Sustainable Futures

Matthew N. Eisler reviews Travis Bradford’s Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry and Bruce Podobnik’s Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age.

By Matthew N. Eisler | October 15, 2007

Travis Bradford. Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. xvi + 238 pp. $24.95.

Bruce Podobnik. Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006. 223 pp. Cloth, $71.95; paper, $23.95.

A common tendency of authors in the growing field of energy systems analysis is to stray from the path of description into the realm of prescription and prognostication. This seems almost unavoidable, given the increasing public pressure for solutions to the problem of energy sustainability. It is another question entirely how well such works will age. Visionary technological literature can have a short shelf life, particularly works focusing on the “hydrogen economy,” a favorite topic of techno-utopians like Jeremy Rifkin. In 2003 the hydrogen economy was the subject of a presidential State of the Union address; now the idea is waning once more into obscurity. It is always cause for interest, therefore, when serious new work makes its way onto the market, as is the case with offerings by Travis Bradford and Bruce Podobnik. These books present contrasting perspectives on the ways that power politics, economics, and human agency have combined to inform energy technologies in the past and how they might do so in the future.

Bradford’s Solar Revolution has something of the tone and earnestness of the old-time technobooster, perhaps reflecting a career spent in the investment fund community. The approach is based on an assumption that certain technological advances are historically inevitable—what historians and sociologists of science and technology call “hard technological determinism.” Bradford, founder and president of the nonprofit Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts, argues that the logic of the market will decide the optimal energy systems of the future. For him fossil fuel and nuclear energy systems are too dirty, costly, and inefficient to survive for much longer. Only photovoltaic electricity, produced through the transfer of solar energy to a silicon semiconductor, can meet energy needs in a growing economy without sacrificing the lifestyle to which consumers have become accustomed. For Bradford, technology is a substitute for policy and culture. There is no need to legislate technological change or conserve energy, he suggests, because photovoltaic systems are the best of all possible sustainable-energy technologies and have the right mix of cost-effectiveness and flexibility.

Japan and Germany, two energy-poor countries, furnish Bradford’s model. Their governments embarked on major campaigns in the 1990s to expand photovoltaic power. Currently both countries aim for further growth. To those who would claim it is too expensive for the U.S. market, which has the cheapest power in the world, Bradford states that the financial cost of photovoltaic power looks much more attractive when compared with the environmental and social costs of existing fossil fuel and nuclear energy systems. And his free-market convictions are only skin-deep. Bradford believes that mild government intervention, including rebates, tax deductions, feed-in tariffs (which require utilities to purchase renewable energy), and improved legislation for net-metering (which allows homeowners and businesses to sell any surplus electricity they generate back to utilities), can do much to expand photovoltaic power in the United States.

Bradford may not convince arch techno-skeptics, but he has a point: with diminishing fossil fuel supplies and the increasing economic and social price of nuclear power, the market for photovoltaic power seems likely to grow. He does not, however, seriously consider the material and economic limitations of this technological system. Bradford assumes the costs of photovoltaic power will drop (and claims that his system will thrive because of dropping costs) without considering the issue of high demand for silicon, already a factor in the rising price of photovoltaic panels. Furthermore, in common with previous utopian energy schemes, Bradford’s solution provides no real road map. He assumes that once well supplied with the facts, policy makers and consumers will makes the choices necessary to deliver the solar society of the future.

Bruce Podobnik’s Global Energy Shifts offers an altogether different perspective. A historical sociology of energy systems, it highlights the political and cultural obstacles facing any effort to alter existing energy technologies. Podobnik, an associate professor of sociology at Lewis and Clark College, explores the human power relations that shape energy technology. He suggests that competition for natural resources, national security, and prestige have been at least as important as objective economic demand in shaping energy systems. Rooting his broad survey in the so-called center-periphery theory of Immanuel Wallerstein, Podobnik argues that with the advent of the industrial revolution, the control of energy resources became inextricable from national economic development, international competition, and imperialism. The state has continuously played a key role in initiating and subsidizing shifts to new energy resources—first coal, then oil. This has resulted in tremendous inequality in energy consumption, with so-called core industrialized nations using a disproportionate share.

Podobnik employs a spare, urgent style in emphasizing the recent and rapid nature of these developments. Citing data from such sources as the United Nations, the International Energy Agency, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, he shows how vast amounts of energy have been introduced into industrial economies in a relatively short time. More energy was consumed between 1946 and 1973 than between 1800 and 1946. This breathtaking expansion was not a response to demand, Podobnik argues, but was engineered by petroleum, automobile, and military– industrial interests, particularly in the United States. As governments of industrialized nations directly and indirectly subsidized nuclear, hydroelectric, and fossil fuel–based energy and transportation systems, they encouraged a lifestyle based on massive energy consumption. This habit, claims Podobnik, has fostered conflict and ecological catastrophe as developed but resource-poor northern nations have attempted to exercise hegemony over resource-rich developing nations in the southern hemisphere.

Podobnik’s book makes for engaged but relentlessly grim reading. Unlike Bradford, he does not dwell on miracle technological solutions. Modern energy regimes are tremendously complicated social, economic, and technological systems with deep historical roots, he argues; there are no easy answers to the problem of sustainable energy production. Podobnik does sometimes oversimplify matters. In particular, center-periphery theory is a blunt instrument where nuance is wanted. A number of nations, including Canada, seem to fall on both sides of this dualism. The strength of Podobnik’s work, however, is that it shows how politics and economics cannot be divorced from energy technology systems. The lessons of history, he writes, reveal that such systems are neither static nor “natural” but have been constantly shaped and reshaped by human choices. People decided to engineer energy shifts in the past and will continue do so in the future. Less concerned than Bradford with the mechanics of energy salvation and employing a more cautious and scholarly approach, Podobnik ultimately offers a similar message: the fragile, evanescent nature of modern energy systems should give hope to those who wish to replace the incumbent order with a more sustainable and equitable one.