ASU workshop discusses social and ethical considerations of solar energy


On February 22, 2013, ASU faculty and students attended an all-day workshop focusing on the larger social, economic, policy, and ethical considerations of solar energy. This event was sponsored by ASU's Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO), the National Science Foundation, and the National Academy of Engineering. The speakers and facilitators hosting this event included Clark Miller, the Associate Director of CSPO; Joseph Herkert, an Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology in the School of Letters and Sciences; and Chad Monfreda, a graduate research associate at CSPO.

The workshop hosted a morning and afternoon session with following group activities, networking, and plenty of room for open discussions. The two sessions provided the basis of the workshop’s key concepts and ideas which was to explain the importance of social and ethical considerations of solar in Arizona and across the United States.

Session I: Solar Energy and Socio-technical systems

Clark Miller was the speaker for the morning lecture which aimed at explaining the social implications of developing solar energy. Miller first began with explaining what a socio-technical system is. A socio-technical system is a system in which people and technological elements are woven together. Miller provided the example of the automobile, which allows people to travel easily from work to home. For many people, automobiles are relied upon as a daily function. Another example is air conditioning, which allows us to endure the often intolerable Arizona summer heat. Technology heavily influences and shapes the way we live our lives.

The energy that we use to produce technology is not only influential to our everyday human functions, but to our future as well. In regards to energy consumption, the socio-technical system relies on connecting the way we use energy to the human powers of existence. The way we see technology, people, and energy woven together is called a socio-energy system. Although there are more people on earth than ever before, Miller noted that the energy transition is “not a population transition, but rather a technological transition because there is an increasing density of electricity consumption”. It is becoming apparent that solar energy technology, such as photovoltaics, will be integrated into our socio-energy system to satisfy our future energy needs in a clean and sustainable way. Miller argues that it is therefore essential that we know how to organize, make money, and govern our socio-energy system so that we receive the best benefits.

It is not easy to determine how to organize, govern, and financially gain from implementing a new low-carbon energy system. The oil and gas companies are deeply embedded into our economies. Transitioning out of this system will entail big winners and big losers if poorly planned. Miller gave the example of people living on the Gulf Coast. The Gulf Coast does not naturally achieve the same amount of sun as we have in the Southwest. “We cannot forget about these people” said Miller. “We need to figure out how we are going to economically develop the Gulf Coast which will not get much solar development”. Miller also explained that although solar energy reaps great benefits for residential home owners, it would have a reverse effect on energy utility companies such as Arizona Public Service Company (APS) or Salt River Project (SRP). “Energy change will redistribute risks and benefits,” said Miller. “It will cost people jobs”. Miller explains that if we are going to transition out of the current socio-energy system then we need to develop new ways to do business and try to reap the best benefits for everyone. Miller notes that ASU is setting an example by training students to become aware of energy policy issues that will be useful later on when solar becomes more evident in a national energy plan.

Session II: Solar Energy and Ethical Considerations

Joseph Herkert was the speaker for the second session which aimed at explaining ethics and how we can correlate it to solar energy development. Herkert explained that ethical issues involve conflict of interests or values of different individuals or organizations. In regards to ethical considerations of energy, Herkert provided the example of global warming. Global warming is a concern of many scientists but still remains an issue of conflicted public interest. Herkert explains that it comes down to “what we know and what we ought to do”. We know that installing nuclear power plants can have disastrous effects on both an environmental scale and a human health related scale. Although nuclear disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl can potentially happen again, it is a risk that many countries take to sustain an energy economy.

Herkert provided two philosophical viewpoints in regards to ethical considerations. The first is Utilitarianism Ethics, which states the greatest good for the greatest number. People who develop ethics on the Utilitarianism guidelines would focus on the consequence and see which options benefit the most people. Utilitarian Ethics in energy policy would create an energy policy that would benefit the greatest amount of people and their environment.” To counter that point, Herkert gave the example of Duty-Based Ethics which is based on duties or obligations regardless of the consequences. Herkert explains that Duty-Based Ethics is based on not treating people as merely a means to an end. In regards to energy ethics, this can be viewed as everyone having the right to energy services, not just a select few. These two points can often conflict with the other: How can we balance the best potential outcome (Utilitarianism) with the right of everyone having the same energy services (Duty-Based)?

Herkert explains that if we envision a sustainable world, “energy efficiency on its own is not going to do it, we need behavior changes”. With a code of energy ethics, we are able to have guidelines on how we want to see a renewable energy future. Herkert said that there has yet to be a solid code of ethics for solar energy, and if we were to develop a code of ethics, what would it look like? Herkert provided a sample code of ethics which is listed here:

Herkert’s Sample Code of Solar Ethics:
1. Solar energy development should not be at the expense of people’s essential rights
2. Solar energy should be environmentally sustainable
3. Solar energy should not contribute to net reduction of total greenhouse gas emissions and not exacerbate global climate change
4. Solar energy should develop in accordance with trade principles that are fair and recognize the rights of people to a just reward
5. Costs and benefits of solar energy should be distributed in an equitable way
6. If the first five principles are respected, there is a duty to develop solar energy

This workshop initiated thought processes and conversation starters which encouraged students and faculty to look at the large-scale considerations of solar energy. By examining these two lectures, it is apparent that having conversations about the social and ethical implications of solar energy is important for people not only interested in getting into renewable energy development and policy, but for the greater masses affected by the institution of these policies. With having more workshops like this at Arizona State University, we can further develop how we wish to see the future of solar in Arizona and across the United States.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

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