Saturday, January 7, 2017

Photovoltaics: cultural rape?

Those of you who can read French may be interested in this rant by Nicolas Casaux at…/le-desastre-ecologique-renouvelabl…/

Apparently, the government of New Zealand financed a large PV installation in the Tokelau island, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The plant is backed up by lead batteries, so it can provide 24/24 power to the islanders. (some 1400 people). That allows islanders to have TV, high-speed Internet, and mail ordering from Amazon and Ebay.

Casaux takes all this as the reason for a screed in which he rants against renewable energy for several paragraphs, then compares PV-ization of the islands to their conversion to the Catholic religion. Basically, it is a "cultural rape" that has left the islanders dependent on a sophisticated technology of which, according to him, they had no need, having been self-sufficient for centuries and happy to bake the fish they capture wrapped in bamboo leaves, rather than in aluminum foil.

I don't say that Casaux is wrong; on the other hand, I am a little uneasy at a Westerners who claim to be sure that those islanders were happier before having PV without having asked for their opinion (It doesn't appear that he asked). I find also objectionable to use the title "renewables ecological disaster" when clearly there has been none.

On the other hand, the piece is interesting as evidence of a widespread negative attitude against renewable energy (at least in the West). It raises also a legitimate point: how is renewable energy going to affect our lives? My impression is that most of what's being said about this matter simply derives from the refusal to accept change, of any kind. But it is clear that the diffusion of PV is going to bring many changes - and big ones. And these big changes won't take place only on the island of Tokelau. 

So, take a look at Casaux's post (maybe with the help of Google translate), and maybe you can comment on it on the Cassandra blog.

Que vous vous intéressiez de près ou de loin à l’écologie, vous avez très certainement déjà discuté de ce que l’on nomme les énergies "renouvelables", notamment du solaire et de l’éolien. Symptôme d’un diagnostic mal établi, cette…


  1. I discussed this subject a bit with Casaux before he wrote it. While I don't share his neo-primitivist ideas, what worried me about this story was the fact that facilities were financed by New Zealand: there was no way the islanders could pay for it, selling their fish or their craft, for instance. Their PV economy is therefore unsustainable and might might wonder what they'll do in the future of their power source has to be replaced and NZ is unable or unwilling to finance it again. The islanders might find themselves of some difficult predicament, having lost the skills necessary to live without power.

    The same might be said of developped countries, if they were to face an energy poor future- going back to a frugal society might prove difficult.

  2. A quick search finds:

    "Prior to 2012, Tokelau’s residents relied on three diesel-driven power stations, burning 200 liters per day at a cost of nearly $800,000 per year. Tokelauans only had electricity 15 to 18 hours per day. They now have three solar photovoltaic systems, one on each atoll. The 4,032 solar panels (with a capacity of around one megawatt), 392 inverters, and 1,344 batteries provide 150 percent of their current electricity demand, allowing the Tokelauans to eventually expand their electricity use. In overcast weather, the generators run on local coconut oil, providing power while recharging the battery bank. The only fossil fuels used in Tokelau now are for the island nation’s three cars."

    More or less as I suspected.

    Solar PV will continue to get cheaper, so financing maintenance/replacement of the system over time doesn't seem that problematic. The savings in diesel purchases might be enough by themselves.

  3. Dear Ugo, I will not read Casaux’s article, but let me comment your notes: he may be right in saying that it could be bad for a community to become energetically independent, even if the source of energy is renewable such as the sun, referring to the fact that unfortunately the energy available has been misused to make people more dependent from internet, social networks, Amazon etc...
    Beside the fact that people can use its energy and stupidity as they like best, I would challenge anyone to convince me that becoming energetically independent (specially with RE) is bad for individuals and their communities, in any way, surely is bad for the salesmen that make great profit out of people energy dependence.

  4. For either the Casaux of Gauthier comments to make much sense at the time of the conversion to renewables the islanders would have had to been living in a primitive state, but all the islanders I know about have been getting there power from diesel, not locally produced charcoal or some such. Most likely this was a conversion from diesel to the sun. Diesel is also unaffordable for most island people without subsidy.
    Kal Kallevig

  5. Eolic and PV installations are a huge and an unacceptable disaster and the only salvation we have is carbon, tar sands and fracking.

    Obviously, any opinion must be respected.

    But, if one really want respect, maybe it's better to stop writing his own opinions while one is under the effect of some hallucinogenic drug or while one is dizzy by the fumes of fossil fuel plants.

    Not a diplomatic answer. Anyway an answer.

  6. According to their project page ( they are looking to generate 150% of their energy requirements from a combination of solar and biofuels. I guess this allows for their population to expand or individual energy use to increase.

    As the maximum Tokelau island elevation is only a few meters they may not survive sea level rise long enough to need replacing of the systems.

    Saving almost a million dollars a year on fuel imports has got to be a good thing for such a small community (only about 1500 peoples)

  7. Casaux and Gauthier have the same problem.

    The choice was not whether to provide local power. The choice was how. Diesel generators have been provided by New Zealand and others elsewhere. Now it's solar, cheaper.

    There are places with no power who depend on solar as their only option for ever getting power. Tell a remote villager in Tanzania, depending on power to have working mobile phones that allow access to banking, finance, payment, and the market for (say) the local dagaa, that if they had power they might lose the skills to live without power.

    Sure, if no options for power are available any more, society changes. And if power is available where it never was before, society changes. And if power is cheaper and more reliable than before, society changes. And things other than pure market power may make any of those things happen.

    Power without payment of externalities is presently very heavily subsidised. Most people don't seek to explore the option of not having power. They don't seek to explore the option of not having local education in more remote communities, or not having local policing, or local legal rights including property, either. We don't seek to analyse the problem of having education, policing, or property rights in more remote communities that can't fully pay for these things. Why treat basic power as different? And why treat basic power as different, but only when it isn't being provided by diesel or petrol generators?

  8. In the late 1990's I was involved in a similar energy project in Fiji. The village of Nabouwalu, which had a few hundred residents, government offices and a small hospital, was powered by diesel generators that ran 24/7. The NGO I worked for installed a hybrid power system, including solar, wind and diesel. The main object was to reduce diesel consumption. We had considered steam engines, but in the end went with the hybrid system.

    The energy project worked for a few years, but even though we had tried to make the power system as simple and robust as possible, some of the the renewable components (particularly the wind turbines, batteries and inverter) gradually required more sophisticated maintenance than was available from the government department that managed the power system. Eventually the power system reverted to 100% diesel.

    The solar component of the hybrid system always worked well, so maybe the folks in Tokelau will have better luck. Even so, it will always require maintenance and parts that will only be available from a modern industrial economy. Such a system will never be truly indigenous to Tokelau.

    But Casaux's rant in favor of pure subsistence living is totally irrelevant. It has been many decades since any Pacific island nation has lived off the land and sea, with or without an electrical energy system of any kind.

    Philippe Gauthier's comment gets to the heart of the larger issue, namely how can people who have lost some of the skills for a subsistence economy deal with the transition of "going back to a frugal society" when their supply lines to the rest of the world fail? I don't think it will be too hard for those that survive the supply failure, since fishing and other subsistence skills are still practiced to some extent and will be rapidly redeveloped.

    While they will certainly be better off during an economic collapse than developed countries, most Pacific island nations, including Tokelau, have far more people than can be supported by local resources. While local food supplies are still used to a certain extent, they have been dependent on the global market economy for decades.

    Even in the early 1970's, when I was in the Peace Corps in the Marshall Islands, though there was no electricity to "contaminate" their lifestyles, the population still depended very heavily on imported rice and canned meats, mostly paid for by selling copra and supplemented by government handouts.

    When I was living there, older people still remembered times in the past when the population was in what could be called "Malthusian equilibrium". The small land area of the atolls was always at maximum human carrying capacity. War over food resources was a constant occurrence and when drought or typhoon disrupted food supplies, people starved to death.

    Since the 70's the population has nearly doubled, so the Marshallese are even more dependent on outside resources. Solar or no solar, if the outside world ceases to provide resources, the majority of people in Tokelau and other island nations will die of starvation. When the population declines enough, the survivors will go back to the old ways. The same will be true in developed nations except that a far higher percentage of us will die.

  9. Concordo 100 % con Nicolas Casaux.
    Bisogna capire che il suo non è SOLO un rifiuto delle energie rinnovabili.
    Il suo è un rifiuto della civiltà, della cultura antropocentrica che ha invaso quasi tutto il mondo, dell'industrialismo, della religione imposta, della globalizzazione.
    Sicuramente rifiuta anche l'uso dei combustibili fossili.
    A questo rifiuto, io mi associo.
    E' vero che stiamo distruggendo la natura, che abbiamo provocato la Sesta Estinzione di Massa (nella quale siamo dentro fino al collo, la sua realizzazione ha già superato il 50%. Per fare una similitudine, è come partire da Trento per andare a Milano. A metà strada, Brescia, non posso dire che sono arrivato a Milano, però ho già effettuato metà viaggio, e mi sono allontanato moltissimo da Trento).
    Le energie rinnovabili, non ci salveranno da questa Sesta Estinzione, la più terribile delle sei.
    Credo che l'unica strada per avere una seppur minima probabilità di salvare il salvabile passi anche attraverso la rinunzia all'elettricità, all'estrazione di qualunque tipo di minerali dal sottosuolo, ed una decisa decrescita numerica della specie umana (si può fare, in modo non violento).
    Ed anche, attraverso l'adozione di una visione Biocentrica che soppianti quella Antropocentrica imperante.

    Gianni Tiziano

  10. Casaux's criticism is almost identical to the writings of Derrick Jensen. He created an organization called Deep Green Resistance.

    1. This is not surprising, as Nicolas Casaux probably is the main source of french translation of DGR texts.

  11. I do not doubt the islanders' right to energy, be it generated from diesel or renewables. I am not a primitivist, and it is naif to think that villagers should not have energy only because we like to think they are good savages. But I am dismayed by what renewables have become over the past 15 years and, generally speaking, I agree with Casaux.

    When I started reading about renewables, around 2002, I thought that transitioning would require strict energy conservation. I assumed we would have
    to cut energy consumption by some 80%, then switch to solar and wind.

    That has not happened. Energy consumption has kept growing, aided by the growth in renewables. PV panels and wind turbines leave a trail of ecological and social destruction along their supply chain.

    I have grown ever skeptical of renewables, and do not see them as a force of good anymore, just a new face of ecological destruction.

  12. I live on the largest of a group of islands. Our population has grown about three fold in the last 150 years. The farming area has not been able feed the nation over that 150 years. At the most we could probably only feed (calories) about half of the present population if our farming had to do without synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, especially if we needed to feed horses used in traditional methods of cultivation. We will lose some significant best farming land when sea level rises much above one metre. We have already extracted most of our affordable fossil fuel reserves.

    But, given trading, we are adjacent to larger geographical areas that can supply us. We have significant renewable though intermittent energy resources if these are connected international distances by means of HVDC electricity. Whether, however, we can be a valuable adjunct to an international mix of industrial resources and can cut a lot our 'wasted' (?!) consumption is very much a moot point just now. There is already talk of 'repatriating' three million or more people who have most recently come to live and work here.

    Phil (Scottish Border)

  13. 2017_01_20

    Uhmmmm... What really is the rant on from this french Guy????

    The noble french did NOT MIND to really devastate colonial Islands with
    Atomic Nuclear Bombs, their fallout and the atomic Waste deposited on their ancestors Land.

    As I understood the Islanders paid great amounts of money for their diesel-
    generators for getting electricity. Old Myths also say:
    ICE-Machines need Greasing-Oil and Servicing and overhauling and Fuel.
    Bad Tree-Huggers dare to say they make Toxic Exhausts also - big Liars they are in a Apocalyptic Post-Fact-Trumpish-World!

    If you will not confess this -
    you will be droned by Obama - umps - Trump nowadays!

    Write this behind your Ears you (almost British) French Poodle!




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)