Tue Mar 6th, 2007 at 12:11:14 PM EST
Let's start off with an assumption: humanity must rapidly replace our reliance on non-renewable energy sources with truly sustainable alternatives. The conventional wisdom--at least that advanced by corporate "Main-Stream Media"--is that free markets are the best source of innovation. Now a question: is free-market innovation the best way to develop viable, sustainable energy alternatives?
The free market will ignore solutions that can't turn a profit. Any firm that fails to follow this simple maxim won't be in business for long. The corollary to this maxim is that the free market will ignore any solution that cannot be controlled, either through property interests (enforceable intellectual property, monopoly licenses, etc.) or because economies of scale demand centralized operation. This means that free market innovation is structurally incompatible with a huge portion of the universe of possible energy solutions.
from the diaries (with a portion of the text put below the fold). -- Jérôme
Free markets love non-renewable energy sources because they are readily controlled. In countries where mineral rights are privately owned (only the US and Canada), these resources can be controlled via property rights. In the rest of the world, they can be controlled equally easily through exclusive contracts with governments. But renewable energy presents a serious control challenge to the free market's need to profit.
When confronted with this challenge, the free market attempts to adapt its usual tool, property, to the problem. Take ethanol and other biofuels, for example. This attempted solution to our energy problems can be controlled both through real property (ownership of the farm land that produces the raw materials) and through intellectual property (proprietary distilling processes, patented microbes that convert things to sugars, etc.). Never mind that biofuels provide a suspiciously poor energy return on investment and often require government subsidies, slave labor, or fossil fuel inputs, or that they don't address more fundamental problems like the world's ongoing growth in energy demand, topsoil depletion, or competition between food and energy. They can make money. Is this the best that free-market innovation can provide?
What about solar? The free market is investing huge resources into innovation in this field. Virtually all of it, however, is being invested in proprietary technology for photovoltaics. In other words, property, which can be controlled to produce a profit. Never mind that, while photovoltaics are a great way to produce electricity, they are a very poor way to produce energy (see my discussion on this point). Why does the free market almost entirely ignore the potentially rich conceptual space of passive solar design? Precisely because the obvious value in this area--that of refining and implementing vernacular technologies--cannot be effectively controlled through existing intellectual property mechanisms. If it can't be controlled to produce a profit, then free market innovation is blind to its potential. Never mind that, in my opinion, passive solar design is the single most promising way to meet our future energy needs?
What about conservation? No very sexy, I know, but certainly an effective way to reduce our energy demand. The problem, again, is that the free market has a difficult time profiting off of it. Sure, the free market can innovate something to sell you that will help you conserve, but the actual act of conservation kills profits. I'm not talking about increased efficiency of our energy use (which, as classical economics tells us, lowers cost and frees up the consumer to expend the money saved in consumption elsewhere, thereby increasing the total standard of living--at least when measured as a function of consumption). No, I'm talking about actual conservation--just plain using less. This is anathema to free market economics. The idea that we could use less energy in total, and then invest the savings in non-economic goods such as leisure time or security-through-self-sufficiency, is highly problematic because it causes a cumulative decrease in GDP (leisure time doesn't count as a "product"!). Imagine: "Here's my business plan... I'm not going to sell anything, and when all is said and done, people will us less. We'll get rich!" Sure, the free-market can provide the service of helping people conserve, but that's a bit like a virus that kills its host before it can reproduce...
So, if free market innovation fails in the entire sphere of vernacular-design-based solution, and can't even contemplate conservation-based solutions, then is it really the pinnacle of sustainable energy innovation? There is only one guaranteed result of relying on the free market to solve our energy problems in a world where production from fossil supplies is peaking: its solutions will never free us from energy dependency or energy scarcity. The free market will never produce a solution to this problem where consumers aren't dependent on firms for the product they purchase, because to do so would fail to produce a profit. Similarly, the free market will never have the economic motivation to make energy cheaper (over the long-term)--it would be, by definition, irrational economic behavior to produce energy so cheaply that the total value of the world market for energy goes down.
If that's what you're looking for--depending on someone else for energy that is always getting more expensive--then the free market is your innovation engine of choice. If, however, you'd prefer secure and inexpensive energy, I'd suggest looking elsewhere. Conservation and vernacular-design-based solutions are a good place to start... just don't expect to find much support for this argument, or ideas for conservation or vernacular-design-based solutions, in Main-Stream Media outlets. They have a profit motive, too, and if they can't sell your viewership to others who want to sell you a profit-orriented product, then the story is of no value.
(Note: this is a cross-post of an article that orriginally appeared at www.jeffvail.net. It's intended to spark discussion (hopefully)--I'm not claiming that the free-market, or market mechanisms have no value at all, but rather to explore their limitations.)