Responding to Bill Gates and Jigar Shah on Powering World’s Poorest Economies
Gates sides with Bjorn Lomborg (author of The Skeptical Environmentalist) in making a call for centralized, fossil-fuel-based electrification. Shah calls for prioritizing distributed renewable solutions.
Bill Gates, Carl Pope and Jigar Shah insights to this question: What's the quicker, more reliable and cheaper solution to reach the 3.2 billion electricity-deprived people around the globe? New centralized, fossil-fired generation or distributed renewables?
Both Gates and Shah agree that it should be a high moral priority to provide modern energy to the poor as quickly, reliably and cheaply as we possibly can. Both also agree that to the extent that this goal involves some additional use of fossil fuels, climate concerns should not be regarded as a barrier. Both are right on this count.
It would be wrong for the rich to continue to burn fossil fuels while denying them to the poor to protect the climate. It would also be a pointless exercise, since the poor cannot afford enough fossil-fuel consumption to make a meaningful climate difference.
However, neither Gates (and the Bjorn Lomborg clips which Gates cites) nor Shah provide meaningful, supporting data analysis for their divergent solutions.
What's the quicker, more reliable and cheaper solution to reach the 3.2 billion electricity-deprived people around the globe? New centralized, fossil-fired generation or distributed renewables? This ought to be a data-driven conversation, so here are the facts.
New fossil-fuel electricity can reach the poor cheaply, quickly and reliably, if:
The households or businesses have already been wired to the grid: If not, the cost of connection is the killer, not the price of electrons. For every kilometer in distance that an Indian household is from a substation, the wiring alone adds 2 cents per kilowatt-hour to the cost of power. In Kenya the cost of connecting a single family to the grid runs from $900 to $4,000.
The coal (or natural gas) is local, easily extracted and does not require massive disruption of existing communities or livelihoods. Imported or long-distance coal or gas costs twice as much as mine-mouth fuels, and it eliminates the wholesale price advantage often claimed for fossils over wind and solar. The more coal power plants Asia and Africa build, the higher the prices soar. That's better for Australian coal barons, but not for India's or Pakistan's economy. Coal that is found underneath villages or farmlands is often deceptively cheap. Mining it and forcing people off their land creates more poverty than it alleviates, and the practice has embroiled India in an enormous (if barely reported) peasant insurrection.
The population to be served is small enough that plants don't need pollution-control equipment for soot, sulfur and mercury to avoid unacceptable increases in disease and mortality. Otherwise, you end up mired in the dilemma currently facing China, where the government estimates that the health bill from burning coal is more than $200 billion per year—an amount equal to the annual revenues of the country's biggest power company, State Grid. Once you start cleaning up pollution, coal's economics tank.
The region has a sufficient water surplus to treat the coal and cool the power plants. Overlooking this need has resulted in the Indian state of Maharashtra having to shut down fossil-fuel power plants in the summer, just when the load is highest. China, having depleted natural water flows in the north to generate coal electricity, is now using that same electricity to replace the lost water with desalination plants!
Fossil fuels won't work in most energy deprived regions
There are places where enough of these conditions can be met that centralized fossil electricity will, indeed, be quicker, cheaper and more reliable than distributed renewables. The wastefully flared natural gas of Nigeria and Angola should be used to provide electricity to their populations. South Africa's local coal could provide electricity to poor villages—but the nation has chosen not to use its new coal plants for that purpose. The same opportunity—and challenge—will face Mozambique if its coal reserves turn out to be affordably extractable.
But for most of the world's 3.2 billion energy-deprived, the costs of grid extensions, fuel importation, pollution clean up and water shortages mean that central station coal or gas can't provide affordable and reliable electricity for decades—if ever.
The idea that renewable electricity costs more than fossil fuel power is simply no longer true
Even for on-grid customers, for whom the biggest cost is already sunk, renewables are increasingly cheaper than fossil alternatives. South Africa's new World Bank-supported Kusile and Medupi coal plants will cost 10 percent more per kilowatt-hour than Eskom pays for renewable electrons. When the new government of Pakistan decided to use imported coal to replace depleting local gas for electricity, it concluded that in order to pay for the projects, the wholesale price would have to be 16 cents to 17 cents per kilowatt-hour. By contrast, both China and India are building massive volumes of wind projects for less than 8 cents per kilowatt-hour and solar for less than 13 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Plummeting costs for solar and wind (and battery storage) paralleled by increasingly expensive long-distance coal and gas mean that for most developing nations, the time for grid parity has come and gone—renewables are cheaper even on grid.
And for the 1.2 billion people with no grid access at all, it's not even close. Taking $0.15 or even $0.10 wholesale new coal power, and adding on transmission and distribution losses and costs, the true marginal cost of new fossil electrons is far higher than electrons from a distributed solar system. (For the $900 grid connection charge a Kenyan household faces, it could purchase a home solar system capable of powering lights, computers, fans, charging cell-phones and a small refrigerator—without the monthly bills and reliability issues of the grid.) Off-grid renewables sweep the affordability table.
Fossil advocates ask, “What about reliability? Solar lanterns are nice, but can renewables really power an economy?" or say "The sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow."
It turns out that fossil power plants don't always have fuel, either—this summer, two-thirds of India's coal plants fell below the emergency one-week-of-coal-reserves benchmark, threatening to shut down power for much of the country during the hottest part of the year. Pakistan bet its electricity sector on natural gas. This led to routine power outages of 10 to 20 hours in its industrial power center, Lahore. Where coal is available, water may not be, as mentioned above. Africa and Asia have probably built more coal plants than they can find cheap coal to fuel.
Can renewables meet industrial as well as household needs? India uses 25 percent of its scarce electrons providing occasional, middle-of-the-night irrigation power—a purpose for which solar pumps are phenomenally reliable. Solar pumps work when farmers want them to—during the day. In Chile, solar electrons easily outperform imported LNG for meeting the power needs of copper mines. In the conditions where the poor live, renewable power is more reliable and robust than fossil fuels.
It is striking that in Big Carbon's response to Jigar Shah in a Forbes blog post, the industry was forced to predict fossil fuel's continued global dominance by citing growth trends over the last thirty years. Unsurprisingly, it failed to reveal the cresting competitive edge for distributed renewables. That's akin to looking back 40 years and suggesting that today's dominance of mobile phones is a delusion.
Distributed renewables are about a decade behind telephony, but the arc of the two technologies is the same. The new world will come to small villages in Tanzania before it comes to Chicago—just as the cell-phone revolution reached Bangkok before it dominated New York.
Bjorn Lomborg may not want to believe Jigar Shah—or me—on this. But he ought to base his projections and assumptions on current numbers, not outdated ones.
So, who is right? Well, in the nation with the world's largest energy-deprived population, India, a new, very pro-business and quite conservative prime minister, Narendra Modi, has cast his best with distributed solar. He is promising to give every energy-deprived Indian household solar power within the next five years.
Let's get on with the job.
Co-posted with Green Tech Media.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- Trump Orders Hospitals to Stop Sending COVID-19 Data to CDC ... ›
- Two White House Staffers Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Admin to Disband Coronavirus Task Force - EcoWatch ›
- Pence Offers 'Prayers' as Hurricane Laura Hits Gulf Coast While ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Delays 2020 Earth Overshoot Day by Three Weeks ... ›
By Elliot Douglas
The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.
- German Business Leaders Call for Climate Action With COVID-19 ... ›
- Climate Activists Protest Germany's New Datteln 4 Coal Power Plant ... ›
By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.