Many environmentalists are reverse size queens — “small is beautiful.”

When Schumacher wrote the book of that title, he was responding to a real tendency to ignore diseconomies of scale — a tendency that still exists. Up to a certain point, both organizations and physical plants produce more output for each unit of input as they grown in size. Past that point, costs of gigantism kick in, and efficiency begins to fall instead of rising.

But Schumacher assumed that this point always occurs at small or medium sizes. In fact, there are many cases in which you get economies of scale up to very large sizes indeed.

For example, computer CPUs are still made in giant factories, not neighborhood plants; your computer would cost a whole lot more if that were not the case.

Wind electricity can be made a lot less expensively in giant wind plantations than by single generators in homes and farms. Site preparation and construction is less expensive when concentrated in a large area. Maintenance is cheaper when the you have enough turbines to justify full-time staff. (And yes I’m aware of small rooftop generators. Most produce a lot less electricity than the manufacturers claim, and end up producing power at many times the cost of wind farms, per kWh. Besides, most of the best wind areas are sparsely populated.)

Amory Lovins is an example of an environmentalist without a size fetish. In spite of using the rhetoric of decentralization on occasion, his arguments for a hydrogen path involve lots of large, centralized technology (PDF, PDF).

No, he does not favor miles of hydrogen pipeline or nuclear hydrogen generation. (Amory Lovins is not an idiot.) But he supports two alternative paths to low-carbon hydrogen generation. Either use our existing natural gas pipelines to ship natural gas to small decentralized reformers to convert it to hydrogen, and then pipe the resulting CO2 through carbon pipelines to sequestration sites. Or generate wind electricity in gigantic, centralized wind farms (see!), and use long distance gigantic electricity transmission lines to ship that electricity to local electrolyzers to produce hydrogen.

Note that gas pipelines are large, centralized technology. Carbon pipelines may or may not be large, centralized technology, depending upon where the carbon is shipped. Alternatively, large wind farms and long distance transmission are large, centralized technologies.

Having been posting on this blog for a while now, let me anticipate the objections. We can generated hydrogen cheaply in a decentralized manner — due to X or Y wonderful technology that is about to become cheaper/just around the corner.

My response: I agree with Lovins that we cannot afford, and don’t need, to wait for breakthroughs. We know now how to phase out fossil fuels. It is nuts for us not to start.

Lastly, while I agree that we need to start now, I disagree with Lovins’ particular solution as far as sources. I think the hydrogen path would be more expensive than he thinks, and that there are non-hydrogen alternatives that would work better. I’ll explore that in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, let me quote from an old MaxSpeak post of mine on this:

Don’t oppose large scale production when it is the most sustainable means to provide something essential; oppose unfettered control of that production by a tiny elite group.

Historically scale has never correlated with democracy. Yes ancient Egypt was a rigid bureaucratic slave society; but the city-state of Sparta was (if anything) worse. The breakup of Yugoslavia brought no increase in democracy or well-being, as the agony of Kosovo and Bosnia can testify. I don’t think any argument can be made that if the South had succeeded in breaking away from the U.S. in the 19th century, to continue slavery a bit longer, and perhaps through conquest expand it to Mexico, that the world would have been freer or more sustainable.

Yes all sorts of evils occur in large institutions; but if you have ever seen a sweatshop, plenty happens in small businesses as well. I’ve known small family businesses to treat least favored family members as horribly as any large corporation ever treated a disposable, faceless employee. If you want democratization, fight for more democracy; if you want that extended from politics to economics, support that. If you want political power decentralized, support a decentralized political system. If you are a humanitarian, support more humane policies; if you believe fundamental flaws in our system produce bad results, then support radical change. But don’t become a crude technological determinist and assume that confining most production within a certain size will contribute significantly to any of these things.