Wall-E and Green Energy

August 12, 2008 | | Comments Off on Wall-E and Green Energy

You will never hear this writer smack-talking Wall-E.

For those of you who don’t know, Wall-E is about a robot on planet Earth who is tasked with cleaning up all the garbage that has piled up over the ages. In the film, human beings became so enamored of a company called BNL, a sort of perverse parody of Wal-Mart, that they let the company take over their lives. They purchased everything BNL had to sell, even when they didn’t need any of it, until there was no more room on the planet for people because of all the garbage they had created. So, all the humans climbed on to a giant spaceship and left Earth on a BNL cruise. This cruise was supposed to last for five years, while a bunch of robots like Wall-E cleaned everything up and made the planet hospitable to human existence once again.

Fast forward 700 years. Wall-E is the only robot left, the garbage is still everywhere, and the humans have yet to return. As it turns out, the humans have gotten so used to their life of leisure up in space, where they zip about the ship in flying recliners while sipping their meals out of cups, that they have become obese, unable to walk, and hyper-focused on the screens positioned in front of them at all times. BNL has become more than a store, of course – it has become a government and a way of life.

This plot line is not the main reason why I love this movie, by the way. The main story is that Wall-E, ever so lonely after 700 years alone, falls for a pretty  young droid named Eve who has been tasked with finding evidence that plants can grow on Earth. He follows her up to space intent on getting her to hold hands with him, all the while playing clips from Hello Dolly because, well, that’s his favorite musical. I know, it sounds like a Flaming Lips song.

The purpose behind this longer-than-necessary summary of Wall-E is to contrast the film’s vision of a future where the Wal-Mart ethos prevails with a surprising article in the New York Times. The article describes the efforts by companies like Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Safeway and Whole Foods to implement solar panels on the roofs of their stores despite the front-loaded cost of the endeavor. While coal-derived energy costs about 6¢/kWh and natural gas-derived costs about 9¢, solar energy costs a whopping 25¢ to 30¢ per kWh. That’s a lot more. The higher cost, of course, owes to the fact that solar power requires expensive equipment that needs to be installed by specialists, while coal or natural gas power comes from the socket on the wall.

Why are these stores moving forward with this plan – the article says that if all goes according to plan, the companies will place solar paneling on all of their stores – if it’s not the cheapest source of energy? There are a number of explanations. First, the companies are banking on the green fad persisting indefinitely such that they will receive a PR kick that brings in more business. Second, they are banking on congress renewing the legislation behind Renewable Energy Credits. This one isn’t such a no-brainer, however. The legislation – called the Jobs, Energy, Families, and Disaster Relief Act of 2008 – needs to be renewed this year and some of the Senate is opposed to it. Supposedly this is because is makes no provision for domestic oil drilling, but there also seems to be ideological opposition to the bill as well. Third, the companies seem to be anticipating regulatory conservation methods like carbon cap and trade systems that will eventually require the use of renewable energy anyway.

This begs the question of whether this sort of green initiative by big business is part of a lasting commitment to fighting climate change, or whether these companies will abandon ship if oil prices fall or if congress fails to pass the aforementioned Act. While it is my hope that the BNLs of the world will take responsibility for the huge impact they have on the environment regardless of cost, we all know that in the end businesses seek maximal profit. For now, however, we can only cross our fingers and hope that congress comes through, so as to preserve the momentum of this process. Otherwise, Wall-E may start looking less like an awesome cartoon and more like a glimpse of of our future.

Flickr photo courtesy of Gymkata.

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