Monday, March 16, 2015

If Not the Fire Then the Freezer

Some bunnies have noticed that Matt King Cole, Bjorn Lomborg and the ignorati from the Breakthrough Institute and yet others are crocadiling about how Africa needs coal to generate electricity, never mind that right now the majority of the countryside and small villages would do better with solar or wind.  As Eli has pointed out, this is mostly because the costs of building out the distribution network is not zero, far from it, and small village based solar powered grids are less expensive.

Of course, none of these folks figure in the costs and difficulties of maintaining an electrical, gas or electric transmission network in these countries, where people have the habit of borrowing power, power lines and gas.  There is a reason that the Niger delta lights up at night and it ain't LEDs.  There is a reason why even in rapidly developing countries, that everybunny has a diesel generator and the generator cuts in more than now and again.

Most frustratingly to Eli is the fact that the cost of solar is a capital cost, which once paid, does not require buying fuel, the major cost of fossil energy

Any bunny serious, rather than self serving, would look at this and figure out that developed societies, if they wished to help the underdeveloped, would help them set up solar, wind, or hydro on minigrids.  Better, faster and even cheaper.

But no, listen to Matt King Cole
Still, more than a billion people on the planet have yet to get access to electricity and to experience the leap in living standards that abundant energy brings. This is not just an inconvenience for them: Indoor air pollution from wood fires kills four million people a year. The next time that somebody at a rally against fossil fuels lectures you about her concern for the fate of her grandchildren, show her a picture of an African child dying today from inhaling the dense muck of a smoky fire.
Of course, bunnies could always look at pictures of Lagos in the Smog, or Mumbai, or Shanghai.  Coal is so tasty when burnt.   Or we have Bjorn Bunny in the New York Times,
they should not stand in the way of poorer nations as they turn to coal and other fossil fuels. This approach will get our priorities right. And perhaps then, people will be able to cook in their own homes without slowly killing themselves.
Anyhow, this reminded Eli of something, but he could not remember quite what, until while writing yesterday's post on how the Montreal Protocol Insurance Co was working out to the benefit of all, he kind of remembered and went looking for Fred Singer's rants on how the Montreal Protocols were the devil incarnate and he came across Fred quoting from  The Spectator, March 12, 1994.
"..the consequences of banning CFCs will certainly be disastrous./. The proposed replacements are less efficient and some of them are toxic, endangering the health of fridge workers and people nearby.  In Afria, refrigeration saves lives, not only by protecting food against decay and disease, but by preserving medicines, notably vaccines.  Anything that makes refrigeration more expensive or more difficult will cost lives in Africa and add to poverty, and anything that adds to poverty in Africa increases the destruction of the African environment. . .Somehow it is all right for people in the West to benefit from modern technology but wrong for poor people in Africa and Asia.  It is more wholesome for black Africans to die in infancy of "natural" agents such as maleria and food poisoning than to be safeguarded into healthy old age by unnatural agents such as pesticides and CFCs.  The outstanding feature of their victims is that they are poor.
Just a perfect rant, and perfectly wrong on all points.


Unknown said...

I notice that Matt Ridley had his usual rant about the world economy collapsing without fossil fuels in the Times yesterday. He seems to alternate between the latter and the WSJ.


Fernando Leanme said...

I think you need to study a bit more about Africa before you form an opinion. For example, Africa has very low wind power potential.

This discussion seems to go on forever, you create a surreal scenario of tiny little villages, discuss Nigeria, and then move on to advocate a feeble solution you have t really researched.

And of you don't get real and start getting more serious about the subject then all you do is shoot youself in the foot.

You need to up your game if you want to get tangible results.

Happy Heyoka said...


you have a point - the wind resource maps make for interesting reading.

There are still fairly substantial areas where wind turbines would be fine and, from what I have seen from my visits, I suspect that vast swathes of Africa are at least as viable for solar and hydro as my own home, Australia.

I think the point Eli was making still stands : if we're going to provide development assistance for energy infrastructure in Africa then maybe it should not involve locking them into an expensive fuel cycle.

But given that your blog discusses your personal experience flaring off wells in Africa, then maybe you have a vested interest in perpetuating that fuel cycle?

Anonymous said...

Why stick Africa with a 20th century energy infrastructure? Solar works well most of the time, with biomass, natural gas or some sort of energy storage to fill in the troughs. Or are you proposing stringing copper wires all across the continent?


Here's someone for Fernando to talk to in darkest Nigeria

Hank Roberts said...

> building out the
> distribution network

Hey, that's what they need built to haul out the hardwood, ivory, and bush meat -- the rights-of-way that would be cleared for "distribution" power lines.

Don't forget the collateral damage, or as they'd say, profits. Often enough there's going to be more money made from the illegal than the legal activity empowered by development.

Marlowe Johnson said...

speaking of refrigeration, the boys at ORNL have been busy. as a hater of all things that hum, this makes me happy.


Be carefull of what you wish for by way of Green refrigerants-- the revival of 1930's fluids like ammonia and SO2 would put paid to both radiative forcing and ozone depletion , but could bring back some of the phenomena that made the Depression depressing- Hindenberg class cold storage explosions and wholesale blindings by acid vapors leaking in the night.

The Precautionary Principle banished your grandma's fridge to the back porch !

Hank Roberts said...

> Why stick Africa with a 20th
> century energy infrastructure?

Same reason we stuck China with a 19th century energy infrastructure.

Competitive advantage, maintaining "ours"

If "they" avoid the pitfalls our bad example makes obvious, they'll leapfrog past our own slow changes.

Yeah, the world would be better off if that had happened with China -- start at the Clean Air Act level when building up from near nothing -- but they didn't.

Same principle applies for Africa --- skipping buying the old coal technology from those who've run out of markets elsewhere -- would be wiser.

Gingerbaker said...

I imagine that Isaac Asimov might be inclined to point out that the sun is almost always shining brightly at 33.4 billion watt-hours per square mile along the Equator every single day, and that DC power can be sent very long distances with acceptable efficiency.

He might even be inclined to calculate how many years of fossil fuel purchases, if diverted to fund the capital construction costs of such an international utility, would be required to build such a system. And he might even smile when he realized the answer would be about ten years worth.

Unknown said...

Africa should skip as much of the ridiculous and absolutely destructive fossil fuel infrastructure as they can. And I think it is entirely probable that they will. I spent many months in Ghana working for the CDC a few years ago; and other than the many intelligent and resourceful Africans I met, the one thing that struck me was how they skipped over the whole wired phone infrastructure and went straight to cellular. I've never had such high quality and consistent cell coverage here in the US as I did there. A bit of a shock actually. So I see no reason the same can't be done for alternative energy, especially solar.
- T. Goodwell


TG: the wholesale cost of an entry level cell phone will scarecely buy enough solar cells to charge its battery.

When all Africans can afford I-phones and piles of truck batteries for power storage , we can talk about buying the square meters of silicon needed to light laptops 24-7, but I don't presently see mamy people in Silicon Valley running refrigerators, AC, and ovens on photovoltaic juice

Unknown said...

Russell, my point was that as a society, Ghana skipped over wires and went straight to cell phones. No reason they or others in Africa can't do the same for power. And it won't be "when all" can afford it, but when "many" can. Last, let's start with light first, ehh? AC and refrigerators can wait.

Hank Roberts said...

Speaking of building roads and other 'rights-of-way':

page down to see Africa

Mark said...

they should not stand in the way of poorer nations as they turn to coal and other fossil fuels. This approach will get our priorities right. And perhaps then, people will be able to cook in their own homes without slowly killing themselves.
Would they be using coal-fired cookstoves like those that were so popular in China? (cough, cough)

Hank Roberts said...

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