Saturday, January 03, 2015

Coal in the Stocking

Eli, of course, got a couple of lumps this Christmas, but the Bunny has some thoughts about the recent Lomborg/Tol campaign for burning more, especially in poor countries.  Now this is the start of something, not the end and more of a position paper (aka paw sucker) rather than a proof, but let us begin  from the implications of "Does Africa Need Telephone Poles"

Lomborg and Tol and the Breakthrough Boys have been busy pushing the idea that Africa and other poor/developing countries need to burn more coal because, well, because on a per Watt basis coal burning to create electricity is cheaper.

However they neglect a few dozen important things.

As Eli pointed out, the cost is only cheaper if you don't count the cost of distribution to the sticks.

Moreover, as Eli pointed out, since the costs of solar, hydro and wind are primarily capital costs, if Lomborg, Tol and the Breakthrough Boys were really interested in helping they would be advocating for the developed world to support installation of renewables, leaving the developing nations to carry the burden of buying and transporting coal to the power plants, and building out major electrical distribution networks.  The coal first model is a recipe for burdening the poor so they remain in poverty.

Somewhat sotto voce, Eli and others pointed out that maintaining large distribution networks is something that developing countries are not famous for.

Besides cost a particular stick that the Lomborg, Tol, Breakthrough Boys like to use is to point out that renewables can be intermittent.  True enough, but as Eli would now like to point out, coal and a central distribution system is also intermittent in all developing countries.  The distinguishing feature of operating in a developing country, even if you are connected to the electricity network is the diesel generator in the backyard.  Even in the cities, where distribution is the best in the Third World.  What does Richard Tol think them things are for??

So, each coal burning plant requires that every hut and factory have a backup diesel.  These, of course are being replaced by solar PV and other systems, but solar PV and wind in small networks is by far the cheapest electrical source out in the sticks even without blackouts.

And now Eli would like to come to the developed world.  With increased range (Tesla now has an all electric auto with 600 km range) rooftop solar recharging even through secondary batteries now becomes a viable transportation model.  Exxon whines


Phillip said...

Power transmission lines are not just a maintenance issue for developing countries, they are easy targets for insurgents in areas of instability. Just google "insurgent power lines" and you'll bring up enough info to keep you reading until Spring. Transmission lines are a lot easier to damage than they are to repair. Power lines by nature are difficult or impossible to defend, and repairing damaged lines or substations can take a long time if parts have to be fabricated and shipped from developed nations.

Another advantage renewable distributed generation (including PV, microhydro, and small wind) has over centralized power generation is scalability. A small community can have sufficient power for communications with a handful of PV modules and an inverter. Add some more modules and they have lighting and refrigeration (or a well pump). Add some batteries and they can have lights into the evenings. My only point is that renewables have a (relatively) low entry cost and a great deal of flexibility.

Dano said...

My first thought was as Phillip pointed out. What would the first advance....erm....troops...of ISIS do as they advance? Cut them wires on the stick thingies.

It would be much, much harder to eliminate all the PV panels, especially if hidden.



Mitch said...

One other cost for distributed power--having trained and willing person(s) to maintain the facility. And, access to spare parts. A facility that goes down often gets scavenged, and often a facility can go down for a lack of understanding of how to keep it working. Training will be a big part of the cost.

GRLCowan said...

Just now googling (lomborg tol coal) produced this and two other Rabett blog entries as the first three hits. Where are they campaigning?

Tom Curtis said...

My family has fairly deep connections to Africa. Most recently that connection manifested in the work my father and mother did in the Rushinga District in Zimbabwe. One of the features of that work was trying to get agriculture on a firmer footing, to which end they funded from missionary wages (which for Australian missionaries is not far of subsistence) the purchase of cattle. That part of the work came acropper when RENAMO geurrillas came into the district, shooting all cattle and taking slaves. (RENAMO was a fake antigovernment military force raised and funded by apartheidt South Africa as part of its long, vicious war against democracy in Southern Africa).

If even cattle is too much "infrastructure" for parts of Africa, the idea that power lines, power plants, or even solar cells can be realistically deployed and survive is laughable. Helping people realistically for much of Africa consists of providing solar ovens, plastic bottle lights, and ready access to potable water by digging wells.

The ideas of Lomborg and Tol about how to help Africans shows merely that they have never actually tried to do it in real life - ie, that their purported concern is merely tactical.

Pekka Pirilä said...

The comments of this thread appear disconnected from the reality. If all that were true the existing electricity infrastructure would not be there, but the grid is mostly working, not as reliably as in industrialized countries, but mostly it is. There are also local minigrids based on either diesels or minihydro, and there are solar installations. None of these alternatives can be dismissed as impossible in Africa.

The economics does differ from industrialized countries. Extra costs apply to each of them from lower reliability, lacking maintenance, and additional costs of transportation.

For the first needs for limited lighting and charging communication equipment solar is very often the lowest cost option, but that has so far not been the most common case, when more power is needed for commercial needs..

What China and India are doing is not important only in China and India, because both countries affect very much also what's happening in Africa. India has for long been a major supplier of equipment for power systems based on the low prices - but resulting unfortunately also often to low quality. Both are increasingly active now, and influence the outcome often more than Western countries.

Tom Curtis said...

Pekka seems to think there is a disconnect from reality. Well here are some basic facts:

In sub Saharan Africa, just 32% of the population have access to electricity. That is approximately the urban population (32.8%), and consistent with that, 80% of those who live without electricity live in rural areas. While electricity access has grown from 23% to 32% since 2000, in 2000 the urban population was 34% of the total, indicating that supply was not available to approximately a quarter of the urban population, and that the growth in supply has largely been a growth in urban areas. 81% of rural dwellers have no access to electricity.

The upshot is that, outside of South Africa, there is yet to be demonstrated in Africa any capability to develop electricity supply outside of urban areas.

That may in some cases be due to economic issues. Average usage amounts to just 317 kWh per year even with the heavy urban dominance of supply. In rural areas, which are much poorer, it is likely to be much less and consequently simply uneconomical to develop, or even maintain, a major electricity distribution network.

In other cases, the problem is political/criminal in that various "insurgencies" (some of which amount to simple criminal armies) can and do destroy economic infrastructure in remote areas where it is simply not feasible to defend them. Urban centers, and centers of administration can be defended, but outside of that, they cannot.

IMO, the disconnect from reality here is Peka who seems to assume that because electricity can and is being supplied to central concentrations of relatively wealthy population that therefore rolling out the networks in , for example, "rural" Democratic Republic of Congo is at all feasible under present conditions.

Fernando Leanme said...

Hydro power is an excellent idea, coupled to wind. I'd say a new kit with 75 % hydro and 25 % wind is a good choice. Solar isn't viable in those countries, it requires very high subsidies, but coal is required to deliver reliable base load. The key is to go for high efficiency coal plants. I'm sorry, but that's the way it works with existing technology. And if hydro isn't feasible then the answer is mostly coal and a little wind.

Pekka Pirilä said...

I agree, and did agree in my previous comment, on much that you write, but I do not agree on dismissing the value of more traditional sources of power. Solar is the best choice in many cases, in many others it's not (yet?).

Florifulgurator said...

Wow. Do some Very Serious Persons still take Tol or Lomborg serious? Is their vaporware still bought anywhere?

Hank Roberts said...

> maintaining large distribution
> networks is something that
> developing countries are not
> famous for.

Oh, I dunno. Bush meat, ivory, rhino horn, and hardwood logs get distributed to markets and exporters quite well by even the worst roads. Ask the Chinese.

That's what the breakthrough boys want; access to resources. Roads that have to be built to put in the electrical transmission towers.

This small local solar stuff is antithetical to extraction of resources.

Vinny Burgoo said...

A European Commission/UNEP paper comparing the electricity costs for rural Africans of distributed solar, distributed diesel and on-grid via grid extensions:

As far as I can tell, they ignored the hundreds of thousands of kilometres of existing low-voltage cables in Africa (probably because such a map isn't available) and based their analysis on new extensions from existing high-voltage grids. Even so, grid extensions emerged as affordable for more people than the other options (Table 1) and would pretty much clean up in West Africa (Figure 6). Interestingly, diesel generators clean up in South Africa. Dunno why that is. An artefact of ignoring existing low-voltage lines? High grid electricity prices? Cheap diesel?

More and bigger maps from the study are available here:

(The one comparing PV, grid, mini-hydro and diesel generators appears to contradict the published paper, especially for South Africa, where solar outdoes diesel. Dunno why.)

The same team did an update (or rehash) in 2013 but I can't find a free copy.

Hank Roberts said...

A fellow who goes by "Greenpa" pointed out somewhere that little isolated communities with local solar and sustainable ecological niches built up around them are also going to look like tasty ripe low hanging fruit for banditry.

If there's any chance of preserving Africa's remaining wildland -- it's going to take excellent telecom, well regulated local militias and extremely rapid response by bigger police protection -- coming fast in VTOLs not slow using blimps.

I can imagine it (and I note Robert Grumbine is looking into possible futures, I commend that).

Jonathan Gilligan said...

Apart from cost, there's also the environmental risk of transportating fossil fuels.

Let's look away from Africa to Asia: Bangladesh broke ground a year ago on a coal-fired 1.3 GW coal-fired power plant 14 km from the Sundarban mangrove forest (a World Heritage site and important wildlife refuge that's home to Ganges and Irawaddy river dolphins, saltwater crocodiles, and Royal Bengal Tigers). Fuelling this plant will require taking barges of coal from India through the Sundarbans.

A month ago, a ship carrying diesel fuel for electricity generation sank in the Sela River in the Sundarbans, spilling 92,000 gallons of oil in the middle of a vulnerable part of the forest.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh has over 3 million solar home electrical systems and is installing around 70,000 new systems per month.

Fergus Brown said...

I've had some dealings with folks from Pakistan at a highish level and tend to agree with much of what Hank is saying.
One feature absent is the issue of the politics of supply. Governments struggling to maintain centralised control like to manage energy supply themselves. Distributed energy on a scale is not always desirable, since it is emancipating.
For some time I've understood that without some basic social structure in place, such as protection from gangsters and a rule of Law, not much can be achieved. Where there is greater stability, development continues apace; Ethiopia, Laos, many other examples. It's a mixed bag.

Aaron said...

Most of the electrical generating capacity at a coal fired plant is just to move the power to the user. Most of the coal burned is for energy to move the power to the user.

The 2 key premises of coal power is very cheap coal and that power lines transport power cheaper than trains transport coal. AGW makes cheap coal a joke. And while power lines transport energy cheaper than a train can haul coal, transporting energy over a power line is not free. Local generation is likely cheaper, but we have "not in my backyard" users.

David B. Benson said...

Low EROEI and Low Power Density is a Serious Problem

Jim Eager said...

The Japan Meteorological Agency has called it:

2014 was by far the hottest year in more than 120 years of record-keeping.

The "pause" is dead. Long live the "pause.

Brian said...

I wouldn't overplay the banditry issue. I spent a little time in Uganda and Kenya. Both have unsavory neighbors and have/had no-go areas, but most of the countryside wasn't that vulnerable. Much of Africa and most of the developing world would be better off from a physical security perspective.

Lots of corruption and rule of law problems everywhere though. That issue could cut both ways - corruption makes large infrastructure systems much less efficient and could give the edge to off-grid and mini-grid solutions.

Piers Lyman said...

We need coal in cooking because we don't have an LPG.
Cheap Coal