- 04 August 2014 by Fred Pearce
- With Transfinancial Economics it would be possible notably in the Developing World to fund a set of small damns rather than some huge massive one as mentioned in the following article. Moreover, in both cases, there would always be the funds to build them, and thus, they would not be over budget. As for the solar panels, these would be quality products rather than cheap "substitutes." With TFE money is not a problem. The only problem is good planning by governments, businesses, and NGOs, and ofcourse, the amount of resources necessary to undertake a commercial, or ethical/sustainable project which benefits both the people, and the planet. And whether we like it, or not the rich, and super rich would also benefit.
(Image: Andrzej Krauze)
- Magazine issue 2980. Subscribe and save New Scientist
- For similar stories, visit the Comment and Analysis and Energy and Fuels Topic Guides
Small-is-beautiful electricity can't power a way out of poverty; big energy is either dirty or uneconomic. Time for some new ideas
THIS year the World Bank approved a big grant for the latest phase of the world's largest hydroelectric scheme. The Inga 3 dam is part of a megaproject on the Congo river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). With construction due to begin next year, the project could one day deliver twice as much electricity as the world's current largest power station, the Three Gorges dam in China.
The World Bank regards the $37 million grant as money well spent on a landmark scheme that will help bring grid electricity to the 90 per cent of Congolese who lack it. Most environmentalists and many in the aid community disagree. They say the dam is a white elephant and that its power will mainly benefit urban elites, mining companies and the export market. What the DRC's poor need, they say, is decentralised, low-carbon energy sources such as solar panels.
The disagreement over Inga 3 is a microcosm of a wider debate about how best to bring electricity to people who lack it. And the argument is not just pitting the likes of the World Bank against environmentalists.
The Breakthrough Institute, a California environmental think tank known for its iconoclastic stance, recently published a report called Our High-Energy Planet. In it, co-author Alex Trembath argues that promoting solar panels and other low-carbon energy technologies is "neo-colonialist, morally unacceptable and increasingly irrelevant". The charge is that solar enthusiasts are sacrificing economic development for the poor on the altar of their environmental concerns.
The same debate surfaced at a recent meeting on low-carbon energy, organised by the University of Sussex's Sussex Energy Group at the Royal Society in London, where researchers presented an analysis of the spread of domestic solar power in Kenya. Over 300,000 homes are now fitted with panels, an achievement that the university's David Ockwell praised as an example of "pro-poor, low-carbon development".
Or is it? As Ockwell himself remarked later in conversation, a couple of panels on the roof can charge phones and run a few lights and a radio but would be no good for anything more demanding, like boiling a kettle. Most Kenyans would probably prefer to be hooked up to centralised power, but the grid only reaches one-fifth of the country.
In other words, it is not obvious that low-carbon is necessarily pro-poor. And its widespread adoption might lock poor communities into a low-carbon future that is also low-energy and low-income.
That is especially troubling if the main argument for solar power is to tackle climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argues that reducing poverty is vital to helping poor communities become more resilient. So it would be criminal if green technologies were imposed on poor people to help hold back carbon emissions – only to leave them even more vulnerable.
All this chimes with Harvard University international development specialist Calestous Juma's argument that low-tech "solutions" to Africa's energy problems are a continuation of disastrous 20th-century policies that led developing countries down paths of low-innovation that perpetuated poverty. Africa, Juma says, needs the latest technology, not "appropriate" technology.
Which brings us back to the Breakthrough Institute's report. It slams environment groups and aid agencies who make a fetish of off-grid, low-energy power while giving "big" low-carbon energy like nuclear and hydroelectric the thumbs down. The institute says this is both unethical and counterproductive. It argues that the world's poor need a "massive expansion of energy systems" or they will be condemned to a future of continued poverty.
The authors are not climate-change deniers; they agree that low-carbon energy is essential. Nor are they free-market fanatics: only public investment, they say, gets power to the poor. But they insist that industrialising, urbanising and wiring up societies is the only way of delivering a prosperous, low-carbon future. "Moving to a high-energy planet is a moral imperative." Or, to put it another way, bring on the Inga dams and ditch the solar panels.
This is a critical debate right now, with the United Nations making a global push to deliver electricity to the billion people who still lack it. Governments in many poor countries are handing out cheap, Chinese-made solar panels to millions of homes. I have seen them in recent months in Mali and Guyana, for instance.
The trouble is that neither side is wholly convincing. The Breakthrough report has little to say about the implications of its strategy for the climate. The small-is-beautiful crowd, meanwhile, have yet to explain where their endless expanses of solar panels will take the poor.
Large hydroelectric projects are not the answer either. Earlier this year, Bent Flyvbjerg at the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School published an analysis of 245 such schemes built between 1934 and 2007. It concluded that dams are mostly financial millstones: completed years late, almost 100 per cent over budget, and delivering less economic return than they cost to build. Recent dams are no better than older ones, and the bigger they are, the worse they perform (Energy Policy, vol 69, p 43). This doesn't augur well for Inga.
There are no easy answers. We need more than rhetoric to be sure that low-carbon technologies are not developed at the expense of the poor. We need more voices from the people of Africa saying what they want.
What must be avoided at all costs is Africa stumbling into a future of cheap coal to power its cities and cheap solar panels for rural areas. With ever more people leaving the countryside for the cities, that does not sound like a good solution.
This article appeared in print under the headline "Power to the people"Fred Pearce is a consultant for New Scientist