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'Fully Automated Luxury Communism': Communism's coming of age

By David McMullen - posted Thursday, 1 August 2019

The weakness of this abundance message is that it does not break completely with the Green Blob. It does to a considerable extent of course. You cannot be singing the praises for economic growth, genetic engineering and automation without doing so. However, there is a lot of renewable energy nonsense; and he concedes too much to the limits-to-growth crowd.

Renewable Folly

Bastani seems to think relying on renewable energy is going to be a breeze. The rays of the sun will provide limitless energy. Solar panels are cheap as chips and offshore wind can compete with coal power. At the same time the intermittency problem is being solved by using lithium ion batteries for storage. And all these technologies are bound to get cheaper.


I'll just focus on batteries and storage here. While batteries can deal with short-term smoothing, they are far too expensive to deal with seasonal changes or extended periods of little sun or wind. Saying they are far too expensive is to put it mildly. Let's look at the battery facility recently installed in South Australia by Elon Musk to see how costly it would be. It provides 100MW of power for one hour and cost AU$90million (US$68 million).

In Australia, energy use of all types (electricity, fuel, heat) is around 200GWh per hour on average. Backing that up for an hour, would require 2,000 of those facilities and cost US$136 billion. For 36 hours, the figure would be US$4.9 trillion. That is around three years GDP! And also keep in mind that batteries don't last forever. So, to deal with intermittency, the cost of batteries would have to fall to a tiny fraction of their present level.

Now what about other storage options? Where it is available, pump hydro is generally deemed to be the cheapest choice, although still absurdly expensive. In Australia, pumped storage would "only" cost something in the order of US$500 billion, extrapolating from the expected cost of Snowy 2. However, there are serious doubts about the adequacy of potential pumped hydro capacity in highly populated regions like Europe, North America and China.

Hydrogen has been described as the solution to longer term storage. However, this would have to be hellishly expensive and is still a very immature technology.  First you have the cost of converting electricity to hydrogen and then transporting and storing it. This would provide fuel for electricity generating capacity that would kick in when there is a falloff in sun and wind. There will be times when these "free" resources will be quite low, so, you would be looking at a close to complete duplication of electricity generation capacity, with facilities that can turn hydrogen into electricity.

Duplication could be reduced by concentrating solar and wind farms in the better endowed regions and having them produce hydrogen for the less endowed ones. However, instead of duplication you would have electricity being used to produce hydrogen that is then often used to produce electricity. This would require lots more investment in this immature technology and greater energy conversion loss.

Longer transmission lines could to some extent be an alternative to storage. These would require new technologies, huge investments and often having the electricity switch in problematic regions. Such an arrangement also means massive duplication. Let's look at a simple example to show this problem. Say the world is divided into two regions with each having daylight when the other is in the dark. If they relied on battery storage, each region would install enough solar panels to produce its total requirement and batteries to make the power available when it is needed and not just when it produced. If instead, each relies on the other overnight, they both have to have the capacity to meet its daytime needs and the other's nighttime needs. So instead of storage you have double the number of solar panels as well as very long transmission lines.


It is difficult not to conclude that if renewable energy achieves a high proportion of energy provision, and all the coal and nuclear power plants are closed down, the only economic way of dealing with intermittency will be stand-by gas turbines. That would mean costly duplication and still leave us with a lot of CO2 emissions.

But it gets worse. If we stick with the notion that renewables are the solution, we will stay with fossil fuel because the former is just too expensive. And this is without even considering Bastani's proposal for a One World Tax that would be imposed on richer countries to bribe poorer ones into using renewable energy. The bigger the cost gap, the bigger the bribe will have to be. Contributing to the gap is the fact that some of these countries including China and India have lots of brand-new coal power plants.

If we are worried about the climate, we need to stop subsidizing the roll out of renewable energy and start spending big on research and development that will cheapen emission-free energy and make us more weather proof. This spending is very low at the moment and a mere fraction of what we presently spend on subsidizing the deployment of solar panels and wind turbines.

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This is a review of Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani, Verso, 288 pages (June, 2019)

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About the Author

David McMullen lives in Melbourne and can be found at Simply Marxism. Follow him on Twitter at @dfmcmullen.

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