Don’t Get Me Started: Stranded Capitalists
New thoughts from this year’s Bioneers conference.
—by John deJong
The northern California sun playing through the clouds coming off the Pacific gave the 24th Annual Bioneers Conference, held in San Rafael, California last month had the air of a fairy tale. If Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Complex were shades of green instead of a Southern California palette, it could have been Oz. The mornings were filled with inspirational speeches and exhortations on the whys and hows of saving Earth. Native American Tom Goldtooth equated purchasing carbon offsets in the Third World to imperialism or taking money from someone else’s bank account to pay one’s own burden of carbon debt.
There were a lot of good words, ideas and truths that gave hope at Bioneers. Change incentives. Community wealth. Scalability of renewable resources. Diseases of over-consumption. Don’t fight forces, use them. The cure for cancer is to not get it. But the final panel I attended on the last day of this three-day conference was my favorite.
The description alone for “Disruptive Financing: Innovations for Distributed Energy and Sustainability” was thought-provoking: “An exploration of the financial levers that can position solar and clean energy to break out by 2015 in the US, including crowd-funding that can democratize investment in clean energy, make money, and mitigate climate disruption.” Hosted by Angelina Galiteva, JD (www.reenewables100.org), with Billy Parish (www.joinmosaic.org) and Marco Krapels (www.rabobank.com), it was an eye-opening hour.
The new word I learned is “stranded capital.” It’s a relatively new term, coined to describe huge capital assets like coal and nuclear-powered power plants when the cost of the electricity they produce is more expensive than a fair and open market will bear. The steady decline in the cost of installing solar-electric panels on one’s own roof has put into question the market value of hundreds of billions of dollars of assets. Stranded capital is not a good word if it’s your capital that is stranded, but it is a very good word for just about everyone else, including Mother Earth.
Around the world, solar electric is changing the energy equation like nothing since… electricity. There are states in Germany that have achieved 100% solar and are shooting for 300%. Solar electric’s distributed generation makes expensive electric grids a thing of the past, as well. Transmission lines, which waste a third of the electricity generated, will serve as bird roosts and the Third World will be able to skip the dirty parts of electrification.
A “fair and open market” is critical to this break from the tyranny of monopolies. As long as capitalists “enjoy” a monopoly, they can charge prices for their goods and services that insure that no capital asset is stranded. Before deregulation, Ma Bell enjoyed a total monopoly on phone service, charging whatever they could talk compliant regulators into. The electric power industry was in a similar situation until two decades ago when the gates of electric generation were thrown open to everyone. Now the market is much more competitive as well as more volatile.
Competition is good. So is volatility. When the price of gasoline or electricity never varied, no one ever figured out that conserving energy had a bankable economic benefit.
I don’t feel so much like I’ve been off “talking to the fairies” as having gone up to a mountain and talked with some very wise people who gave me hope for the future.
John deJong is the associate publisher of CATALYST. For more about Bioneers events and projects, visit www.bioneers.org.