Friday, April 12, 2013

Solar is libertarian, nuclear is statist


Libertarians have always seemed to have a soft spot for nuclear energy and an instinctive dislike of solar power. This confuses me a bit, because I've always been a fan of both nuclear and solar, but the part of me that likes nuclear has always been the statist part. With its huge monument-like cooling towers and its association with the Manhattan Project and the heyday of Big Science, nuclear always put me in mind of the power and glory of the American nation. Solar, on the other hand, increasingly looks like a libertarian's dream technology.

First of all, solar is decentralized. Attach solar panels to your house, and the electrical grid becomes merely a backup. This means that you rely a lot less on a government-backed monopoly for your power; if the government disappeared tomorrow, your house would still have electricity during peak hours (if not during the night). Eventually, when storage technology improves, rooftop solar will let us forget the grid entirely. 

Also, rooftop solar requires much less infrastructure than grid electricity. That means much less of a role for the government, which libertarians should like. 


Contrast this with nuclear power. Nuclear has huge fixed costs, which are difficult for private companies to pay; thus, most nuclear plants are built with the help of government loans or subsidies. The close state-corporate collusion required by nuclear power was starkly exposed in the recent Fukushima disaster. Also, nuclear plants are giant and centralized, meaning the electricity must be piped to your house via a grid, which is constructed and controlled by the government.

Also, solar is much more entrepreneurial than nuclear. Nuclear has such high costs that only the hugest of companies, like GE, can create nuclear plants (and even then, often only with government help). Solar, on the other hand, has low fixed costs, so entrepreneurs can create solar farms with relatively little startup capital. Also, R&D in the nuclear sector often has fixed costs and must be state-subsidized, while solar lends itself more to cheap private-sector R&D.

Finally, nuclear waste creates a lot of thorny land-use issues. Public goods are involved, since people are afraid that the waste may leak and injure them. This means that the location and operation of nuclear plants will always partially be decided by planning boards, environmental agencies, and angry town hall meetings. This is simply unavoidable in American society. But solar power has no such issues, and so the entrepreneur or independent-minded rooftop solar generator can operate largely unmolested by government.

Now, libertarians complain about government subsidies to solar companies. I think that complaint is very valid, and that much of the money used for subsidies would be better spent doing basic research. Libertarians may also dislike government-funded basic research, but they should recall that similar research was involved in the creation of the internet, which has proven to be an enormously effective tool for individual freedom, entrepreneurship, and decentralization of power.

To sum up: Libertarians should envision a world in which rooftop solar, small independent solar farms, and enterprising solar tech entrepreneurs bring a glorious end to the era of public utilities, government-built electrical grids, and collusion between government and big energy companies. Let statists yearn in vain for the days when government-sponsored nuclear plants reared up like monuments to the power of central planning.

39 comments:

  1. Libertarian (-ish) here.

    Love solar for so many reasons — self-reliance, decentralisation, potentially very low emissions, potentially very cheap energy. Moar subsidies is good subsidies. Don't give a flying eff about misallocation of capital or any of that Misesian crap about subsidies never being appropriate. Mises is statist compared to solar energy.

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  2. Anonymous9:33 PM

    Yes, we do love solar power. And there would be no nuclear power without statism, so I dont know any libertarians who would defend the status quo of the nuclear power industry, which could not exist in a free market.
    On the other side of the same coin, solar power would be available for the very wealthy isolationists types who cared more about their independence than the cost of electricity. Because without subsidies, solar would be even less cost effective than it already is today.
    The fact that it's not yet cost effective for the masses would not bother a libertarian at all. Because government energy policy should not be a wealth redistribution program.

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  3. "Nuclear has huge fixed costs, which are difficult for private companies to pay; thus, most nuclear plants are built with the help of government loans or subsidies."

    An odd statement for an economist to make - many businesses have huge fixed costs, and there is no difficulty in raising funds. Even some very speculative big projects get funded sometimes (for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iridium_satellite_constellation)

    You didn't mention what I consider the least libertarian aspect of nuclear. It's an uninsurable risk. Even if nuclear plants were required to buy insurance and some company was willing to sell it, it would be a sham since the worst case scenario would bankrupt any company.

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  4. Anonymous10:37 PM

    "but they should recall that similar research was involved in the creation of the internet, which has proven to be an enormously effective tool for individual freedom, entrepreneurship, and decentralization of power."

    And for weird libertarian dorks to talk to each other...

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    1. Libertarian trolling online is the one true libertarian religious sacrament.

      Delete
  5. Anonymous11:07 PM

    better reasons why libertarians don't have a clue

    http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/china-and-the-frontiers-of-innovation-by-william-janeway

    building nuclear power plants is worthwhile merely for the network effect

    a large government is worthwhile, merely for the network effects

    remember, Metcalf's Law, N2. A big bloated gov't is still much more powerful than a small weak one, due to the compounding effect of Metcalf's law.

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  6. Decentralized Solar is only real in terms of implementation of panels you've constructed - if that. It still requires massive supply chains, (frequently) rare metals, and major factories to actually produce those panels.

    And without the latter, your panels are no longer cost-effective compared to that old stand-by of getting diesel generators, so common in the Poor Countries. In the US, that might even be more cost-effective for off-the-grid types, since you can run diesel engines on our bounty of plentiful corn and soy oil.

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    1. Anonymous9:15 AM

      Erm, plentiful corn due to ludicrous govt subsidies?

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  7. "Now, libertarians complain about government subsidies to solar companies."

    Uhm, wut?

    The reason why nuclear doesn't get built without state support is that it needs vastly more subsidies that solar does and the free market will not provide nuclear power. Solar is just about at parity without support now, at least, and will be viable without subsidies very soon, while nuclear is progressing in the other direction.

    Nuclear also doesn't get built without lies. After Chernobyl they swore up and down that it was all due to old Russian nuclear reactors and it could never happen again. Now after Fukushima basically the same set of lies are getting trotted out but the football has moved down the field a bit. And molten salt reactors solve all the problems (discounting how hugely expensive they are compared to normal reactors because molten salt is a bit more nasty to deal with).

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    1. a)Chernobyl and Fukushima aren't really comparable.
      b)Fukushima plant was built long before Chernobyl and was supposed to be shut down but couldn't because the NIMBY crowd didn't want newer, safer nuclear plants to be built and they didn't have viable alternatives.
      c)The biggest hurdle with nuclear in the US regulatory.

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    2. Where are you getting the thing about nimby concerns stopping Japan building newer, safer plants? Pre-Fukushima Japan had a lot of success getting rural communities to accept nuclear power (per-gigawatt it doesn't cost much to buy off a declining coastal village), and was building a lot of new nuclear.

      The reason for keeping old power stations going rather than building new ones is simply that they cost a lot to build and a lot to decommission, but provide very cheap power in between, so keeping a nuclear power station running a little bit longer is a very attractive proposition.

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  8. As a libertarian, I ask why compromise with safe solar energy for our decentralised energy needs when we could use something much more fun and dangerous! http://www.samizdata.net/2007/12/christmas-is-co/

    More seriously, I keep hearing that thorium reactors are meant to be a lot safer than the current lot, but are currently under-researched (partly because you can't make weapons with them). Would that solve part of the subsidy issue, as I understand its basically risk and liability management that makes nuclear unaffordable without government at the moment. If electricity can genuinely be made more efficiently at a higher level of centralisation than a household or neighbourhood, then I don't think most libertarians have a problem with treating them as a public good (with all the sticky compromises that entails).

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    1. I went through all the thorium literature a few years ago. Looked plausible. In fact, it looked plausibly _decentralized_. Due to the lack of proliferation risk and the reactor design, you can actually manufacture small reactors and place them throughout the grid on relatively small parcels of land.

      As a libertarian and former electrical energy system modeler, my only objection to solar (or any energy source) is production subsidies. If solar's levelized cost makes it the superior choice (which it does in a small but growing number of sunny + disperse areas of the US and many micro installations), go for it.

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  9. No mention here that current nuclear power plant designs all evolved from designs developed for US Navy, which in turn was built based on WWII gov't research. Manhattan project anyone? It's the prototype for all complaints about things we could do / have if only the government would just fund the research.

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  10. Libertarians have always seemed to have a soft spot for nuclear energy and an instinctive dislike of solar power.

    This is because there is a large overlap between libertarians and conservatives. Ergo, libertarians often mood-affiliate with this conservative philosophy:

    "Today's conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today: updated daily."

    http://www.balloon-juice.com/2011/02/26/dont-roll-out-the-lifeline-tis-theyre-clean-out-of-reach/

    This is also why you have the extremely odd phenomenon of a Cato Institute analyst:

    http://www.cato.org/people/randal-otoole

    vociferously and viciously defending heavy-handed market-distorting regulatory interference with people's very homes.

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  11. The reliance on state support for building reactors could disappear quickly once thorium salt breeder reactors start to take off. They have a much lower construction cost, footprint, and waste output. But there's not going to be a diy kit, (un)fortunately.

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  12. Anonymous11:58 AM

    I honestly thought you were going to say, "Libertarians may also dislike government-funded basic research, but they should recall that similar research was involved in the creation of the internet, which has proven to be an enormously effective tool for" _libertarian kvetching_, undoubtedly its primary value for libertarians...

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  13. "Libertarians may also dislike government-funded basic research, but they should recall that similar research was involved in the creation of the internet, which has proven to be an enormously effective tool for individual freedom, entrepreneurship, and decentralization of power" ... and the spread of libertarianism.

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  14. Anonymous1:42 PM

    What you're missing, Noah, is that hippies support solar power.

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    1. Anonymous8:23 AM

      Yep. For most libertarians, that is sufficient reason to oppose solar power. Mutatis mutandis for nuclear.

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  15. Seems to me that solar is always going to crash up against the energy density problem (it takes a lot of space) and probably against the storage problem.

    Modular nuclear (probably fueled by thorium) seems likely to be the ultimate energy solution. Make them small enough (< 250 Megawatts) and reliable/safe enough and the private sector will build them.

    On paying for research - there is some research the benefits of which cannot be captured by a private developer or, if there are effective intellectual property rights, the transaction costs are so high that the research results cannot be effectively sold. Add in the fact that government has a lower discount rate than the private sector and the case for a large role for government in research becomes compelling.

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  16. Once you come to the realization (as I did a few years back) that many self-described "libertarians" (especially those affiliated with institutes backed by the Kochs and their ilk) would be better described as "lackeys for rich people who call themselves libertarians", a ton of stuff start making sense.

    For instance, any true libertarian should be opposed to monopoly power, yet you hear a ton of Cato & Cato-lite acolytes extolling JD Rockefeller. Oh right. In the perfect libertarian world, monopolies wouldn't exist. And there wouldn't be collusion between government and businesses. All businessmen would refrain from buying government because they're all good-hearted hard-working Randists who want to compete fair and square.



    BTW, I support both solar and nuclear power.

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  17. Nice column, Noah. I'd add that the Fukushima disaster isn't so much "recent" as it is "ongoing." For instance,

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/11/world/asia/fukushima-nuclear-plant-is-still-unstable-japanese-official-says.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

    And see "Reaping the Whirlwind of State Aggression: Nuclear Consequences" for a more direct look at how the State has, essentially, already destroyed the biosphere via nuclear power and other State-caused evils. http://strike-the-root.com/reaping-whirlwind-of-state-aggression-nuclear-consequences

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  18. Bill Ellis12:17 PM

    Subtracting government subsides, Nuclear Power has NEVER turned a profit.

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  19. Nuclear is attractive to survivalist libertarians because of the "don't tread on me" plowshares to swords thing. Look at Iran and their "we only want to build peaceful nuclear power plants" stories when everyone knows that they really want bomb materials so that they can be as "respected" as North Korea. These are the same libertarians who only need their AR-15's for self-defense against those marauding bands of suburban bandits that will come rampaging out of decrepit city centers any day now.

    Photovoltaic solar cells require huge state-subsidized investments in high-tech fabs before they can be assembled into panels and installed by low-tech small entrepreneurs. Solar thermal systems, on the other hand can be completely developed using basic materials and electrical systems that would have been totally understandable by Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

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  20. Next week: "Skateboards are libertarian, cars are statist." Same arguments will work.

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    1. Most skateboarders I see are:
      1) using public roads;
      2) using skate parks built with public or charitable money;
      3) trespassing.

      A small minority use their father's driveway.

      So that seems about right for the Libertarian position - taking the infrastructure built by others as a God given endowment and natural right.

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    2. MaxUtility8:10 PM

      Cars are statist
      Bicycles are libertarian
      Skateboards are anarchist!

      Delete
  21. I don't get it - if you are good libertarian, you'll be able to have any type of power generation you like as long as the government doesn't prevent you from doing business. Just ask the Coch bros.

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  22. anthrosciguy8:56 PM

    Solar works fine during non-peak hours, because you are not running your devices off your panels, you're running them off your stored power (generally batteries) which are charged by your panels. Or for solar hot water from your stored tank of hot water.

    Yes, you do better when the sun is shining because the power you're using is replenished more instantaneously, but the idea that solar doesn't provide you power to use when the sun isn't shining is wrong.

    The biggest problem solar has is utility companies being scared they won't have complete control of your power system.

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  23. "Government subsidies to solar companies" need to be viewed in context. As long as the government is subsidizing carbon fuels, we are merely talking about leveling the playing field, and probably something short of that. If we had a proper carbon tax, then solar subsidies would be both inefficient and unnecessary.

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  24. Wonks Anonymous12:02 PM

    A good argument, but perhaps many libertarians agree with paraphrased Deng: not everything is libertarianism vs statism.

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  25. JohnR4:29 PM

    I'm used to self-administered labels being fuzzy identifiers, but this word "libertarian" completely flummoxes me. As far as I can tell, there seems to be a suite of attitudes and beliefs associated with the term, but since each "libertarian" has a unique and different collection picked from that suite, I have been unable to form any sort of coherent idea of exactly what a "libertarian" might be. I've provisionally settled on "selfish, muddled and immature", but I admit I've been largely influenced by the number of "libertarians" who claim to have been influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand. In any event, I suspect that trying to determine what a "libertarian" should or should not support is a pointless exercise. In any group of ten "libertarians", I suspect that there will be at least 15 different sets of beliefs about any phenomenon, depending on the time of day, proximity to the meal, weather and/or degree of personal physical fulfillment, among other things. Otherwise, interesting post, as usual, Noah!

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    1. Anonymous4:58 PM

      Go to www.libertarianinternational.org

      The guy who invented modern Libertarianism heads it, and the group controls Libertarian usage.

      You'll always be confused if you don't check the source.

      Delete
  26. Anonymous11:49 AM

    "Libertarians have always seemed to have a soft spot for nuclear energy and an instinctive dislike of solar power"

    Stopped right here... Figured if it opened this bad, the rest wasn't getting better.

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    1. We at Noahpinion would like to thank you for taking the time to write this insightful comment. Please take a complementary keychain and frisbee.

      Delete
  27. I´m a libertarian and I fucking hate this gov subsidized solar energy shit. Nuclear power is the only way the developing world is going to get to the same standards as we in the west. Nuclear power is powering democracy. On this topic most/many libertarians is totally delusional. I´m ashamed.

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  28. Anonymous1:22 PM

    Well, you see noah, everybody doesn´t live in the Arizona desert or near the coast line (if you prefer that other stupid gov subsidized hobby energy power system). What is it in your understandig of Nuclear power that says it must be governed by a central cleptocratic gov.? The anarchist society is more than well equipped to maintain nuclear power plants, don´t ya' think?

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