Powerhouse School Project – Willis Eschenbach – the unintended consequences of what actually works

Willis Eschenbach, one of  the regular authors and commenter over at WUWT has a thought provoking new article up: The Powerhouse School Concept, This article is a further development of his thoughts on bringing low cost electricity to the rural poor of the world who are suffering grave hardships, disease, and excessive mortality due to their reliance on expensive or dirty biomass fuels and coal.

I’m in complete agreement with Willis that, “Expensive Energy Kills Poor People”.

Enviornemtal policy academic and blogger Pielke the Younger had a series of articles on the subject in the fall of 2012 for instance here:  Against Modern Energy Access.  Pielke the Younger wrote:

Access to energy is one of the big global issues that has hovered around the fringes of international policy discussions such as the Millennium Development Goals or climate policy, but which has been getting more attention in recent years. In my frequent lectures on climate policy I point out to people that 1.3 billion people worldwide lack any access to electricity and an 2.6 billion more cook with wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues and animal waste (an additional 400 million cook with coal).

The “success” scenarios of climate advocates hoping to power the world with carbon-free energy almost always leave a billion or more people in the dark and several billion cooking with dirty fuels. Sometimes, magic is invoked to suggest that “electricity can be brought to everyone” without appreciably increasing carbon emissions. Of course, if we could bring electricity to the 1.3 billion without any access with no effect on emissions, then we could probably do it for 6 billion others.

In response, amplifying Pielke the Younger’s argument in comments I wrote:

How about this: “energy subsistence”, that amount of electricity consumption that is so tiny as to hardly be worth discussing as belonging in a ‘modern’ household, so little in fact that if you take it away it really doesn’t change that much in the household’s economy. With one or two compact fluorescent bulbs 5 hours a day, that household is going to have secondary sources of illumination and everything else just to ‘subsist’ [or they just go back to living like people in the dark ages and all go to bed when it gets dark outside, and with the appropriate levels of poverty and starvation].

I’m talking about “subsistence” in much the same way that a ‘subsistence farmer’ who has managed to acquire a couple of steel tools, a cooking pot and utensils, maybe even a tractor and plow, can be said to be modern – essentially neolithic in household economy but some benefits of ‘modernity’ have managed to trickle down, probably second hand, cast-off, repaired, re-purposed or whatever. I don’t think we are talking here about “living just above the poverty line” I think we are talking about genuine poverty, the real grinding thing – just not starvation.

So, maybe that is another possible demarcation line: ‘energy starvation’.

Has anyone here actually tried to live on 680watt*hr per day for a year or two? raise a family? – that’s something like a single 100watt solar panel – for a family of five, it’s a nice luxury to be sure, but you can do without it because its simply not enough to make you household work in the first place – without starvation becoming a real issue.

In his article Willis recounts his personal experience in the Peace Corps working on bringing renewable energy to rural villages far from the electrical grid.  In particular he recounts encountering a man with a donkey cart in the selva of Paraguay while out and about scouting for potential windmill sights.

And in the cart were a half-dozen auto batteries. I asked the driver what that was about, and I was surprised by the reply.

He told me that the batteries would be owned by several homes and farms far away from the road. There were no power lines anywhere along the road, of course, we were a long ways from the grid. He said the driver would leave the car batteries there by the side of the road, and a truck going to a nearby sawmill would pick them up. At the sawmill, which also wasn’t on the grid, for a small fee the batteries would be charged from the generator powering the sawmill. Then they underwent the same process in reverse. The truck brought them to the mule track, and the mule man took them back to the farms and ranches. There, they used them for power until they were run down.

Brilliant!, I thought. These jokers aren’t letting a little hardship get in the way of having electricity in their homes.

Willis’s example of the diesel powered, donkey transported electrical grid goes a great way to illustrate exactly how important rural electrification is to rural people.  That these people are willing to invent, and put up with about the most ridiculously absurd and inefficient method electrical transmission possible – automobile battery by donkey – shows how important it is to them.  Ironically, that method seems to work better in practice and is less ridiculous and absurd than the method being proposed by the 1st world Peace Corp workers.

What ever the solution is it must work, it must be affordable, it shouldn’t break easily, it must be repairable, the parts available, and it must not make anything else worse.

I really like the bit: “If it doesn’t pay, it doesn’t stay.”  This is the ultimate economic reality in much of the world were there is no surplus to spare for someone else’s bright ideas.

As editor, I love the fact that Willis was able to boil his own idea down to a single paragraph; it keeps me from having to resort to the editorial rotovap to condense the idea down myself.

The PowerHouse School is a ten-foot shipping container that is set up to recharge 12-volt automobile batteries and cell phones, using whatever renewable sources are available locally—solar, small-scale wind, micro-hydro, or some combination of all three. It would be run as a for-profit battery-charging business by a school, with the children being trained in the operation, care, and maintenance of the equipment and the charging and feeding of the batteries. It would also sell (by order only, no stock in hand) a variety of 12- and 24-volt lights, equipment and tools. The older students would also be taught the business side of the operation—keeping the books, maintaining the supplies, figuring the profits and losses. Any excess power would be used by the school itself, for lighting classrooms and powering electronics.

Some first thoughts on Willis’s Powerhouse School idea.

I have to ask, what will really change with the Powerhouse School Concept?  I like it on the one hand, I think it has potential to fill a niche need, and I don’t like it on the other hand because I don’t think it will really solve the problem of lack of rural development and may have some unexpected social repercussions.

How much new wealth or economic activity will Willis’s scheme generate?  Willis is a pretty astute analyst when it comes to the numbers, but I wonder if he has missed some possible negative outcomes: like what happens to the guy with the donkey cart? and what happens to the guy who was running the charging business out of the back door of the sawmill powerhouse, and what about the sawmill truck drivers in between?  These people represent economic activity and personal income that are at risk of being co-opted by the Willis’s scheme.

I have to ask because I’ve spent enough time myself out on the Reservation with tribal peoples to understand how these businesses often really run.  I don’t know, but I suspect in Willis’ Paraguayan example that the real cost to the sawmill of diesel fuel, operator, and capital expenses were not being captured in the price of recharging the batteries – that is if all of the electricity wasn’t being out and out stolen from the mill’s owner and the costs to the enterprise had more to do with bribes and payola than no.2 diesel and motor oil.

One factor that differs between Willis’ program and the Paraguayan model is that the latter had almost no capital costs of its own.  The generator and all of its capital and overhead expenses is paid for the mill, the donkey cart already paid for, there is a [small] available supply of used car batteries around that are inexpensive enough for the farmers to obtain – probably because they are too decrepit to start a car.

The more successful the Powerhouse School Concept becomes the more it will push the economics of return-on-investment into the area of having to deal with users having to pay for new auto batteries more often, or more expensive deep-cycle batteries up front.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that even if charged properly by high quality charging equipment and well trained technicians, in practice used in this fashion [as domestic energy storage]] these cheap and available types of auto batteries fail frequently due to excessively deep and frequent discharging by the user.  How long do you give a [used] automobile battery employed as a domestic storage battery before it becomes a lead-acid-brick?   Two years, a year, one long football tournament?  There are of course technical solutions to these problems, but those solutions always drive up the cost.

I like that Willis’s proposal is containerized and probably modular.  There seem to be a possibility of significant economies of scale, as well as making the scheme turn-key and franchisable.  Keep the consultants out of it, but leave the design to professionals.  Big plus.

Question is, will it “pay” in reality? and who will finance the initial capitalization of operation?  I’m sure Willis has costed all of this out, but as a business proposition his scheme has has to bear much more financial responsibilities for its own upkeep than the original Paraguayan model.    As Willis mentioned, people in these circumstances have irregular incomes.  Businesses have difficulties with irregular incomes when they have fixed capital expenses.  If the scheme is not able to help create real economic development in the adult population of the communities it serves then it will always be at grave risk of not being able to “pay” – and it won’t “stay”.

I like the educational and technical training aspect of the program but I don’t like the child labor aspect of the program.  Does the income from the scheme pay the child workers?  The school?  The schoolmaster?  How do the impoverished parents pay their own kids for the household electricity?  If the Powerhouse School doesn’t help alleviate the problem of adult non-employment then all you will wind up doing is exacerbating the problem of the flight of human talent, young people, and resources to the city, leaving everyone else much as before. The kids are going to move to a grid connection once they figure out electricity and that real work can be gotten out of it.

The Powerhouse School concept may be some kind of a stop-gap, but at some point you have to raise the threshold of electricity use for these people to the realm of ‘modern’.  This is something I hope most people can agree on because – expensive energy kills poor people.

I like the idea that the project will be supervised by someone with some education and social independence [especially social independence] in the village, the teacher, but I also don’t like the idea of concentrating economic activity at the school, government run or otherwise.

Modern societies work best when the economic sphere is strong enough and independent enough from the political sphere and cultural sphere to fulfill its basic purpose which is to fulfill everyone’s basic needs;  it also needs to function as check and balance to the other two spheres – the three fold social order.

The big difference between Paraguay and USA is that Paraguay is, or was at the time Willis’ encountered the man on the donkey cart, a “closed-access order”†  society, one run by elites who control access – thus closed-access order – to all all forms of economic activity, collect ‘rents’ from them in the form of payola, and producers are allowed to produce as long as they pay out the local elites for the right to do business.  The only productive activities allowed in closed-access order societies are those that can produce the best rents for the elites in exchange for support for the rulers.  Everything runs on the system of who you know and who you pay.

The donkey cart scheme is exactly the type you often find on the fringes of closed-access order, too marginal to generate any real wealth.  Once a productive activity rises to the level of generating any real wealth it is automatically folded into the local scheme of wealth redistribution to the elites, and the system remains closed – and the poor remain poor.

Unfortunately, in my last analysis, if ideas such as the Powerhouse School are not protected by an “open-access order” society, then it will likely remain marginal and incapable of producing the real kinds of change and development that the undeveloped nations desperately need.

That’s my opinion,


† The Natural State: The Political Economy of Non-Development, Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast; UCLA Center for Comparative and Global Research, 2005


One thought on “Powerhouse School Project – Willis Eschenbach – the unintended consequences of what actually works

  1. Pingback: The Real Scope of the Problem – Energy Access – Iron Age to Modern Age in a single generation – Avoiding the drawbridge mentality | The Coraline Meme

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