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America's Energy Problems Are Political, Not Technological

Nuclear Power? What’s the Alternative?

by JOE GIAMBRONE

Glad you asked. It turns out that the alternative energy market is the new gold rush of the 21st century. That’s the good news.

In the wake of Italy’s overwhelming rejection of high-risk atomic power, Reuters tells us:

"Enel Green Power, Italy’s biggest renewable company, was up 2.9 percent and K.R.Energy was up 14 percent. Kerself was up 11.6 percent, Pramac up 11.5 percent and Ergycap up 12 percent." (Reuters, June 13)

We even have a new solar power tower design that can continue generating electricity through the night. Located in Seville, Spain this 19.9 MW plant by Torresol Energy is the first solar plant able to store enough heat to continue feeding the turbines after dark.

One glance at the project summons memories of the mid 1970s, and particularly the cover of the October 1975 issue of Popular Science. Lo and behold, this exact "Solar Power Tower" was featured at newsstands everywhere 36 years ago. For trivia buffs, James Bond’s nemesis The Man With the Golden Gun also built a solar power tower of sorts back in 1974.

The Power Tower needs no high technology yet to be developed. It simply bounces light from mirrors — lots of mirrors, synchonized to follow the sun. Not rocket science, not waiting for nanotechnology or advances in space travel. Mirrors.

I offer that America’s energy problems are primarily political and not technological at all. Clean, safe and decentralized technologies have been fought and brought to a standstill because large, dirty, centrally-controlled, deep-pocketed interests don’t like competition.

The buzzword / acronym to watch for is "Concentrated Solar Power" (CSP).

Look to the Parabola

A less grandiose solar station design employs mirrors shaped like troughs that can focus the energy on a pipe located at the proper focal distance. A Boulder City Nevada installation by Acciona takes up 400 acres and generates 64 MW.

"The plant employs 760 parabolic concentrators with more than 182,000 mirrors that concentrate the sun’s rays onto more than 18,240 receiver tubes. Fluid that heats up to 735?F flows through these tubes and is used to produce steam that drives a conventional turbine, which is connected to a generator that produces electricity." (Acciona website)

An Israeli company called ZenithSolar has a breakthrough photovoltaic collector scheme. Each sun-tracker looks something like a satellite dish, and features "two 11 square meter semi-parabolic optical mirror collectors." It then focuses the sun beams onto both a PV and a heat collector to get more energy out of the sunlight. The company claims "up to 75% efficiency" and wants to power entire cities with large arrays of these devices.

But what about your rooftop?

Efficiency advances in solar collectors and the new solar roof shingles continue at a steady pace, but what’s holding it back?

Again, the political situation has corporations at an advantage over individual homeowners. Most places (such as my native California) will let you sell some energy back to the grid. The meter will run backwards, up to a point. You aren’t allowed to make a profit however.

A homeowner with a windmill and solar array cannot become a profitable energy seller, unlike utilities and some private energy corporations.

What is the reasoning behind this?

It seems illustrative of a captured regulatory system designed to keep the little fish from competing effectively against the big fish. Why aren’t people simply encouraged to produce as much electricity as they can, thereby reducing the burden on (polluting) utility companies? The fact that they aren’t is a form of market manipulation in favor of large interests at the expense of individuals.

What about small to medium-sized businesses with large flat rooftops?

I tried to find the answer to that question, but good luck navigating the labyrinth at PG&E’s website. Each locale and each energy company treats the little fish differently, with all sorts of come and go temporary "programs" that are not only confusing but discourage long-term investments.

A recent push for "Net Energy Metering" in California has provided some token opportunities and good public relations, but it’s highly limited in scope. A "cap" of five percent of the "utility’s aggregate peak energy demand" limits the competition from small suppliers.

These problems are structural political issues more so than technological limitations. If everyone had been allowed to enter the much touted "market" then the alternative energy sector would be much larger today than it currently is. The costs of R&D and mass-producing the energy collectors would drop far below what we see even now.

Many of the companies at the leading edge of clean renewable technologies are not American. The jobs will be created elsewhere. The rewards will be accumulated overseas.

And the bad news…

Still Obama clings to his big nuclear plant subsidy scheme, his Department of Energy having the brass cojones to label nuclear "clean energy." In the wake of Fukushima, the DOE continues to claim:

"With the significant energy and environmental challenges facing the nation in this new century, the benefits of clean and safe nuclear energy are increasingly apparent."

I suppose the people at the Department of Energy are too busy to read a newspaper. Not clean. Not safe. Change your absurd web page please and the absurd policies that accompany it.

Nuclear industry flaks will tirelessly argue their case, usually based on dollars per kilowatt hour with cooked numbers that ignore most of nuclear’s real costs and damage to society. One wonders how their calculus is faring over in Japan these days.

Closer to your home, AP reports three quarters of all American nuclear plants leak radioactive water from old rusty pipes. Often water containminated with Tritium leaks down into groundwater. Representative Edward Markey(D) said, "There would be no warning because no one ever checks the integrity of these underground pipes."

Tell us something we don’t know.

I’ve read a pro-nuclear defense of Tritium, as it’s the stuff inside your watch that makes it glow. Allegedly safe then, except trapping it in a metal and glass box and ingesting it are two completely different things.

I’m quite tired of the nuclear industry’s position that we have no choice but to be exposed to their radiation. We aren’t supposed to complain, nor to stop them from poisoning us and our children further. We’re supposed to be grateful, apparently, that the doses aren’t immediately lethal. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that we have a say in the matter as well.

That’s quite a bit to digest, and perhaps we’ll tackle wind, tide generation, fuel cells and geothermal heat mining another day. Cold fusion? Is that for real? A whole host of inventions, proposals, implementations and outside the box ponderings awaits.

Joe Giambrone is a filmmaker and author of Hell of a Deal: a Supernatural Satire. He edits the Political Film Blog. He be reached at: polfilmblog at gmail.