The conflict between Distributionism and 2000th century capitalism is between two competing models of distribution. The Distributionism model requires that both ownership and production are distributed and that the owners also be the primary producers. The primary economic unit of society, in distributionist thought, and the family is also the primary unit of production and decision making. Distributionism forstalls economic development. The distributionist model is of a static society. 20th century capitalism utilizes the limited liability joint stock corporation to widely distribute ownership of capitalist enterprises throughout society.
Thus the difference between Distributionism and the standard view of capitalism has to do with the the split between ownership and production in the capitalist model. Thus the ideal organization for distributionism would be for each family unit to be also the primary production and consumption unit. This is the model practices in what economists call underdeveloped societies.
Rigorously applied to energy generation, the distributionism model would require that each household would generate its own electricity. There is however a paradox in Lovins model. The distributive generation facilities themselves would have to be a product of a capitalist economy. Lovins required that the plants be very well designed and built. in fact so well designed and built that they would require virtually no maintenance. The design and building of low cost high quality material objects is what capitalism does best. But capitalism typically builds material objects that require maintenance. Low maintenance usually means extra cost. But capitalism is capable of turning out high quality low maintenance goods for thosewho are willing to pay for the quality. There would seem to be, however, no way to produce micro generators in a strictly distributive economy.
In practice distributive electrical systems designed for household use are expensive as well as having maintenance issues. Distributive generation fans point to microhydropower as an exception to this rule, but microhydropower use is limited to households living next to flowing rivers and streams, and is subject to seasonal and climatic variations in water flow.
It practice distributive generation schemes are not economically competitive with central generation. Amory Lovins advocates energy efficiency in order to limit central generation, but distributive generation systems as a rule are less efficient than than central systems, and the relitiveefficiency can be explained in three words, "economies of scale."
Lovins talks of distributive co-generation, but that model has limitations. First, it is carbon friemdly rather than post-carbon. co-generation requires the burning of natural gas, a fossil fuels. Secondly, if heat is used for space heat, it should be noted that electricity would be only produced on a seasonable basis. If electricity is producedon a year round basis much of the efficiency gains of cogeneration is lost. If heat is used for water heating, then co-generation compets with solar water heating, a post-carbon technology. The co-generation would appear to be a very limited concept, that would be of no value in a post carbon economy.
Combined cycle generation is a second efficiency producing economy. But here the capital cost of combined cycle generation is beyond the economic reach of most household economy. Thus we note a disconect between the concept of Distributionism and Distributive generation. Distributionism is an attempt to bring peoples lives out of the capitalist economy. Distributive generation depends on capitalism, andcan only function within a capitalist system.
Amory Lovins also talks about "distributive renewable". These would include fuel cells, biomass, PV generation, wind generation. Each technology has serious drawbacks, drawbacks that are rarely elaborated by "distributive renewables" advocates. Photo voltaic produces electricity less than 1/4th of the time. Distributive PV systems need battery back up as well as secondary backup. Secondary back up can come from the grid, or from fossil fuel powered generators. Thus PV systems are carbon friendly, and the place of PV technology is a post carbon world is very questionable.
Biomass is not sustainable, because it mines the soil. It is also carbon friendly, because it extracts CO2 from storage in livving tissue, and returns it to the air. Finally, biomass is practical only in areas where a large number of trees or other vegitable materials are avaliable for harvesting. Thus the use of biomass in electrical generation is not truly renewable, and it has a negative impact on climate change.
Finally wind generation has limited potential in much of the country. In many areas wind generators operate at 10% of capacity or less. Winds vary according to time of day, the season of the year, geographic location, and changes in microclimatic conditions. Most of the population of the United States live in areas that are relatively unfavorable to wind generation.
More favorable locations include off shore sites, and the sparsely populated great plains of the United States. For this reason wind advocates favor building massive wind arrays in wind favorable localities and building grid extentions to the wind farms. Distributive advocates would argue that this system is distributive because wind generation depends on large numbers of small wind generators that are dispersed over a wide geographic area. But the
system is capital intensive, and relatively centralized, and in a way it is even less distributive than the traditional "centralized" system of electrical generation that brought the generators close to people. Wind generation is also carbon friendly, in that it depends on fossil fuel powered electrical back up. Thus wind systems do not fit the distributionism model, and there role in a post-carbon energy economy is open to question.
Similr considerations might be mentioned for solar thermal. Even with thermal backup, most areas of the United States are unsuited for solar thermal generation. A day of cloud cover would be disaster our for a thermal storage system. Thus solar thermal systems rely for any sort of reliability on areas of the country where there are almost never cloudy days. In practive this would restrict solar thermal electrical generation to the south west. A national system of solar thermal electrical generation would require massive additions to the national grid, and a huge capital investment. It would be absurd to classify the resulting system as distributive generation. Indeed the ST national system would be the anthesis of distributive generation.
Finally I should brieflty mention fuel cells. Despite devlopment for over a generation, fuel cell technology has not yet reached maturity, and its limitations suggest that it may well never do so. Despite large investments in fuel cell development for transportation, no practical fuel cell system for transportation has yet to imerge, and there is much pessimism about the future of fuel cells in transportation. No fuel cell system for distributive generation is likely to emerge if fuel cells for transportation are not possible.
There is then a tension between the distribution model dictated by Distributionism and what amory Lovins wishes to include in the distributive generation concept.
Amory Lovins distributive generation model is not distributive at all. In California distributionists are starting to rebel agains the massive grid expantion required to bring "renewable" electricity to consumers. "Why the heck should we pay for this line when we can use rooftop solar and get the energy we need?" asked Denis Trafecanty, a distributionist activest who is fighting big capital renewables related grid expantion. Needless to say, Amory Lovins is not supporting the distributionist. T'hey do not pay his hugh consulting fees.
Local distributionist would like to put money into local distributive generation projects rather than grid expantion. But David Hawkins, who is the lead renewable power engineer with the California Independent System Operator points to the flaw of the distributionists approach. "You're just not going to get enough power out of rooftops and parking lots," Hawkins says.
The ever zanny Sierra Club is fighting against power lines routes for environmental reasons, but they also suspect that San Diego Gas & Electric wants to hook the expanded grid up to coal fired power plants in Mexico. "Our concern all along about this project has been that it's a bait and switch," said Micah Mitrosky, a Sierra Club's organizer. One thing is sure, those Mexican Power plants will be a whole lot more reliable than California renewanles. The temptation for the capacity starved California electrical industry may prove irresistible.