The Multinational Monitor




An Interview with Dr. Barry Commoner

Dr. Barry Commoner, 71, is founder of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College of the City University of New York. Dr. Commoner is a well known writer and lecturer on the relationship between environmental and energy problems and economic and political issues. He has been a member of the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and since 1984 has served on the National Board of the Rainbow Coalition, acting as the Rev. Jesse Jackson's advisor on environmental and energy issues. Dr. Commoner's research activities at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems include studies of the occurrence of carcinogens in the environment, methods of reorganizing agriculture that foster the production of both food and fuel and protect the environment; new energy- and cost-saving conservation systems for urban housing; and alternative methods of municipal waste disposal. His books include Science and Survival, The Closing Circle, The Poverty of Power, and The Politics of Energy.

The rising cost of energy will literally cannibalize the economic system that it's supposed to support. This is intolerable and we need to undertake a solar transformation for that sake alone. MULTINATIONAL MONITOR: What is your answer to the talk of more nuclear power plants to displace fossil fuel plants and slow global warming?

DR. BARRY COMMONER: The greenhouse effect calls for cutting back on the production of carbon dioxide and, in theory, you could do that by substituting nuclear power, just as you could by going to solar. But there are serious problems with nuclear power. One is that the amount of nuclear power that would be required, the amount of new construction, is simply fantastic. Several years ago Newhouse & Williams developed a strategy for reducing the greenhouse effect that led to 40,000 gigawatts of nuclear power in the year 2100. This would limit the temperature rise to 1 degree centigrade ... [I]f only fossil fuels were burned, the CO2 induced temperature increase would reach about 8.5 degrees centigrade, and that's disastrous.

A worldwide nuclear power capacity of about 40,000 gigawatts in the year 2100 represents a 100-fold increase over present levels. This means a sharp increase in the likelihood of a nuclear accident and an enormous increase in the amount of radioactive waste--a problem that even now is unresolved. Moreover, this would commit the world to an electric power system that would literally block the solar transition. There is a choice point, here: between replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power or with solar energy. If you want to use solar to replace fossil fuels, then all of the systems have to be decentralized, including the electric power system. Solar energy is widely disseminated and the only efficient way of using it is at the point of application. It makes no sense to have a centralized solar electric power plant, and then lose energy by transmission. And the same is true of replacing liquid fuel with solar energy. You would then be producing alcohol, let's say, from crops. And that would be widely disseminated rather than centralized.... Nuclear power produces electricity in highly- centralized plants. There is no way of making a small nuclear power plant - it's got to be big. Which means that the present centralized power systems will become even more so.

MM: What makes up the electric power systems?

COMMONER: The power lines and the power plants - and, of course, the users. At present, electric power is centralized in large power plants and wires go out to users.... Now, in the case of nuclear power, there is a very large economy of scale, because of the large cost of controls. So the introduction of nuclear power fits the present centralized power system, and in fact would make it even more centralized.

Solar electricity has to be decentralized. You produce the electricity on the roof of the building that is going to use it. What that means is that you have to transform the present, centralized power system into a decentralized one. The wires would be used largely as a way of shifting electricity from one place to another, and most of the electricity would be produced locally where it is needed and if you produced more than you need you might shift it through the wires somewhere else.

If you have an industry, let's say a factory, that has a certain requirement for electricity, you put in enough photovoltaic cells to take care of that factory. Of course, this cannot be done in every case. A huge demand, for example for aluminum smelting, would be difficult to achieve with photovoltaic cells.

MM: Technologically, is solar power developed to the point where that is feasible?

COMMONER: Absolutely. For example, photovoltaic cells are probably cost effective in New York City right now. The reason is not that we have so much sun, but that we have the highest rates for the cost of electricity in the country. You can save money, compared to utility power, if you properly integrate the photovoltaic electricity by, for example, applying it to an appliance that is heavily used when there is a lot of sun, like a fan or a refrigerator, or at a time when there is peak use of electricity. We know how to produce alcohol from crops to run cars; we know how to produce heat from solar energy for space heating; we can produce solar methane from biomass. These are all in hand, and they can be applied immediately.

MM: How do you see a transition to solar power occurring? Is it possible given the current economic system or do the utilities simply have too much to lose? For example, if solar power is cost-effective in New York City, it would seem that some people would be using it, because they could save money, but it doesn't seem to be happening on any large scale. Why is that?

COMMONER: Well, one reason is opposition from the utilities.... The solar transition begins with more efficient use of fossil fuels. So, for example, the first step you would take would be to decentralize power production by using cogenerators. You'd have a building ... with its own power plant in the basement, run on natural gas, because that's the least-polluting fuel that's available. That power plant would produce power for the building and the waste heat that is normally thrown away by a centralized power plant would be used for heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. That cuts back enormously on the amount of fuel that you burn. As you know, a central power plant discards two-thirds of the energy in the fuel as waste heat. So a cogenerator involves a sharp cutback in the burning of fossil fuels. Incidentally, as to the greenhouse effect, it's better to burn methane, natural gas, than it is to burn fuel oil, or coal, because relatively little CO2 is produced per unit of energy with methane. These are reasons why I call for the use of methane as the transitional fuel, the bridging fuel between our dependence on fossil fuel and moving to solar energy. By using natural gas-operated cogenerators, first you're cutting back on the use of fuel, therefore cutting back on CO2 and you're setting up a decentralized power system, which then easily moves step by step into the use of solar sources.

MM: What would the economics and politics be? Would companies undertake this on their own initiative, or would it take a major government plan?

COMMONER: We actually have some history on this. Until recently, there was a trend here in New York, for example, and elsewhere in the country, of moving toward gas-operated cogenerators. There is a motel, a Holiday Inn, right across from LaGuardia airport that has a cogenerator sitting right next to it that produces electricity and heat. The reason it can be done here is that we happen to have a gas company that doesn't sell electricity - Brooklyn Union Gas. Consolidated Edison sells both electricity and gas and if you look around New York City you'll find all the cogenerators in the city are not in the Consolidated Edison area, but in the Brooklyn Union Gas area, which is Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Con Ed put every obstacle they could in the way of people installing cogenerators.... For a time it was possible to get tax savings by installing cogenerators because it was saving energy. That's now been repealed. There were active third party investors that would come to a user and say, 'We will install the co-generator at our expense in return for sharing the savings in your power consumption.' And ... it made sense for them to do it largely because of the tax savings involved. So a simple thing like reinstating that tax saving would create an entrepreneurial situation that favors cogeneration--providing you can get the utilities out of the way.

MM: What is the pattern nationwide? Are most utilities like Con Ed, in that they provide both electricity and gas?

COMMONER: Most of them. There are a few exceptions. The utilities in California tend to be more open-minded. In fact, there was some suggestion that they would go into the business of building co-generators themselves, and installing them. But you see, there are economic barriers, because a utility is accustomed to using large amounts of capital in big chunks. For a typical 50-unit tenement building in New York, a cogenerator probably costs no more than $25,000 or $35,000. So it's a small item and it puts them in a completely different business.

MM: What about photovoltaics, if they would be cost-effective for a place like New York now, why aren't they being used more?

COMMONER: Because it requires integration into the present system. for example, a cost-effective use of photovoltaic electricity in New York City has relatively few horizontal spaces, its mostly vertical. Ther's a way of putting these cells on thin stainless steel, and you make a venetian blind out of it.

Now, what would you do with it? What it produces is DC electricity that's produced when the sun is shining. What you do is hook it to a user, a demand, that peaks when the sun is out and it's hot. Let's say a window fan. So you produce a window fan with a DC motor; most motors are AC. Now, in fact, the DC motor is already an energy saver, because when AC motors are started they take a big serge of electricity. This means a big contribution to peak demand, which means you need more capacity at the power plant. Moreover, in order to regulate the activity of an AC fan, let's say with a thermostat, you can do it only by turning the fan off and on repeatedly - this means peak surges which are wasteful. In the DC fan, the speed at which it runs will simply depend on how much electricity goes into it... If you have it running on photovoltaic cells it will automatically run faster when it's hot and slower when it's not so hot. That's a very cost efficient, energy efficient linkage.

Then the question comes up, what do you do at night when you run the fan and there's no sunlight? What you need is an automatic switchover to the utility electricity. And, you need an AC/DC converter. These things, electronically, are very easy to do. So what I'm talking about iwould be an itegrated unit, photovoltaic venetian blinds with, let's say a window fan, built right into the same window, with an electronic connection so that when there is insufficient electricity from the photovoltaic cells, it draws from the utility. Now you can see at once that the utility is going to have something to say about this.

MM: It seems that such a system would require a lot of work in an apartment. Who would pay for that?

COMMONER: Actually, what is involved is only the cost of the DCD fan and its electronic controls and the venetian blind, relative to the cost of an ordinary AC fan. Over time, the electricity saved by using this way of movinig the air rather than one simply plugged into Con Ed would equal and then exceed the initial costs.

MM Is it cost effective now to have photovoltaics that would provide for all of the electric needs of an apartment, or a large office building?

COMMONER: To make it cost effective, you have to integrate it into the systems of demand. Some demands will not be cost effective. I can guarantee you it won't be cost effective to usee photovoltaic cells to produce the energy needed to run an electric furnace. But, in the case I'm talking about, there are electrice demands that generate savings... Just to give you some sense of what I mean by integration, an office building that is hot on one side and cool on the over side is using its energy inefficiently. If you can equalize that, the energy that you use to equalize it yields a big savings in the energy that's involved in the heating a cooling of the building. So the critical thing would be to put the air moving fans that adjust the balance in the building on photovoltaic cells... You need to find in the entire energy system those demands that are nicely balanced with what photovoltaic electricity can do. And if you do that, you can get a good deal of savings... One of the principles that's involved here is not the think of a gadget - here's a photovoltaic cell - so we'll use it everywere. You have to think carefully about how it is to be integrated into the electrical system, including making use of the existing system.

MM: In order for photovoltaics to meet the full range of electric needs in an apartment or office builing, I presume they will have to be developed to a still-higher level of efficiency. What kind of money and what kind of effort is being put into research?

COMMONER: As you know, all the research on solar energy has been cut way back. But I don't think that future technical developments need to hold back the development of a system.

MM: What do you see as the practical political and economic steps that will bring this about? Will it take another large increase in the price of oil, for example?

COMMONER: My fundamental position is this: that the nearly total reliance on fossil fuels is economically intolerable... The fuction of energy is to generate wealth. That is its only function. What it does is drive the productive machinery that generates economic wealth. THere's a feedback. Part of that wealth that's generated has to be fed back into the production of energy... The problem with fossil fuels is that the energy part of the loop progressively demands more of the output of the economic system simply to keep the economic system running. For example, in the 1960s the amount of available business capital that had to be used to produce the energy to run the U.S. system was about 16 percent. It is well over one-third now. And as the price of energy rises, it will require more and more of the output of the economic system simply to keep it running... When you use a non-renewable energy source, the cost of prouding it automatically rises exponentially as you usee it... Why is it that Middle East oil is much cheaper to produce than U.S. oil? We ain the U.S. keep forgetting this, but the U.S. oil fields are the oldest ones, from the point of exploitation, in the world.

The Middle East began producing oil only in the 1950s. But inevitably, all of the oil will progressively become more expensive. What's confused people is that the OPEC activities have put bumps on this rising curve... Fundamentally there is an economically intolerable consequence of relying on fossil fuels. That is, the rising cost of energy will literally cannibalize the economic system that it's supposed to support. This is intolerable and we need to undertake a solar transition for that sake alone. It ought to be started right now.

My attitude toward the whoole response to the greenhouse effect is, first, there's no point in waiting and arguing over whether it's going to happen, which some people want to do. We have to undertake the solar transition, beginning now, in order to save our economic system. Its got to be done. I argue as to whether nuclear power can replace solar energy in that regard, and of course it can't because it is also based onn a non-renewable source, uranium, and is in fact the most expensive way to produce energy anyway. As far as I'm concerned the greenhouse problem is just anotherr reason for determining that we have to undertake a solar transition right now... We should shift away from coal and oil and toward natural gas as a bridging fuel. The gas pipeline network shoul begin to replace the electric power network as the way of moving energy across the country.

MM: Would that require new pipelines?

COMMONER: It would require more pipelines. And the existence of an expanded methane carrying network then becomes an element in the solar system, because methane can be produced from soloar sources. At first, the expanded gas network is designed to expand the use of gas operated local cogenerators that will gradually replace centralized electric power. This will also cut back on the consumption of fossil fuel, and because methane is burned, it will produce less CO2 per unit of energy than coal or oil. Then, you begin to find decentralized sources of solar methane. Sewage treatment plants produce methane. You can set up an algae farm, like seaweeds on the west coast, harvest them, and convert them to methane. You can start by putting that into the pipeline. There will be certain seasons when methane production is enhanced beyond demand. You then use the depleted gas fields to store the methane. So that eventually, the methane system becomes a way of integrating the entire solar network. There is no insurmountable technical problem here.

MM: Are there any hazars? Worker hazards or environmental problems associated with methane?

COMMONER: Well, we have a lot of experience using methane gas. Properly handled, it's not a terribly dangerous thing. The one thing you want to avoid with natural gas is large-scale concentrated storage, which can be a very risky thing, and the transport of liquified methane in ships is not a great idea. But the beauty of methane is that you can set the system up now, using natural gas, and you can gradually dilute it with solar methane with no problem whatsoever. It's the same gas...

There are many schemes for producing methane from algae, methane from sewage, methane from pig manure, methane from wood. There are a whole series of things that can be done. The important thing is to use as the source of biological material the product of recent photosynthesis. That's a very important point. People say well, if you burn solar methane you're producing carbon dioxide, and that's not what you want to do. But what people forget is that the carbon dioxide you're producing was taen out of the air last year photosynthetically.

MM: So it's not going to add to CO2 levels in the atmosphere?

COMMONER: Some people argue that this is a bad thing to do, but in fact burning recently produced biomass does not add to the CO2 level.

MM: What about fuels for cars, vehicles?

COMMMONER: You must have liquid fuel, because it's absolutely essential for transportation. You can't fly airplanes without liquid fuel. And the same is true of cars. Let's take cars. You have two choices: You can run cars on ethanol, produced from recent photosynthesis. This is well-established and, in fact, there is a fair amount of ethanol fuel being produced in the United States today. Then you get into arguments such as "wouldn't this cut back on the availability of food?" We did a big study on that showing how typical Midwestern farms could produce as much food as they are today and enough ethanol to replace a third of the gasoline in the United States, and the farmers' profits would double.

MM: Does ethanol use the parts of the corn that are normally consumed or other parts, such as the husks?

COMMONER: You don't make it just from corn. We did a very detailed study on what crops would be needed. In the Midwest now the crop is half corn and half soybeans. And basically what you do is replace the soybeans with sugar beats... Our present agricultural system is designed to raise animals. That's what it does. And that requires a 6 to 1 ratio between carbohydrate and protein. So now you come along and say, hold it, we want to have food but we also want to run engines. You have to ask yourself what does the engine want? Now, unlike animals, which have to not only expend energy but also grow - that's what protien is for - you don't repair a car by growing an engine. All the engine wants is the carbon - the carbohydrate. So if you make ethanol out of corn what happens is you lose about 40 percent of the nutritional value of the corn. The residue has all the protein but it's lost a good deal of the carbohydrate. So you've imbalanced it, and it's not as good nutritionally as it was. The obvious answer is to grow crops that have extra carbohydrates. And the sugar beet/ corn system has about double the carbohydrate—from the same amount of land, and the same labor and machinery—that you get from the present system. What you then do is use up the extra carbohydrate to make ethanol and what you've got left behind is the same amount of carbohydrate and protein that we have now.

MM: And that would still be useful?

COMMONER: Exactly. The residues from ethanol production are excellent feed for animals. ... This is the antithesis of developing the gadget as a way of producing alcohol. It's perfectly possible to produce alcohol in such a way that it takes more energy to produce the alcohol than you can get out of it. And Mobil has developed such a method—they've literally described it. What you have to do is integrate it. And to integrate it into the crop system you have to go all the way back to the structure of agriculture and change it.

MM: What changes?

COMMONER: What you have to do in the case of the United States is replace soybeans with sugar beets. People say we can't do that, but that's exactly how soybeans were introduced. Soybeans replaced straight corn and forage, because they're high in protein so that you could get more protein to the animal by feeding than by having it walk around eating grass. And the efficiency of producing animals went way up as a result. Well, we now have a new need. We've got those gas engines that we want to run.

The other thing you can do about liquid fuel is use liquid methane. And that's being done. Brooklyn Union Gas has trucks run on liquid methane. What it means is putting a tank, say in the trunk and what you do is compress the methane and it takes just minor adjustments on the carburetor to run it. In fact, the trucks they're running now run on either gasoline or liquid methane. Same way with airplanes. The problem with liquid methane in an airplane is that the tank is heavy. There are, though, other possibilities of producing liquid hydrogen and that's not much more difficult to handle than gasoline.

MM: Would shifting to a more energy-efficient economy require basic changes in consumption and the habits people have and the products they are accustomed to using? COMMONER: Basically, I don't see any changes in, shall we say, consumer affluence. None at all. I'm not talking about cutting back on the use of cars, except where it's efficient to have mass transit, let's say. I'm not talking about cutting back on electrical gadgets. What I'm talking about is a more efficient way of producing electricity.

MM: Your argument about the inevitably rising cost of a finite resource is just a basic economic principle. When will the market recognize this and start to adjust, or will it require political intervention? COMMONER: No, I think it's going to happen. The trouble is that people have been confused by OPEC into thinking that OPEC is the cause of the rising cost of energy. ... In 1968-69 the National Petroleum Council [NPC] did a very detailed study. They plotted the price of U.S. oil against the total amount of oil extracted. Between 1950 and 1970 as you know, the price was absolutely fixed—the oil companies fixed it. They then analyzed what was happening to the cost of production of oil and then calculated backward from that the price at which it would have to be sold to get a certain profit. And they produced three curves. One at 15 percent profit. Another at 10 percent, and one at 20 percent. Incidentally, you see what they were doing was fixing the price early way above what it should have been. And the reason for this whole analysis was that in the mid- 60s it became clear that production costs were rising to the point where the price would have to go up. They said, 'my god, we've got to stop this.' And they did. Well, if you plot what has happened to the world price of oil, which incidentally is exactly the U.S. price, here's what happened. When OPEC is unable to use its grip on the market to put an excess price on it, the price falls right back to where the NPC curve predicts it to be. Now this is an exponential curve. ... What's happening is the amount of capital it is drawing out is rising exponentially. And it's only function is to produce more capital. It's an intolerable situation.

Now, there are people in the oil industry who recognize this. The prudent thing to do is to start cutting back on the role that energy plays in the demand for capital. And the only way to do that is to use less energy to produce the same amount of output. And the way to do that is first by these conservation measures, including co-generation, and then going solar....

MM: Could Exxon survive a solar transition?

COMMONER: No. I don't see how, unless they want to diversify into—well, of course, Arco and Exxon, too, have gone into photovoltaic cells, but I think largely to exert control over it. The reason why the oil industry is in trouble is that what they have done is concentrate all of the energy uses as much as they can around oil. The best example is the car. It used to be that the agricultural sector was the source of both the engine and the fuel for transportation. The horse and the oats. And so the farmer participated in the transportation sector. The oil industry drove the farmer out of that. The introduction of ethanol brings them back in. If the proposal for producing ethanol from agriculture comes into play, the oil companies are going to be very badly hurt. In addition, they'll be under heavy competition from natural gas and eventually solar. And eventually they're out of business, because the economic system can't stand paying the price. There will come a point where the amount of energy you get out of a barrel of oil is equal to the energy it takes to get the barrel out of the ground.

MM: Would the economics of a methane and solar energy system make it impossible for any large corporations to dominate? Would it rule out the possibility of a monopoly and oligopoly that oil has made possible?

COMMONER Well, I think that the solar transition means that the user—most of the users—will be able to produce their own energy. It will be very difficult for a single company to do that, because the means are diverse and so on, and it would be an integral part of the local enterprise that is producing energy, an integral part of what the manufacturer does, an integral part of what the apartment house does. That's what it comes down to. So, I think it's clearly a threat to big, high- capital corporations, and there is no way the solar transition is going to happen without political changes that enable us to hold them at bay.

MM: What kinds of political changes?

COMMONER The basic change is a conviction that there ought to be democratic decisions that govern what's produced and how it's produced. ... The corporation is a social entity that's been given a definition as a private person, by a Supreme Court decision of the 1900s. And clearly the corporations, the basic economic entities, have to be brought under some kind of democratic control. I'm not in the business of predicting exactly how to do it, but there is one possibility worth mentioning. In some sense, and this is something I learned from Ralph [Nader] when I was at the conference he had on using government purchases as leverage, and it's clear that that could work. So, for example, the U.S. government spends something like $5 billion a year on cars and trucks. There are enormously detailed specifications when they put out requests for bids. Well, [they could make] a new requirement [that] it's got to run on ethanol; or, if it's a good idea, on compressed methane. Pretty quickly these cars would be in the market. That's a really viable technique, but it will take a political change .

MM: What is your view of the environmental lobby in Washington and where they're headed?

COMMONER [T]hey have left the cutting edge of environmentalism, which is no longer in Washington. My understanding is there are 4,000 or more citizens groups, not environmentalists, in different towns all over the country that are engaged in environmental activities. Battling the waste management corporations, battling incinerator companies, battling toxic dumps. And the Washington organizations have washed their hands of that. There is now a grassroots environmental movement. There are now federations: Lois Gibbs' Citizens Clearing-house on Hazardous Waste, John O'Connor has the National Toxic Campaign, there's Greenpeace. They are the organizations that are dealing with the actual environmental issues at the front lines. What the Washington people are doing [was] originally lobbying, writing legislation, litigating. They now realize that it's more efficient to sit down with the corporations and make deals. And, the deals are ones that whoever is running the environmental organization thinks are okay. The trouble is that there are some corporate types running the organizations now.

MM: What are some examples?

COMMONER In the piece I did in the New Yorker in 1987, I cited one of these conference groups on acid rain It consisted of environmentalists and the power companies. And they came to the conclusion that the way to deal, with acid rain was to shift from high sulfur coal to low sulfur coal. ... The alternative, of course, is to put scrubbers on the power plants. That would cost the power plane companies money. This way it costs the miners—thE miners weren't in the conference. So, you know, it's deal. It's a deal made at the expense of an important party And that's the sort of thing they'rg doing.

MM: Will that get worse during the Bush administra tion?

COMMONER Yes. Bush has been making overtures tE those organizations. He appointed one of them, one o their leaders, as head of EPA. What are now called the Bit Ten are crowing now. They will be in a position to make deals with the government.

MM: What do you see happening? Is there a chance tha at some point the grassroots groups will try to establisl their own Washington presence, or try to take over soul, of these groups?

COMMONER There's a very fundamental thing here The conventional approach to environmental regula tion—putting controls on—doesn't work. The few case where we've succeeded is where you simply prevent thi pollutant from getting into the environment. The basi point is that environmental pollution is an incurably disease, it can only be prevented. That's the big split. Th Washington organizations believe in control, the grass roots organizations believe in prevention.

MM: Changing the way the system works, instead oF trying to regulate the outcome?

COMMONER Exactly. What that means is going back to the means of production and changing it so that it doesn' pollute, which again means democratic intervention.

Midwestern farms could produce as much food as they are today and enough ethanol to replace a third of the gasoline in the United States, and the farmers' profit would double.
Environmental pollution is an incurable disease, it can only be prevented. That's the big split. The Washington organizations believe in control, the grassroots organizations believe in prevention.