The Case That Blew the Lid Off …

… the World Bank’s Secret Courts

How Bolivian protesters and global activists exposed the dark side of
global trade pacts and paved the way for the battles to come.

by Jim Shultz

Foreign Policy in Focus (April 24 2015)

There’s an international awakening afoot about a radical expansion of corporate power –  one that sits at the center of two historic global trade deals nearing completion.

One focuses the United States toward Europe –  that’s the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) –  and the other toward Asia, in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both would establish broad new rights for foreign corporations to sue governments for vast sums whenever nations change their public policies in ways that could potentially impact corporate profits.

These cases would not be handled by domestic courts, with their relative transparency, but in special, secretive international tribunals.

It’s a stupendously powerful tool and a double win for the corporations: It’s a money machine that loots public treasuries and a potent tool to stifle unwelcome regulations, all wrapped in one. As Senator Elizabeth Warren recently wrote in the Washington Post, “Giving foreign corporations special rights to challenge our laws outside of our legal system would be a bad deal”. But it’s a deal US lawmakers are rapidly preparing to make as they debate extending “fast-track” trade promotion authority to President Barack Obama.

The system of closed-door trade tribunals has been around for decades now, nestled like a ticking time bomb into hundreds of smaller bilateral trade agreements between nations. But not so long ago, the trade tribunal system wasn’t the stuff of high-profile op-eds by US senators. It was virtually unknown except among a small cadre of international lawyers and trade specialists.

The case that brought the system into broad public view was born fifteen years ago this month on the streets of a city high in the Andes. How that case was won holds powerful lessons today for the battles over the TTIP, the TPP, and the effort to hand global corporations enormous new legal powers.

The Water Revolt

It started here in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April 2000, when citizens rebelled against the takeover of their public water system by a foreign corporation.

In what became known as the Cochabamba Water Revolt, thousands of Bolivians faced down bullets and batons to take back their water from Bechtel, the California engineering giant. Within weeks of taking over the local public water system, Bechtel’s Bolivian company had hit water users with price increases averaging more than fifty percent, and often far higher. Families faced stark choices between keeping water running from the tap or food on the table.

So they rebelled.

Protesters shut down this city of half-a-million people three times with blockades and general strikes. The right-wing government sent in soldiers and police to defend Bechtel’s contract, killing a teenage boy and leaving hundreds of others wounded. But the protests only increased, and finally Bechtel was forced to flee Bolivia, returning the water to public hands.

A year later, however, Bechtel struck back –  this time in a World Bank trade court. The company demanded not only the $1 million it had invested in the country, but a full $50 million –  the rest being the future “profits” the company claimed it had forgone by leaving.

Bechtel’s case against Bolivia sparked a second rebellion. This one was global and just as powerful, a citizen action campaign that stretched worldwide. In the end, Bechtel would walk away not with the $50 million that it demanded from Bolivians, but just thirty cents and a badly damaged public image. The case also ripped the mask off a system of secret trade courts that today sits at the heart of the trade debate.

A System Designed for Corporate Advantage

Here in Bolivia, a soccer team from anywhere else would be foolish to play a match against a Bolivian team in La Paz, the nation’s capital. At nearly 13,000 feet above the sea, most foreigners find it a serious challenge just to climb a staircase, much less chase a ball for ninety minutes.

The legal venue chosen by Bechtel –  the World Bank’s International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) –  has a similar quality. It’s a playing field tilted deeply to corporate advantage.

It’s no small irony that Bechtel went to the World Bank, since it was the World Bank that set the Cochabamba Water Revolt in motion to begin with.

In 1997, World Bank officials made the privatization of Cochabamba’s public water system a condition of loans the bank was issuing to expand water service in the country. So Bolivia’s government was compelled to offer a forty-year lease to Bechtel, complete with a guaranteed annual profit of sixteen percent –  a gouging deal backed by the willingness of the government to shoot its own people if required.

The World Bank’s ICSID and other international tribunal systems are a corporate dream. The tribunals that decide these cases are made up of lawyers who move from being highly paid corporate defenders in one case to supposedly impartial judges in the next, a blatant conflict of interest. It’s a system where testimony is commonly sealed and where cases are heard thousands of miles away from the communities involved.

Unsurprisingly, corporations win either a full or partial victory more than half the time.

The Court of Public Opinion

The citizen campaign that took on Bechtel refused to wage its fight in the confines of Bechtel’s carefully chosen judicial comfort zone.

The organization I run, the Democracy Center, and our Bolivian and global allies took aim at Bechtel instead on the battlefield where citizen movements do best: the court of public opinion. That campaign became a powerful early prototype for how to organize in the age of the Internet, driven not so much by an orchestrated grand plan as by sheer, viral inspiration.

Through our own articles and our work with journalists from the New Yorker, PBS, and elsewhere, the Democracy Center kept telling, over and over again, the powerful narrative of a David and Goliath victory on the streets of Cochabamba. Water Revolt leaders from Bolivia also traveled across the world to share their story directly.

We hung that story not just around Bechtel’s corporate neck, but the neck of its CEO and namesake, Riley Bechtel. We even released his personal email address to thousands of people. As people reached out to us to get involved, we armed them with the hard evidence and some advice on strategy, encouraging them to take whatever action they were moved to take that could build pressure on the corporation.

The result was a beautiful, global spectacle of citizen power.

In San Francisco, activists shut down Bechtel’s headquarters by chaining themselves together in the lobby. A local coalition also got the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a city resolution calling on Bechtel to drop its Bolivia case –  just as the company was negotiating a major city contract.

In Amsterdam, people mounted a ladder outside Bechtel’s local office and renamed the street for the teenager killed by soldiers during the Cochabamba Revolt. In Washington, protesters picketed the house of the president of Bechtel’s Bolivian water subsidiary. At the South Africa Earth Summit, Bolivian activist Marcela Olivera recruited organizations to join a “Citizens Petition to the World Bank” calling on Bechtel to drop the case. EarthJustice filed a legal petition demanding public participation, and the Institute for Policy Studies mobilized Washington NGOs.

From one corner of the world to another, Bechtel was seized upon by angry Lilliputians tying a mighty corporate Gulliver to the ground.

The Power of Storytelling

In January 2006, besieged Bechtel officials flew to Bolivia and signed a deal with the Bolivian government under which it dropped its World Bank case for two shiny one boliviano coins –  the cost of a local bus fare. No other major corporation, before or since, has ever been forced to drop such a major trade case by a campaign of citizen pressure waged against it.

In the end, Bechtel was defeated by something very simple: a story. It was a narrative about people fighting for their water, and of a corporation content to see them killed in order to squeeze the poor for profits it never earned. The mighty corporation could never escape the moral power of that story. We hit Bechtel with it using not just one tactic, but every tactic we could think of –  from legal briefs to direct action. We didn’t waste time debating which approach was more worthy.

The trade battles before us today, including the TPP and TTIP, must also be fought with stories that lift the issue above technical jargon and into popular understanding.

And there’s no shortage of stories to tell. The tobacco giant Phillip Morris demands $2 billion from Uruguay for the sin of strengthening health warnings on cigarette packages. The people of El Salvador face a $300-million case from a Canadian-Australian mining company because El Salvadorans were able to block toxic mining operations. Germany faces a demand of 700 million euros from a nuclear energy company because, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, popular movements won a moratorium on new nuclear power plants in the country.

Telling the stories of cases like these is essential to building a broader public understanding of what’s at issue in these arcane negotiations: a corporate power play against basic democracy.

“It is impossible to overstate the impact of the people’s victory in Cochabamba against Bechtel”, Noami Klein observed recently. “At a time when winning real victories seemed like a distant dream, we suddenly saw that it was still possible to win, even against a giant US multinational”. In the battle of the Bolivian people against Bechtel, David beat Goliath not only once, but twice. In the midst of the current battles on trade, the spirit of both those victories and their concrete lessons well deserve our remembrance.

Links: The original version of this article, at the URL below, contains links to further information not included here.

How Can Our Senators and Representatives …

… Vote for Giving Away Our Monetary Sovereignty?

by Joe Firestone

New Economic Perspectives (April 24 2015)

Right now the US fulfills the three essential conditions for monetary sovereignty: 1) it issues its own non-convertible currency, 2) which it allows to float on international currency markets; and 3) it owes no debts in any currency other than dollars. Because it is monetarily sovereign, and can always meet its obligations the US can never be forced into insolvency.

It can become insolvent due to Congressional decisions such as failing to raise or repeal the debt ceiling, or Executive decisions such as failing to use its platinum coin minting authority to fill the public purse and then pay its bills once it has reached the debt ceiling. But again, it cannot be forced into solvency by external financial or economic factors that are beyond the control of the Federal Government (including the Congress).

Monetary sovereignty is of tremendous value to us. As long as the United States retains it, then for example, we can never become Greece, or for that matter, Weimar Germany, since the latter’s hyperinflation was in large part caused by the fact that it owed its war reparation debts in goldmarks, or in currencies convertible to gold, and could not repay them in its own non-convertible currency, the Mark, which it could freely issue.

It also means, that the US has greater policy space for deficit spending and debt issuance than nations that have given up their currency, have fixed exchange rates, and owe debts in foreign currencies whose price in international markets it cannot control. Given all the current problems of the US, that may require deficit spending to solve, giving up monetary sovereignty is a monumentally risky thing to do, and exhibits the casual and foolish thoughtlessness of the President proposing it and the Congress seriously considering the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement.

Passing the TPP would compromise the monetary sovereignty of the United States and subject us to the influence of currency markets on the prices we may have to pay for foreign currency under a plausible scenario allowed by the Agreement. Specifically, I don’t see anything in the TPP investment chapter requiring that damages be awarded by the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) tribunals in the sovereign currency of nations incurring damage awards for lost profits, but only that they be awarded in a “freely usable currency” as specified by the IMF. So, complainants in these tribunals could ask for and win damages payable in foreign currencies, rather than US dollars, which the US would then owe in that foreign currency.

So, it flows from these considerations that passing the TPP would create the conditions for ending US monetary sovereignty for the first time since the international gold window was closed in 1971. The seriousness of this compromise of monetary sovereignty would depend upon the frequency and magnitude of judgments against the United States Government. So, how bad can it get?

No one knows. But we do know that “… the TPP would empower another 25,000 foreign corporations to use the investor state tribunals, against the United States … an expansion many times the US’s current level of exposure.

We also know that Ecuador is currently facing a judgment against it awarded to Occidental Petroleum in the amount of $2.3 Billion for Ecuador’s lawful termination of a contract for drilling rights. For Educador, a judgment of that size is comparable to one of $340 Billion against the United States, denominated in a foreign currency it cannot issue. (The Dollar is Ecuador’s unit of account and official currency right now, but, of course, it is a currency Ecuador cannot issue.)

If you think this possibility is far-fetched, consider that ISDS actions are a business for multinational corporations experiencing rapidly accelerating and perhaps exponential growth. They and the ISDS Courts, staffed by lawyers who play the roles of judges for those Courts one day, and representatives of the potential plaintiffs in these Courts the next, have little incentive not to expand this line of business to the maximum the traffic can bear. Here’s what Elizabeth Warren thinks about this issue:

ISDS advocates point out that, so far, this process hasn’t harmed the United States. And our negotiators, who refuse to share the text of the TPP publicly, assure us that it will include a bigger, better version of ISDS that will protect our ability to regulate in the public interest. But with the number of ISDS cases exploding and more and more multinational corporations headquartered abroad, it is only a matter of time before such a challenge does serious damage here. Replacing the US legal system with a complex and unnecessary alternative  –  on the assumption that nothing could possibly go wrong  –  seems like a really bad idea.

The deficit terrorists among us worry needlessly all the time about the bond vigilantes driving bond interest rates beyond what is fiscally sustainable for the United States, and use this argument to call for crippling deficit reduction and austerity, even though they must know by now that the result is economic stagnation and growing inequality. But they are strangely silent about what the TPP’s attack on US monetary sovereignty, making us subject to market-determined prices of foreign currencies, would do to fiscal sustainability, and equally silent about the issue of whether the compromising of our monetary sovereignty is fiscally responsible or not. It looks like they don’t care about fiscal responsibility and fiscal sustainability when it comes to a choice between these things and the possible frustration of the “expectations of profits” of multinational corporations.

Which brings us back to our erstwhile Representatives and Senators in Washington. How they can even consider Fast Track Authority for the President without extensively considering and debating the sovereignty-infringing aspects of the TPP is beyond me. Its potential infringement on Monetary Sovereignty is only one of these. There are many others, as well. And it is hard to understand how people who swear fealty to the United States can justify their apparent complete lack of concern for these issues when they make trade agreements.

Chernobyl, 29 Years On

A Race Against Time

by Kendra Ulrich

Greenpeace International (April 26 2015)

Today, 26 April 2015, marks the 29th anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster in world history –  the Chernobyl catastrophe. And unfortunately, preventing further major releases of radioactivity into the environment seems to be a race against time. As a new Greenpeace report detailing the efforts at the sight shows, there are no real solutions in sight.

Nearly three decades after the start of the Chernobyl disaster, its atomic legacy is a stark and ominous reminder that nuclear power can never be a safe energy source.

In 1986, two explosions destroyed Chernobyl reactor Unit Four, located in the Ukraine. Its graphite core burned for ten days. The radioactive releases heavily contaminated what became a 2600 square kilometer exclusion zone –  which included 76 cities, towns, and villages. Due to the power of the explosion, fire, and reactor core meltdown, radioactivity was projected to high enough altitudes that the plume was carried thousands kilometers away, sweeping across the whole of Europe and contaminating vast tracts of land. In terms of radioactive caesium (Cs137), a total of at least 1.3 million square kilometers of land was contaminated to varying degrees –  an area roughly twice the size of France. And this contamination will last for many generations, given the thirty-year half-life of Cs137.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens and cleanup workers were exposed to significant levels of radiation –  at least 300,000 of these workers received radiation doses that were 500 times the limit for the public over one year.

Twenty-nine years later, people continue to suffer from the affects of the accident, with well-founded scientific estimations in the range of many tens of thousands of cancers and deaths.

One of the increasing concerns at the site is the integrity of the building structures. The explosion in 1986 caused serious damage. And, due to the high radiation levels, work on the damaged building after the accident had to be scrapped. Ageing and corrosion have only further deteriorated these structures. In addition, some that were damaged in the accident, for example by cracking, are only now being discovered due to the inaccessibility of the site.

A collapse of the sarcophagus, leading to a release of radioactive substances into the environment around the site, cannot be ruled out. And this could pose serious problems.

There are more than 1.5 million tonnes of radioactive dust inside the ruins. If the sarcophagus were to collapse, a high volume of radioactive material would be released, and could lead to an exposure to radiation as far as fifty kilometers away. There are also nearly 2,000 tonnes of flammable materials inside the sarcophagus. In the event of a fire, even without a collapse, heat from the fire could cause the release of a high level of radioactive dust particles.

In order to help minimize this risk, the Shelter Implementation Plan was agreed to in 1997. The cornerstone of this medium-term proposal is the New Safety Confinement (NSC) –  a massive, self-supporting, domed, hall-like steel structure: 257 metres wide, 165 metres long, and 110 metres high. It cannot be assembled directly above the destroyed reactor due to high radiation levels. However, it is currently being assembled in two parts to the side of the damaged reactor. These will be joined together, and then slide over the reactor on a hydraulic lifting system –  a process that will take three days to complete.  When it is completed, it will be the largest movable structure on earth.

The total cost of the Shelter Implementation Plan is currently estimated at 2.15 billion euros. Due to delays and significant cost increases, there is now a shortfall of hundreds of millions of euros. Later this week, an international conference hosted by the German government will focus on the on-going threats from Chernobyl. The nations who have funded this project will discuss how to fill these enormous deficits.

The shelter itself is designed with the exceedingly limited goals of preventing further water leaking into the destroyed reactor and becoming contaminated –  as has happened as the current sarcophagus has deteriorated –  and to contain radioactive material in the event of the total collapse of the existing reactor sarcophagus.  It is projected to last for only 100 years.

As the author of the new Greenpeace report concludes,

… a major drawback of the Shelter Implementation Plan, however, is that recovering the fuel-containing material is not part of the project, although the greatest threat to the environment and people comes precisely from these fuel-containing, highly radioactive substances. While the protective shell is designed to make it possible for this fuel-containing material to be recovered at a later point in time, the financial means to actually implement fuel containing material recovery are not provided by the Shelter Implementation Plan. Thus, the long-term threat posed by the destroyed reactor block will not have been averted by the current efforts underway. In short, it must be stated that 29 years after the worst nuclear disaster the world has yet seen, the damaged reactor is still a danger. A real solution to the situation is nowhere in sight.

As with the more recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, there is no foreseeable solution for Chernobyl. Despite the continuing decline of the nuclear power industry worldwide, hundreds of ageing nuclear reactors continue to operate, while new reactors are being built –  which increases nuclear risks significantly. Almost certainly whenever the next accident happens in the 21st century, efforts will still be underway to contain and manage the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi sites.

What Chernobyl, Fukushima, and hundreds of smaller nuclear accidents have clearly shown is the inherent risk of the nuclear technology: there will always be an unforeseen combination of human failure, technology error, and natural disaster that could lead to a major reactor accident and massive release of radiation. The lessons are clear –  there is by definition no such thing as “nuclear safety”. The only way to make sure that the next Chernobyl and Fukushima does not happen is to phase nuclear out.


Kendra Ulrich is a senior global energy campaigner with Greenpeace Japan.

Effort by Japan to Stifle News Media Is Working

by Martin Fackler

The New York Times (April 26 2015)

TOKYO – It was an unexpected act of protest that shook Japan’s carefully managed media world: Shigeaki Koga, a regular television commentator and fierce critic of the political establishment, abruptly departed from the scripted conversation during a live TV news program to announce that this would be his last day on the show because, as he put it, network executives had succumbed to political pressure for his removal.

“I have suffered intense bashing by the prime minister’s office”, Mr Koga told his visibly flabbergasted host late last month, saying he had been removed as commentator because of critical statements he had made about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Later in the program, Mr Koga held up a sign that read “I am not Abe”, a play on the slogan of solidarity for journalists slain in January at a French satirical newspaper.

Related Coverage

Japan Ruling Party Panel Summons Media Bosses Over News Shows (April 15 2015)

Japanese Media Self-Censorship Grows in Shinzo Abe’s Reign (February 24 2015)

The outburst created a public firestorm, and not only because of the spectacle of Mr Koga, a dour-faced former top government official, seemingly throwing away his career as a television commentator in front of millions of viewers. His angry show of defiance also focused national attention on the right-leaning government’s increased strong-arming of the news media to reduce critical coverage.

Many journalists and political experts say the Abe government is trying to engineer a fundamental shift in the balance of power between his administration and the news media, using tactics to silence criticism that go beyond anything his predecessors tried and that have frustrated many journalists. These have included more aggressive complaints to the bosses of critical journalists and commentators like Mr Koga, and more blatant retaliation against outlets that persist in faulting the administration. At the same time, Mr Abe has tried to win over top media executives and noted journalists with private sushi lunches.

The prime minister, who arrived in the United States on Sunday for a weeklong visit, has also appointed a new chairman to the national public broadcaster, NHK, who has declared that the network will not deviate too far from the government’s views. Members of the Abe government have openly hinted at revoking the broadcasting licenses of overly critical networks under a law that requires that TV news reports not intentionally twist facts.

Mr Abe’s efforts have had a chilling effect on coverage at a time when he is pushing ahead with a conservative agenda to dismantle the nation’s postwar pacifist consensus and put forth more positive portrayals of Japan’s World War Two-era behavior. Experts warn that muzzling the press makes it easier for the government to make big changes that might not enjoy broad popular support, such as rewriting the pacifist Constitution, or even restarting the nation’s stalled nuclear industry.

“The Abe government is showing an obsession with the media that verges on paranoia”, said Keigo Takeda, a former editor in chief at Newsweek Japan who is now a respected freelance journalist. “I have never seen this level of efforts to micromanage specific newspapers and TV programs”.

While government officials deny that they are trying to curtail free speech, many journalists, commentators and media experts say the government campaign has already tempered coverage of the Abe government. They say that even once feisty outlets like Hodo Station, the news program that had used Mr Koga as a commentator, are now censoring their own coverage or removing critical voices to avoid drawing official ire.

Some criticism has also fallen on news outlets for rolling over without a fight, particularly since some of these tactics are considered routine in other democracies, like the United States. Many major news organizations have been accused of self-censorship, bringing renewed attention on what experts here say is a weak tradition among the Japanese press of serving as a watchdog on power.

The governing party is acting “like a bully who says, ‘Hey, I don’t like what you said, so meet me behind the gym’ “, said Yukio Edano, a senior opposition lawmaker. “And the ones who meekly obey also lack self-respect as press organizations”.

This is a point conceded by many Japanese journalists, who say they have no choice but to get along with a prime minister who appears set to remain in power for several years in the absence of credible opposition. Other journalists say they do not want to suffer the fate of The Asahi Shimbun, a liberal newspaper that came under fierce criticism last fall and seemed to capitulate by cutting back on critical, investigative coverage of sensitive issues like the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.

Scholars describe a mood of fear spreading beyond the news media into the broader society, including in education where the Abe government is pressing textbook publishers to adhere more closely to the official line on topics like the 1937 Nanjing massacre and the use of so-called comfort women in wartime military brothels.

“These unprecedented attacks on The Asahi and other media are creating a closed conformity in which the whole society is becoming afraid to say something different”, said Tatsuro Hanada, a professor of media studies at Waseda University in Tokyo. “Abe is adeptly using this for his own political ends”.

Mr Koga’s accusations offer a rare glimpse of how a formerly hard-hitting news program appears to have toned down its coverage.

While never a favorite of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, Hodo Station felt the pressure rise after a show in late January in which Mr Koga criticized Mr Abe’s handling of a hostage crisis in Syria that resulted in the deaths of the two Japanese captives. Mr Koga and employees of the network that airs Hodo Station, TV Asahi, who asked not to be identified because they were still working there, said that before the program was even over, the network’s political reporters were getting angry calls and emails from political secretaries in the prime minister’s office.

They said the tactic seemed to succeed in turning network reporters against Hodo Station, which has a separate production staff. The reporters and their editors demanded that the program show them its scripts beforehand to ensure that coverage was “balanced”, something Hodo Station’s producer resisted. The government stepped up the pressure against the show again in February, when a top official in the Abe government, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, used an off-record briefing with journalists to speak scathingly of the “completely mistaken” comments about the hostage incident by a “television commentator”.

According to a transcript of the February 24 briefing, Mr Suga warned that the network might have broken the law by airing the comments. “If it were me, I’d tell them that they violated the broadcast law”, Mr Suga said, laughing, according to the transcript.

Mr Koga and others said the transcript had made its way to TV Asahi’s chairman, Hiroshi Hayakawa. “This was a warning to TV Asahi to get rid of me”, Mr Koga said. “Suga knew this memo would be seen by all major news outlets, and be shown to Chairman Hayakawa”.

Mr Koga said that that was exactly what happened. In February, after three and a half years of appearing at least once a month as a commentator on Hodo Station, he found out that he would no longer be back on the show. At about the same time, another critical commentator and a producer who had refused to give in to the political pressure were also removed from the show.

Mr Koga said that move led to his outburst on March 27, his final appearance as commentator.

The network refused interview requests. Its chairman, Mr Hayakawa, denied in a news conference that political pressure had played a role in what he called a routine decision to change the lineup of commentators. Mr Suga has told reporters that Mr Koga’s charges of political pressure were “baseless”.

Still, the governing party is keeping up the pressure, summoning TV Asahi executives two weeks ago to explain how Mr Koga was allowed to make his accusations on live television. The party explained the summons by saying that those accusations may themselves have violated the broadcast law.

“Some don’t like his method, but Mr Koga did draw public attention to the Abe government’s pressure on the media”, said Takashi Uesugi, a media critic and one-time researcher at The New York Times who runs an independent online news program. “This was an inconvenient truth for both the government and the self-censoring journalists”.


A version of this article appears in print on April 27 2015, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: In Japan, Bid to Stifle Criticism Is Working.

Obama is Failing Us All …

… by Ignoring the Need for Currency Rules in TPP

The sums at stake over currency issues are an order of magnitude larger than any potential gains from the rest of the Trans-Pacific Partnership

by Dean Baker

The Guardian (April 22 2015)

The Obama administration is doing its full court press, pulling out all the stops to get Congress to approve the fast-track authority that is almost certainly necessary to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress. One of the biggest remaining stumbling blocks is that the deal will almost certainly not include provisions on currency. This means that parties to the agreement will still be able to depress the value of their currency against the dollar in order to gain a competitive advantage. This is a really big deal, which everyone thinking about the merits of the TPP should understand.

The value of the dollar relative to other currencies is by far the main determinant of our balance of trade. We can talk about better education and training for our workforce, improving our infrastructure and better research, all of which are important for the economy.

But anyone who claims that improvements in these areas can offset the impact of a dollar that is overvalued against another currency by fifteen to twenty percent is out of touch with reality. If the dollar is overvalued by twenty percent against another country’s currency, it has the same effect as imposing a twenty percent tariff on US exports and giving a government subsidy of twenty percent to imports.

This is the direct effect when other countries deliberately buy up US assets to prop up the dollar against their currency. This is the main reason the United States is currently running a trade deficit of more than $500 billion a year.

This trade deficit creates a huge gap in demand. It has the same impact as if households were taking $500 billion a year out of their paychecks and stuffing the money under their mattress. There is no obvious way to make up this gap in demand. In principle we could fill the gap with large budget deficits, but this is a political non-starter. Based on a dubious reading of the data from the second half of last year, some analysts had thought the economy was booming again, despite the large trade deficit.

More recently, reality and arithmetic have reasserted themselves and most economists now recognize that the economy is not growing fast enough to fill the demand gap. In fact, the only way we know to fill the sort of gap in demand created by the trade deficit is with an asset bubble like the stock bubble in the 1990s or the housing bubble in the last decade. Not many would advocate going down that path again, which means that we can look forward to the persistence of high unemployment and a weak labor market, unless we address the trade deficit.

If we recognize the need to address the trade deficit, and the centrality of the value of the dollar, then it is mind-boggling that the Obama administration would not have sought to include rules on currency in the TPP. After all, the Obama administration has been in office more than six years and allowed large trade deficits to persist. If they don’t address currency rules in the TPP, where exactly do they expect to do it?

Much of the discussion now has the same sort of children’s table character that is usually shown toward issues that primarily concern working people. The rules about investment, about environmental and safety regulation, and patent and copyright protection are all right there front and center in the trade agreement. These affect the adults, aka big business. But issues about currency and trade deficits, that can mean millions of jobs and trillions in lost output over the next decade, well that’s kids’ stuff. The Obama administration will promise to set up a little table and do a little dance to humor the people who care about such things. But they must be kept out of the TPP.

Finally, it is worth noting that sums at stake over currency issues are an order of magnitude larger than any potential gains from the rest of TPP. We already have very low barriers with most of the parties in the TPP. Removing the remaining barriers will have a very limited economic impact, which could easily be outweighed by the increase in barriers in the form of stronger patent and copyright protection.

Neither the Obama administration nor anyone else has a politically viable path back to full employment with a trade deficit equal to three percent of GDP. Full employment is incredibly important to ensure that those at the middle and bottom of the income distribution have the bargaining power needed to share in the gains from economic growth. If insisting on currency rules risks delaying or even destroying the TPP, it would be a risk well worth taking.

Why Obama Wants to Lift Sanctions on Iran

In Search for an Alternative Source of Gas

by Mike Whitney

CounterPunch (April 27 2015)

It is essential to recognize that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program, nor does it possess a nuclear weapon. On February 26, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Ayatollah Khomenei, the supreme leader of Iran, ended his country’s nuclear weapons program in 2003 and “as far as we know, he’s not made the decision to go for a nuclear weapon”. This repeats the “high-confidence” judgement of the US Intelligence Community (IC) that was first made in November 2007. {1}

It always helps to start with the truth, and in Iran’s case, the truth is quite simple. Iran has no nuclear weapons, it has no nuclear weapons program, and it’s never been caught diverting nuclear fuel for other purposes. Iran has pursued nuclear technology for peaceful purposes alone.

These are the facts. They may not jibe with the lies propagated in the western media, but they are the facts all the same. Iran is not guilty of anything. It’s merely a victim of Washington’s power-crazy attempt to control vital resources in the Middle East and enhance Israel’s regional hegemony. That’s what’s really going on. It’s all geopolitics. It has nothing to do with nukes.

Media coverage of the so called nuclear negotiations in Laussanne and now in Vienna has focused maniacally on the number of centrifuges, IAEA monitoring programs, uranium enrichment capability, and myriad other arcane topics that are meant to divert attention from the fact that Iran has no nuclear weapons program and no interest in developing one. By poring over the details of these issues in excruciating detail, the reader is left feeling that Iran must be hiding something and therefore must pose a real threat to US national security. But of course that’s precisely what the authors of these articles hope to achieve, they want to pull the wool over the public’s eyes and get people to believe something that is transparently false. The fact is, Iran is not doing anything underhanded or illegal. They are merely demanding that their right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the terms of the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty be respected. Iran will not allow itself to be bullied by the US or treated like a second class citizen. Iran has behaved honorably from the beginning, which is a helluva a lot more than can be said of the US.

The media doesn’t want to discuss the “additional protocols” that Iran accepted in order to build confidence among members on the United Nations, because then people would realize that Iran has gone the extra mile many times in the past only to be slapped with more spurious accusations of noncompliance or foul play. But where’s the evidence of noncompliance or foul play? There isn’t any. It’s all just fear-mongering speculation and vitriolic BS spewed by the dissembling media. There’s not a word of truth to any of it.

The media’s latest scam centers on the term “breakout time”, which refers to the amount of time it would take for Iran to build a nuclear weapon if it was so inclined, which it isn’t.

“Breakout time” is the new propaganda buzzword reiterated thousands of times in the media suggesting that Tehran is just hours away from building an atomic weapon that it will immediately use to annihilate Israel. It’s a ridiculous fairy tale that assumes that – since the US is a rogue-homicidal state that goes around bombing the bejesus out of anything that moves – that other states are bound to behave the same if given half a chance. This is wrong on many levels. First of all, Iran doesn’t want nukes and, secondly, leaders in other countries are not power-mad megalomaniacs whose only joy in life is reducing broad swathes of the planet to smoldering rubble. That behavior is particular to US leaders alone. Others don’t suffer from the same sociopathic disorder.

The nuclear issue has nothing to do Iran’s fictitious nuclear weapons program. That’s just a smokescreen. The real problem is that Iran is a sovereign country with an independent foreign policy. Washington doesn’t like independent nations. Washington likes nations that shut up and do what they’re told. Nations that refuse to take orders are Washington’s enemies, they’re placed on a hit list. And that’s where the sanctions come into play. Sanctions are the way that Washington weakens its enemies before bombing them to kingdom come. They’re the stick the US uses to beat its rivals into submission.

If you’ve been following the news lately, you know that something very strange is going on. The US has done an about-face and changed its policy towards Iran. It’s a shocking development. The US has maintained the same savage policy towards Cuba for sixty years without changing a thing. Whether the policy works or not, has never mattered; what matters is inflicting maximum pain on the people Washington’s doesn’t like. So why the sudden change with Iran? Why is Obama trying to reach an agreement with a country that US elites openly despise?

And, keep in mind, that what Obama’s doing is extremely unpopular with many powerful groups; the congress, the media, Israel and even high ranking officials in his own State Department. Could it be that the powerbrokers who pull Obama’s strings and tell him what to do have suddenly seen the light and want to open a new era of reconciliation and friendship with Iran?

Of course not. No one believes that. The only reason Obama would strike a deal with Iran is because the US wants something in return. And the US does want something in return. The US wants a substitute for Russian gas flowing to the Europe so it can destroy Russia economically and implement its strategic plan to spread US power across Asia so US mega-corporations can maintain their dominant position in the global economy. Obama is playing nice with Iran so he can pivot to Asia as easily as possible.

So how plausible is it for Iran to replace Russian gas in the lucrative EU market?

Check out this clip from an article written in 2014 that anticipated the very scenario we see developing today, that is, the US trying to prevent an integrated EU-Russian free trade zone that would dwarf the US GDP and leave the exceptional nation to face years of precipitous decline. The article is titled “EU turns to Iran as alternative to Russian gas”:

The European Union is quietly increasing the urgency of a plan to import natural gas from Iran, as relations with Tehran thaw, while those with top gas supplier Russia grow colder …

“Iran is far towards the top of our priorities for mid-term measures that will help reduce our reliance on Russian gas supplies”, the source said. “Iran’s gas could come to Europe quite easily and politically there is a clear rapprochement between Tehran and the West” …

While sanctioned itself, Iran has the world’s second largest gas reserves after Russia and is a potential alternative given talks between Tehran and the West to reach a deal over the Islamic Republic’s disputed nuclear programme.

“High potential for gas production, domestic energy sector reforms that are underway, and ongoing normalization of its relationship with the West make Iran a credible alternative to Russia”, said a paper prepared for the European parliament …

“Given Russia’s current strategy politically, which is one of confrontation with Europe, I see the EU having little choice but to find alternative gas supplies”, he added …

“Iran’s interest to deliver gas to Europe is very big. Parts of Iran’s economical and political elite as well as Western companies are preparing for an end of the sanctions”, said Frank Umbach, energy research director at King’s College in London …

Iran has long lobbied to build a designated pipeline that would connect its huge South Pars gas field with European customers –  the so-called Persian Pipeline.

“It’s an extremely ambitious project”, Handjani said. “Even if half of it gets built it would be major accomplishment for both Europe and Iran” …

Independent feasibility studies show that if sanctions were to be eased and investments started soon, Iran could supply ten to twenty billion cubic metres of gas a year to Turkey and Europe by the early 2020s. {2}

This is why Obama wants to ease sanctions; it’s because he needs to find an alternate source of gas for Europe while he prosecutes his war on Russia. Defeating Russia has become Washington’s top strategic priority. The United States is willing to risk everything – even nuclear war – to maintain its stranglehold on global power and to extend its hegemony into the next century.





Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press, 2012). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at

How Sustainable is PV Solar Power?

Doubts on progress and technology

Low Tech Magazine (April 2015)

Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems generate “free” electricity from sunlight, but manufacturing them is an energy-intensive process.

It’s generally assumed that it only takes a few years before solar panels have generated as much energy as it took to make them, resulting in very low greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional grid electricity.

However, the studies upon which this assumption is based are written by a handful of researchers who arguably have a positive bias towards solar PV. A more critical analysis shows that the cumulative energy and carbon dioxide balance of the industry is negative, meaning that solar PV has actually increased energy use and greenhouse gas emissions instead of lowering them.

This doesn’t mean that the technology is useless. It’s just that our approach is wrong. By carefully selecting the location of the manufacturing and the installation of solar panels, the potential of solar power could be huge. We have to rethink the way we use and produce solar energy systems on a global scale.

There’s nothing but good news about solar energy these days. The average global price of PV panels has plummeted by more than 75% since 2008, and this trend is expected to continue in the coming years, though at a lower rate. [1-2] According to the 2015 solar outlook by investment bank Deutsche Bank, solar systems will be at grid parity in up to eighty percent of the global market by the end of 2017, meaning that PV electricity will be cost-effective compared to electricity from the grid. [3-4]

Lower costs have spurred an increase in solar PV installments. According to the Renewables 2014 Global Status Report, a record of more than 39 gigawatt (GW) of solar PV capacity was added in 2013, which brings total (peak) capacity worldwide to 139 GW at the end of 2013. While this is not even enough to generate one percent of global electricity demand, the growth is impressive. Almost half of all PV capacity in operation today was added in the past two years (2012-2013). [5] In 2014, an estimated 45 GW was added, bringing the total to 184 GW. [6] [4].

Solar PV total global capacity, 2004-2013. Source: Renewables 2014 Global Status Report.

Meanwhile, solar cells are becoming more energy efficient, and the same goes for the technology used to manufacture them. For example, the polysilicon content in solar cells – the most energy-intensive component – has come down to 5.5 to 6.0 grams per watt peak (g/wp), a number that will further decrease to 4.5 to 5.0 g/wp in 2017. [2] Both trends have a positive effect on the sustainability of solar PV systems. According to the latest life cycle analyses, which measure the environmental impact of solar panels from production to decommission, greenhouse gas emissions have come down to around thirty grams of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilwatt-hour of electricity generated (gCO2e/kWh), compared to forty to fifty grams of carbon dioxide equivalents ten years ago. [7-11] [12]

According to these numbers, electricity generated by photovoltaic systems is fifteen times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a natural gas plant (450 gCO2e/kWh), and at least thirty times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a coal plant (+1,000 gCO2e/kWh). The most-cited energy payback times (EPBT) for solar PV systems are between one and two years. It seems that photovoltaic power, around since the 1970s, is finally ready to take over the role of fossil fuels.

Manufacturing Has Moved to China

Unfortunately, a critical review of the PV solar industry paints a very different picture. Many commenters attribute the plummeting cost of solar PV to more efficient manufacturing processes and scale economies. However, if we look at the graph below, we see that the decline in costs accelerates sharply from 2009 onwards. This acceleration has nothing to do with more efficient manufacturing processes or a technological breakthrough. Instead, it’s the consequence of moving almost the entire PV manufacturing industry from western countries to Asian countries, where labour and energy are cheaper and where environmental restrictions are more loose.

Less than ten years ago, almost all solar panels were produced in Europe, Japan, and the USA. In 2013, Asia accounted for 87% of global production (up from 85% in 2012), with China producing 67% of the world total (62% in 2012). Europe’s share continued to fall, to nine percent in 2013 (eleven percent in 2012), while Japan’s share remained at five percent and the US share was only 2.6%. [5]

Compared to Europe, Japan and the USA, the electric grid in China is about twice as carbon-intensive and about fifty percent less energy efficient. [13-15] Because the manufacture of solar PV cells relies heavily on the use of electricity (for more than 95%) [16], this means that in spite of the lower prices and the increasing efficiency, the production of solar cells has become more energy-intensive, resulting in longer energy payback times and higher greenhouse gas emissions. The geographical shift in manufacturing has made almost all life cycle analyses of solar PV panels obsolete, because they are based on a scenario of domestic manufacturing, either in Europe or in the United States.

Life Cycle Analysis of Solar Panels Manufactured in China

We could find only one study that investigates the manufacturing of solar panels in China, and it’s very recent. In 2014, a team of researchers performed a comparative life cycle analysis between domestic and overseas manufacturing scenarios, taking into account geographic diversity by utilizing localized inventory data for processes and materials. [13] In the domestic manufacturing scenario, silicon PV modules (mono-si with fourteen percent efficiency and multi-si with 13.2% efficiency) are made and installed in Spain. In the overseas manufacturing scenario, the panels are made in China and installed in Spain.

For solar panels manufactured in China, the carbon footprint and the energy payback time are almost doubled

Compared to the domestic manufacturing scenario, the carbon footprint and the energy payback time are almost doubled in the overseas manufacturing scenario. The carbon footprint of the modules made in Spain (which has a cleaner grid than the average in Europe) is 37.3 and 31.8 gCO2e/kWh for mono-si and multi-si, respectively, while the energy payback times are 1.9 and 1.6 years. However, for the modules made in China, the carbon footprint is 72.2 and 69.2 gCO2e/kWh for mono-si and multi-si, respectively, while the energy payback times are 2.4 and 2.3 years. [13]

At least as important as the place of manufacturing is the place of installation. Almost all Life Cycle Analyses – including the one that deals with manufacturing in China – assume a solar insolation of 1,700 kilowatt-hour per square meter per year (kWh/m2/yr), typical of Southern Europe and the southwestern USA. If solar modules manufactured in China are installed in Germany, then the carbon footprint increases to about 120 gCO2e/kWh for both mono- and multi-si – which makes solar PV only 3.75 times less carbon-intensive than natural gas, not fifteen times.

Considering that at the end of 2014, Germany had more solar PV installed than all Southern European nations combined, and twice as much as the entire United States, this number is not a worst-case scenario. It reflects the carbon intensity of most solar PV systems installed between 2009 and 2014. More critical researchers had already anticipated these results. A 2010 study refers to the 2008 consensus figure of fifty gCO2e/kWh mentioned above, and adds that “in less sunny locations, or in carbon-intensive economies, these emissions can be up to two to four times higher”. [17] Taking the more recent figure of thirty gCO2e/kWh as a starting point, which reflects improvements in solar cell and manufacturing efficiency, this would be sixty to 120 gCO2e/kWh, which corresponds neatly with the numbers of the 2014 study.

Solar insolation in Europe and the USA. Source: SolarGIS.

These results don’t include the energy required to ship the solar panels from China to Europe. Transportation is usually ignored in Life Cycle Analyses of solar panels that assume domestic production, which would make comparisons difficult. Furthermore, energy requirements for transportation are very case-specific. It should also be kept in mind that these results are based on a solar PV lifespan of thirty years. This might be over-optimistic, because the relocation of manufacturing to China has been associated with a decrease in the quality of PV solar panels. [18] Research has shown that the percentage of defective or under-performing PV cells has risen substantially in recent years, which could have a negative influence on the lifespan of the average solar panel, decreasing its sustainability.

Energy Cannibalism

Solar PV electricity remains less carbon-intensive than conventional grid electricity, even when solar cells are manufactured in China and installed in countries with relatively low solar insolation. This seems to suggest that solar PV remains a good choice no matter where the panels are produced or installed. However, if we take into account the growth of the industry, the energy and carbon balance can quickly turn negative. That’s because at high growth rates, the energy and carbon dioxide savings made by the cumulative installed capacity of solar PV systems can be cancelled out by the energy use and carbon dioxide emissions from the production of new installed capacity. [16] [19-20]

At high growth rates, the energy and carbon dioxide savings made by the cumulative installed capacity of solar PV systems can be cancelled out by the energy use and carbon dioxide emissions from the production of new installed capacity

A life cycle analysis that takes into account the growth rate of solar PV is called a “dynamic” life cycle analysis, as opposed to a “static” life cycle analysis, which looks only at an individual solar PV system. The two factors that determine the outcome of a dynamic life cycle analysis are the growth rate on the one hand, and the embodied energy and carbon of the PV system on the other hand. If the growth rate or the embodied energy or carbon increases, so does the “erosion” or “cannibalization” of the energy and carbon dioxide savings made due to the production of newly installed capacity. [16]

For the deployment of solar PV systems to grow while remaining net greenhouse gas mitigators, they must grow at a rate slower than the inverse of their carbon dioxide payback time. [19] For example, if the average energy and carbon dioxide payback times of a solar PV system are four years and the industry grows at a rate of 25%, no net energy is produced and no greenhouse gas emissions are offset. [19] If the growth rate is higher than 25%, the aggregate of solar PV systems actually becomes a net carbon dioxide and energy sink. In this scenario, the industry expands so fast that the energy savings and greenhouse gas emissions prevented by solar PV systems are negated to fabricate the next wave of solar PV systems. [20]

The Carbon Dioxide Balance of Solar PV

Several studies have undertaken a dynamic life cycle analysis of renewable energy technologies. The results – which are valid for the period between 1998 and 2008 – are very sobering for those that have put their hopes on the carbon mitigation potential of solar PV power. A 2009 paper, which takes into account the geographical distribution of global solar PV installations, sets the maximum sustainable annual growth rate at 23%, while the actual average annual growth rate of solar PV between 1998 and 2008 was forty percent. [16] [21]

This means that the net carbon dioxide balance of solar PV was negative for the period 1998 to 2008. Solar PV power was growing too fast to be sustainable, and the aggregate of solar panels actually increased greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. According to the paper, the net carbon dioxide emissions of the solar PV industry during those ten years accounted to 800,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. [16] These figures take into account the fact that, as a consequence of a cleaner grid and better manufacturing processes, the production of solar PV panels becomes more energy efficient and less carbon-intensive over time.

Between 2009 and 2014, solar PV grew four times too fast to be sustainable

The sustainability of solar PV has further deteriorated since 2008. On the one hand, industry growth rates have accelerated. Solar PV grew on average by 59% per year between 2008 and 2014, compared to an annual growth rate of forty percent between 1998 and 2008 . [5] On the other hand, manufacturing has become more carbon-intensive. For its calculations of the carbon dioxide balance in 2008, the study discussed above considers the carbon intensity of production worldwide to be 500 gCO2e/kWh. In 2013, with 87% of the production in Asia, this number had risen to about 950 gCO2e/kWh, which halves the maximum sustainable growth rate to about twelve percent.

If we also take into account the changes in geographic distribution of solar panels, with an increasing percentage installed in regions with higher solar insolation, the maximum sustainable growth rate increases to about sixteen percent. [23-24] Although more recent research is not available, it’s obvious that the carbon dioxide emissions of the solar PV industry have further increased during the period 2009 to 2014. If we would consider all solar panels in the world as one large energy generating plant, it would not have generated any net energy or carbon dioxide-savings.

The Solution: Rethink the Manufacture and Use of Solar PV

Obviously, the net carbon dioxide balance of solar PV could be improved by limiting the growth of the industry, but that would be undesirable. If we want solar PV to become important, it has to grow fast. Therefore, it’s much more interesting to focus on lowering the embodied energy of solar PV power systems, which automatically results in higher sustainable growth rates. The shorter the energy and carbon dioxide payback times, the faster the industry can grow without becoming a net producer of carbon dioxide.

Annual net carbon dioxide balance of the crystalline silicon PV industry at different growth rates for different combinations of countries of production and installation. Source: Briner 2009.

Embodied energy and carbon dioxide will gradually decrease because of technological advances such as higher solar cell efficiencies and more efficient manufacturing techniques, and also as a consequence of the recycling of solar panels, which is not yet a reality. However, what matters most is where solar panels are manufactured, and where they are installed. The location of production and installation is a decisive factor because there are three parameters in a life cycle analysis that are location dependent: the carbon intensity of the electricity used in production, the carbon intensity of the displaced electricity mix at the place of installation, and the solar insolation in the place of installation. [16]

By carefully selecting the locations for production and installation we could improve the sustainability of solar PV power in a spectacular way. For PV modules produced in countries with low-carbon energy grids – such as France, Norway, Canada or Belgium – and installed in countries with high insolation and carbon-intensive grids – such as China, India, the Middle East or Australia – greenhouse gas emissions can be as low as six to nine gCO2/kWh of generated electricity. [16] [20] [14-15] That’s thirteen to twenty times less carbon dioxide per kWh than solar PV cells manufactured in China and installed in Germany. [25]

Sustainable growth rates of 300 to 460% are possible when PV modules are produced in countries with low-carbon energy grids and installed in countries with high insolation and carbon-intensive grids

This would allow sustainable growth rates of up to 300 to 460%, far above what’s even necessary. If solar PV would grow on average at a rate of 100% per year, it would take less than ten years to meet today’s electricity’s demand. If it would grow at the sixteen percent maximum sustainable growth rate we calculated above, meeting today’s electricity demand would take until 2045 – with no net carbon dioxide savings. By that time, according to the forecasts, total global electricity demand will have more than doubled. [26]

Of course, producing and installing solar panels in the right places implies international cooperation and a sound economic system, none of which exist. Manufacturing solar panels in Europe or the USA would also make them more expensive again, while many countries with the right conditions for solar don’t have the money to install them in large amounts.

Carbon Dioxide mitigation potential for crystalline silicon PV modules produced in China and installed in different countries. Source: Briner 2009.

An alternative solution is using on-site generation from renewables to meet a greater proportion of the electricity demand of PV manufacturing facilities – which can also happen in a country with a carbon-intensive grid. For example, if the electricity for the manufacturing of solar cells would be supplied by other solar cells, then the greenhouse emissions of solar PV systems could be reduced by fifty to seventy percent, depending on where they are produced (Europe or the USA). [7] In China, this decrease in carbon dioxide emissions would even be greater.

In yet another scenario, we could dedicate nuclear plants exclusively to the manufacture of solar cells. Because nuclear is less carbon-intensive than PV solar, this sounds like the fastest, cheapest and easiest way to start producing a massive amount of solar cells without raising energy use and greenhouse emissions. But don’t underestimate the task ahead. A one gigawatt nuclear power plant can produce about eleven million square metres of solar panels per year, which corresponds to 1.66 GWp of solar power (based on the often cited average number of 150 w/m2). We would have needed 24 nuclear plants – or one in twenty atomic plants worldwide – working full-time to produce the solar panels manufactured in 2013. [27]

What About Storage?

Why does the production of solar PV requires so much energy? Because the low power density – several orders of magnitude below fossil fuels – and the intermittency of solar power require a much larger energy infrastructure than fossil fuels do. It’s important to realize that the intermittency of solar power is not taken into account in our analysis. Solar power is not always available, which means that we need a backup-source of power or a storage system to jump in when the need is there. This component is usually not considered in life cycle analyses of solar PV, even though it has a large influence on the sustainability of solar power.

Storage is no longer an academic question because several manufacturers – most notably Tesla – are pushing lithium-ion battery storage as an alternative for a grid-connected solar PV system. Lithium-ion batteries are more compact and technically superior to the lead-acid batteries commonly used in off-grid solar systems. Furthermore, the disincentivation of grid-connected solar systems in a growing number of countries makes off-grid systems more attractive.

In the next article, we investigate the sustainability of a PV-system with a lithium-ion battery. Meanwhile, enjoy the sun and stay tuned.

Kris De Decker (edited by Aaron Vansintjan)

Sources & Notes

[1] Utilities wage campaign against rooftop solar, Joby Warrick, The Washington Post, March 2015

[2] Solar Power & Energy Storage: Policy Factors vs. Improving Economics (PDF), Morgan Stanley Blue Paper, July 28, 2014

[3] Solar at grid parity in most of the world by 2017. Giles Parkinson. Reneweconomy, January 2015

[4] Deutsche Bank’s 2015 solar outlook: accelerating investment and cost competitiveness, 2015

[5] Renewables 2014 Global Status Report, REN21, 2014

[6] Deutsche bank anticipates 2015 global solar PV demand at 54 GW. Solar Server. January 2015.

[7] Emissions from Photovoltaic Life Cycles, Vasilis M. Fthenakis, Hyung Chul Kim, Erik Alsema, in Environmental Science & Technology, 2008, 42 (6), pp. 2168-2174

[8] Renewable and Sustainable. Presentation at the Crystal Clear final event, Munich, M.J. De Wild-Scholten

[9] Update of PV energy payback times and life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions (PDF), In: 24th European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference. Hamburg, Germany. Fthenakis V., Kim, H.C., Held, M., Raugei, M., Krones, J.

[10] Life Cycle Inventories and Life Cycle Assessments of Photovoltaic Systems (PDF). IEA International Energy Agency, Report IEA-PVPS T12-02:2011. Vasilis Fthenakis. October 2011.

[11] Crystalline Silicon and Thin Film Photovoltaic Results – Life Cycle Assessment Harmonization. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2013

[12] It should be noted that the latest data are not yet confirmed because they are not yet in the public domain, but we nevertheless assume the value of 30 grams CO2e/kWh.

[13] Domestic and overseas manufacturing scenarios of silicon-based photovoltaics: life cycle energy and environmental comparative analysis. Dajun Yue, Fengqi You, Seth B. Darling, in Solar Energy, May 2014

[14] Technical Paper: Electricity-specific Emission Factors for Grid Electricity (PDF). Matthew Brander, Aman Sood, Charlotte Wylie, Amy Haughton, and Jessica Lovell. Ecometrica, August 2011

[15] Life Cycle Inventories of Electricity Mixes and Grid, Version 1.3 (PDF). René Itten, Rolf Frischknecht, Matthias Stucki, Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI). June 2014.

[16] The climate change mitigation potential of the solar PV industry: a life cycle perspective, Greg Briner, 2009

[17] “Current State of Development of Electricity-Generating Technologies: A Literature Review”, Manfred Lenzen, Energies, Volume 3, Issue 3, 2010.

[18] Solar Crisis: Cheap Chinese Solar Panels Prove Defective, Wolf Richter, Oil Price, May 2013

[19] Optimizing Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Strategies to Suppress Energy Cannibalism (PDF). J.M. Pearce. 2nd Climate Change Technology Conference, May 12-15, 2009, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

[20] Towards Real Energy Economics: Energy Policy Driven by Life-Cycle Carbon Emission, R. Kenny, C. Law, J.M. Pearce, Energy Policy 38, pp. 1969-1978, 2010

[21] A 2009 paper [22] sets the maximum sustainable growth rate at 32%, while a 2010 paper sets it at 41% [20]. However, these figures are based on a solar insolation of 1,700 kWh/m2/yr, the average in Southern Europe, not on the actual geograhical distribution of solar panels.

[22] Energy Payback for Energy Systems Ensembles During Growth (PDF), Timothy Gutowski, Stanley Gershwin and Tonio Bounassisi, IEEE, International Symposium on Sustainable Systems and Technologies, Washington D.C., May 16-19, 2010

[23] In 2013, China alone accounted for almost one-third of new installations worldwide, adding a record 12.9 GW and bringing total PV capacity to 20 GW. [5] Solar panels manufactured and installed in China save as much greenhouse gases as solar panels manufactured and installed in Europe; the carbon-intensity of manufacturing is higher than in Europe, but so is the amount of carbon displaced from the local electricity grid. Unfortunately, the second largest grower in solar PV in 2013 was Japan (7 GW new capacity), which has both a relatively clean energy grid and relatively little sunshine. For its calculations of the carbon dioxide balance in 2008, the paper discussed above considered a weighted average solar insolation of 1,200 kWh/m2/yr (reflecting the large share of PV power installed in Germany) and a weighted average displaced carbon intensity of 500 gCO2e/kWh (reflecting the importance of the German electric grid). We made the same calculation for the year 2013 and arrived to an average displaced carbon intensity of of 583 gCO2/kWh (only 15% higher than in the 1998-2008 period) and an average weighted solar insolation of about 1,250 kWh/m2/yr (only slightly above the 1,200 kWh/m2/yr between 1998 and 2008). This results in a sustainable growth rate of 16% for 2013. This figure is an approximation, as we don’t know the exact location of solar panel systems. Most notably, the solar insolation in China varies considerably throughout the country. If we would choose the maximum solar insolation (2,185 kWh/m2/yr) instead of the average solar insolation (1,577 kWh/m2/yr), the average weighted solar insolation of the global solar PV capacity added in 2013 would raise from 1,250 to 1,465 kWh/m2/yr.

[24] These numbers don’t take into account the energy used for building the PV factories, which can be substantial at high growth rates. To make a fair comparison, the same should be done for electricity produced by fossil fuels. However, including these data would lower the comparative advantage of solar PV because it takes much more energy to manufacture a 1 GW solar system than a 1 GW fossil fuel plant – and the latter also has a longer lifespan. Furthermore, a higher carbon dioxide-intensity of the conventional grid would also raise the carbon dioxide-intensity of PV manufacture.

[25] For modules manufactured in China and placed in France or Norway, the carbon dioxide balance is negative.

[26] This is not to suggest that solar PV should supply all electricity, because we also have other renewable power sources available. What we aim to show here is that energy and carbon dioxide payback times define whether solar PV power is a solution or a problem, and to what extent.

[27] This calculation is based on an energy use of 5700 MJ for the manufacturing of one m2 of solar cells. Since the source for this number is from 1998 [28], we have halved this figure in order to compensate for technological progress. This is over-optimistic, but the energy efficiency of manufacturing will further improve, although with decreasing marginal results.

[28] Energy pay-back time of photovoltaic energy systems: present status and prospects, E.A. Alsema, in “Proceedings of the 2nd World Conference and Exhibition on photovoltaics solar energy conversion”, July 1998.

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