The Real Scope of the Problem – Energy Access – Iron Age to Modern Age in a single generation – Avoiding the drawbridge mentality

The true scope of the problem  ©Center for Global Development

The true scope of the problem                                                             ©Center for Global Development

FAIR WARNING – you may have some reading to do.  This article is mostly a slim collation of other articles you may want to read if you want to bring yourself up to speed on the subject of ‘energy access’ and energy poverty.

The other day Pielke the Younger unwittingly, handed me the perfect graphic to illustrate the scope of the problem that lies at the crux of the good humored dispute I have been having with Willis Eschenbach from WUWT regarding Willis’s scheme for The Powerhouse School Concept.

The Graph of the Day: Africa Power Needs, at the top of the page originally came to Pielke the Younger from an article titled: How Much Power Does Africa Really Need? by Todd Moss,  Todd is director of the Emerging Africa Project at the Center for Global Development.

Willis’s rural power generation and transmission scheme for the rural poor arose out of his insight that Expensive Energy Kills Poor People, an insight with which I am in total agreement with Willis.  The problem I see with Willis’s scheme is that it doesn’t go far enough to solve the real problem of energy access in the developing world.  I commented at Willis’s article at WUWT and expanded upon that comment here with my article Powerhouse School Project-unintended consequences of what works.

Both Willis and my own positions emerged out of our own personal experiences living and working among tribal people’s and the rural undeveloped, and I think shows a real sensitivity about their lives – just at rather different scales.

The crux of the issue between Willis and several of his commenters at WUWT and myself isn’t so much of an ‘issue’ as it is a real difference in the scope of the problem that we are addressing.  Willis seems to content himself with making, as one commenter put it, “the iron age” existences of the rural, up-river, out-back poor a little easier.  My criticism of Willis’s project, despite its good points, is that it will do very little to solve the real problems of rural poverty which has a great deal to do with the general lack of development and lack of productivity of the adult populations due to lack of energy access [lots of lacks] – not that I’m against making poor people’s lives a little easier.

I followed up a few days later with a post Fisked by Willis where I outlined this problem in further detail and presented Willis’s critique of my own position.  I pointed out the liberating effect, especially upon poor women, of the availability of electricity and the labor saving devices they enable, closing with a link to this TED talk from Swedish medical doctor, academic, and statistician Hans Rosling: The Magic Washing machine about the significance of the role of the washing machine in the transition modern society.

That was a week ago, suddenly Pielke the Younger produced a graphic that illustrates perfectly the scope of the problem as I see it, and the problem that, in my opinion, renders the Powerhouse School Concept as little more than a stop-gap to a much larger issue – an observation that Willis and some others took umbrage at.

On the subject of his Africa energy use projection graphic and its implications for planners  Mr. Moss had this to say:

…Does access mean being able to turn on two lightbulbs? A television? A fridge? What about an air conditioner? Is the goal to reach the IEA’s minimum “energy for all” threshold of 250 kWh/year, which is about the same as the average consumption in Bangladesh? Or is Tunisia a better model at 1260 kWh/yr? Or South Africa at 4800 kWh/yr? (Or, gulp, 13,395 kWh/yr for the average American?)

We’ve made an attempt at such an estimate here for current demand in the six countries targeted by President Obama’s new signature initiative, Power Africa. In each we use three different thresholds: the IEA’s minimum and the average consumption profiles for Tunisia and South Africa. (The full, nerdy explanation of the demand model is explained below.) Admittedly, it’s very, very rough, but the size of the gap is massive.

Pielke the Younger has another article in the same vein at the Breakthrough Institute:  How Much Energy Does the World Need?  where he lays out present [2010] energy consumption patterns for the world and scenarios where by 2035 the ‘rest of the world’ is brought up to 2010 consumption levels characterized by current levels of energy consumption by Bulgaria, Germany, and the United States respectively.

It appears there is a real ambition gap between the levels of energy consumption that some planners are willing to allow and what people themselves might want:

An "ambition gap" in energy access?   ©Roger Pielke Jr 2013

An “ambition gap” in energy access?                                                                   ©Roger Pielke Jr 2013

Notice what the International Energy Agency defines  as “energy access”, about 250 kWh per household per year, or about 2% of that used in the average American household.

Over the last few years, Pielke the Younger has kept the pilot light burning at his personal blog with a series of articles such as the recent  Making Energy Access Meaningful and from Nov. 2012  Against Modern Energy Access from which I will quote:

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.
There is a devil in the details which helps us to keep the energy poor out of view while we debate issues important to rich people, like climate change. That is the very definition of “energy access.”
What  concerns me is that many people in the developed world, [relatively] rich and white would be a fair way to describe many of them, seem to find many reasons and rationals for essentially leaving most of the people in the world, destitute of access to affordable and abundant energy.  In a comment to Pielke I coined the term “energy subsistence” to describe the energy access situation for most of the human race:
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’.
When you look at the numbers for energy generation that would be required to bring ‘the rest of the world’ up to the present levels of even a Bulgaira or Germany, they are truly staggering.  Current global energy consumption stands at around 500 quads of energy per year.
  ©Roger Pielke Jr 2013

These numbers start to look frightening in an of themselves.                         ©Roger Pielke Jr 2013

Looking at these numbers is it any wonder that people – in the developed world – start to form a kind of ‘drawbridge mentality’ about energy consumption in the developing world? Attitudes start to become zero-sum, meaning if the ‘rest of the world’ develops, the ‘real world’ must ‘de-develop’ and everyone has to learn to expect to live without very much access to energy – and at all costs energy must be made very expensive to keep people from using too much of it.
What we really need is some better kind of ‘bridge building’ – the right kind of engineers.  To keep the majority of the Earths population at a level of “energy subsistence” or “energy starvation” is in my opinion, inhumane.  What do you think?

One thought on “The Real Scope of the Problem – Energy Access – Iron Age to Modern Age in a single generation – Avoiding the drawbridge mentality

  1. Pingback: Trollgate: Cultural Production, Amen to That – Culture, the Public Domain, and the Rights of the Artist in the Digital Age – Towards a Copyright of Creativity | The Coraline Meme

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