Caught in the Devil's Bargain

A drink machine in the 'hood. Here we see carbon fuel is now used, instead of uranium, to make electricity to sell iced green tea that was tainted with cesium from the nuclear accident (the 2012 crop has also come up tainted!). Perhaps this is not the best use of precious energy supplies.
Summer is just around the corner, and now that there are no nuclear plants operating in Japan, Japanese citizens, corporations and officialdom are belatedly scrambling to come up with energy conservation plans. As if they couldn't have seen this coming months ago! As soon as everyone got through the summer of 2011 without any brownouts or rolling blackouts, they went back to their usual complacency, heedless of the need to conserve for other good reasons such as reducing carbon emissions or the trade deficit.
The university where I work had a conservation program last year that demanded only the easy sacrifices, but even these saved the institution a considerable sum in electricity fees. But as soon as the summer was over, everyone was eager to go back to life as before. What was worse was that no one has had the foresight to get solar panels installed on all the rooftop real estate we have on campus.
You may feel like a bucking stallion when you smoke these, but like the tea leaves, tobacco also picked up cesium. The government didn't bother to take the tainted tobacco off the market. They are cancer sticks already containing radioactive polonium 210, right, so who cares? ...uh, besides the people who have to breathe the second-hand smoke.
With the solar panels on the roof of my home, I can sell electricity for 48 yen/kwh, while I have to pay only 16.2 yen to buy a kwh from TEPCO. Over a year, this gave me electricity costs of 118,023 yen (US$1,400) and electricity income of 107,280 yen (US$1,357). With the cost of the panels rolled up in the mortgage, it takes about 14 years for the cost to be recovered, even with the subsidy for solar-generated electricity.
These figures are for a recent construction, insulated and energy-efficient, “all electricity” small 3-bedroom home. The insulation, water heater, refrigerator, washing machine and the stove were the most energy efficient designs available in 2008. We gave up air conditioning during the peak hours of hot afternoons, and cut back in other various ways, but it was obvious that the solar panels can’t provide even half of what a family uses. Without the subsidy (a factor of 2.96 times the retail price), the solar panel income would have been only 36,243 yen (US$458), if I could only sell it at TEPCO’s selling price of 16.2 yen/kwh. So there is still a lot of green energy innovation and energy conservation that has to happen in order to silence the voices that want to bring back nuclear. But it is also important to remember that the valuation of energy created with carbon fuels is not fixed in stone. In the future, if we finally understand that the atmosphere cannot take any more CO2, solar energy will be properly valued at something above 16.2 or even 48 yen/kwh.
As far as I can tell, the conservation effort has barely begun. The efforts made last year consisted of setting air conditioners at higher temperatures, turning off a few lights, and having weekend shifts in factories. No one wanted to set bold policies such as, for example, forcing landowners to have government-owned solar panels on their property. Instead, governments just timidly tweak the feed-in tariff or set up a confusing system of incentives then hope something good will happen. No one wants to face the difficult questions about curtailing economic activity, or commandeering the economy, but this is really what energy conservation is about.

The governor of Tokyo whined about all the electricity “wasted” by refrigerated vending machines, but even these create incomes and jobs for someone. Why pick on them but not demand (just to pick an example of a possible victim) that television networks stop broadcasting during peak hours? Real energy conservation will only happen if we stop kidding ourselves that we can both reduce carbon emissions to sustainable levels and meet our growing “needs” with alternatives to carbon fuels. It ain’t going to happen. Instead, we can only hope we find a way to transition peacefully to a society in which more people work back on the farm (as championed by the slow food and sustainable food movement). Food cost should become a greater share of household budgets, while mortgage payments should recede from being the biggest part of them. As Joni Mitchell said long ago, “we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

written by Joni Mitchell

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm
I'm going to join in a rock 'n' roll band
I'm going to camp out on the land
I'm going to try an' get my soul free

We are stardust

We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you

I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it's the time of man
I don't know who I am
But you know life is for learning

We are stardust

We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock

We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust

Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves
back to the garden

1 comment:

  1. You've touched on something really important about food security and policy here. It is important to pay more for good food, real food. We should be supporting organics, if we can afford it, that's the only way to help make it mainstream and more affordable. Consumers should be willing to pay more for food that has been produced ethically, and with farm workers paid at living wages.