, not technology. This is not an entirely new observation; a rich literature exists on societal reactions to new technologies. The journal Technology and Culture, for example, is dedicated to exploring this idea, and David Nye and Joel Tarr, among other scholars, have examined various aspects of the social adoption of conventional energy sources such as coal, oil, and uranium (Nye 1999; Tarr 1999). What has been heard more recently, however, is a rising chorus of opposition to the very energy resources we have been hoping will help take their place.

The first thought might be that barriers erected to renewables are politically motivated, and no doubt that factor is important in the introduction of anything as fundamental as a change in the source of our electricity. However, politics are such an encompassing element in every decision that as an explanation for delay it evens out across all the resources. Another presumed barrier might be economics, specifically the purported higher economic cost for renewables. Although this argument might be valid in some cases and in some places, it is equally not valid in other circumstances, such as in Japan and many other places where the costs of conventional electricity are at least as high. …

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