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.
By Tara Lohan
Our plastic pollution problem has reached new heights and new depths.
Scientists have found bits of plastic on the seafloor, thousands of feet below the ocean's surface. Plastic debris has also washed ashore on remote islands; traveled to the top of pristine mountains; and been found inside the bodies of whales, turtles, seabirds and people, too.
1. There’s a lot of it.<p>In a September study published in <em>Science </em>about the growth of plastic waste, an international team of researchers estimated that 19 to 23 million metric tons — or 11% of plastic waste generated — ended up in aquatic ecosystems in 2016. And even with countries pledging to help cut waste or better manage it, the amount of plastic pollution is <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1515" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">likely to double</a> in the next 10 years.</p><p>A <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1455" target="_blank">study</a> about solutions to plastic waste, published in the same issue, attributed the plastic pollution epidemic to a rise in single-use plastic and "an expanding 'throw-away' culture." The researchers also found that waste-management systems simply can't deal with the onslaught of plastic, which is why so much of it ends up in the environment. We now know that only <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/whopping-91-percent-plastic-isnt-recycled/" target="_blank">9% of the plastic products</a> we use actually get recycled.</p>
2. The United States is a big culprit.<p>Plastic pollution is a global problem, but the United States plays an outsized role. In 2016 the United States was responsible for more plastic waste than any other country, a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288" target="_blank">new study</a> in <em>Science Advances</em> found. Some of that waste was dumped illegally within the country and some was shipped to other countries that lacked the necessary infrastructure to handle it.</p><p>"The amount of plastic waste generated in the United States estimated to enter the coastal environment in 2016 was up to five times larger than that estimated for 2010, rendering the United States' contribution among the highest in the world," the researchers concluded. Part of that is because the United States ranks second in exporting plastic scrap.</p>
3. It threatens wildlife and ecosystems.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg3MTUwMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzE1MzM2MH0.YL5C-5GF2mq9OZBLSkcAnreq2Mai20DweKSNqeUSWM4/img.jpg?width=980" id="20233" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3db4a05d5d417d925a770cf309db1db1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A giant otter plays with a plastic bottle. Paul Williams / CC BY-NC 2.0<p>Out of sight (for Americans) is <em>not </em>out of mind — and definitely not out of our waterways. An estimated 700 marine species and 50 freshwater species have either ingested plastic or been entangled in it.</p><p>"If we don't get the plastic pollution problem in the ocean under control, we threaten contaminating the entire marine food web, from phytoplankton to whales," George Leonard, the Ocean Conservancy's chief scientist and coauthor of the September <em>Science </em>study about plastic waste's increase, <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/10/plastic-pollution-huge-problem-not-too-late-to-fix-it/" target="_blank">told <em>National Geographic</em></a>. "And by the time the science catches up to this, perhaps definitively concluding that this is problematic, it will be too late. We will not be able to go back. That massive amount of plastic will be embedded in the ocean's wildlife essentially forever."</p><p>Microplastics have also been found in terrestrial animals, soil, drinking water and, not surprisingly, <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/victoriaforster/2020/08/18/microplastics-found-in-human-organs-for-the-first-time/?sh=42994a4e16f2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in our own bodies</a>, although it's not clear yet just how dangerous that is for people.</p>
4. The fracking boom is producing a plastic boom.<p>Despite the known risks of plastic pollution and concern over its mounting presence in the environment, plastic production — driven by fossil fuels like fracked gas and its component chemicals — is on pace to increase by 40% in the next 10 years.</p><p>The American Chemistry Council <a href="https://www.americanchemistry.com/Shale-Infographic/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">boasted that shale gas drilling is driving a surge</a> in plastic production, including the investment of more than $200 billion to fund new and expanded operations at 343 production plants in the United States.</p><p>On the ground this means more harmful pollution along the Gulf Coast's "Cancer Alley," where petrochemicals have been manufactured for decades in low-wealth communities of color. And it means the build-out of new facilities in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.</p><p>Fracking also causes harmful greenhouse gas emissions, like methane, to be released into the atmosphere — amplifying the climate crisis. The refining process and the incineration of plastic waste also further drives greenhouse emissions and hazardous pollution.</p>
A petrochemical plant in Houston's ship channel. Louis Vest / CC BY-NC 2.0
5. Solutions are multifaceted.<p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/plastic-pollution-do-beach-cleanups-really-make-a-difference/a-46196975" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Beach cleanups</a> tend to make headlines, but it's a losing battle as long as petrochemical companies keep producing so much plastic and we keep using plastic for products we're meant to toss after a single use.</p><p>The September study in <em><a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1455" target="_blank">Science</a></em> on plastic solutions found that it's possible to cut plastic pollution — perhaps as much as 80% by 2040 — but it will take systemic change both in reducing the amount of plastic produced and in better managing the waste stream.</p><p>Regulatory efforts can help this process, including by regulating plastic as a pollution source under the Clean Water Act.</p><p>Efforts to ban single-use plastics, as the European Union aims to do by 2021, are another positive step. So too are "<a href="https://therevelator.org/california-plastic-legislation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">circular economy laws</a>," which have been <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5845?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22H.R.5%22%5D%7D&s=1&r=5" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">introduced, but not yet passed</a>, in the United States.</p><p>These laws would halt the production of new petrochemical facilities and encourage businesses to take responsibility for the full lifecycle of the products they produce by requiring them to be reused, adequately recycled or composted.</p><p>Getting circular economy laws enacted, though, will mean enough public and political will to counter the petrochemical, fossil fuel and plastic industries.</p><p>At <em>The Revelator</em>, we'll keep covering the push for solutions to the plastic problem and new science to better understand the threats. And if you want to know more about how wildlife has already been affected, what laws could help, whether industry will be held accountable and more, check out these stories from our archives:</p><p><strong>Laws and Regulations</strong></p><p><strong></strong><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-warnings/" target="_blank">Plastic Pollution: Could We Have Solved the Problem Nearly 50 Years Ago?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/clean-water-plastic/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">How an Old Law Is Helping Fight New Plastic Problems</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/california-plastic-legislation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New California Bill Could Revolutionize How the U.S. Tackles Plastic Pollution</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-laws/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">What Laws Work Best to Cut Plastic Pollution?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-illegal/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Can Plastic Ever Be Made Illegal?</a></p><p><strong>Impacts</strong></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/toxic-plastic-pollution-food-chain/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Something Fishy: Toxic Plastic Pollution Is Traveling Up the Food Chain</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-ship-shore/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plastic Pollution: From Ship to Shore</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastics-fracking-climate/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plans to Turn America's Rust Belt Into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/trash-galapagos-ecotourism/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Trash in the Galápagos Reveals the Dark Side of Ecotourism</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/elephant-seals-diving-garbage/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephant Seals: Diving Through Garbage</a></p><p><strong>Taking Action</strong></p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/story-plastic-review/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Story of Plastic: </a></em><a href="https://therevelator.org/story-plastic-review/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New Film Exposes the Source of Our Plastic Crisis</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-movie-stuff/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">How to Win the Fight Against Plastic</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/cities-zero-waste/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Can Cities Go Zero-waste? One Japanese Town Tried</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/secret-value-trash/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Secret Value of Trash</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/junk-raft-polluted-ocean/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Junk Raft: A Journey Through a Polluted Ocean</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/bioplastics-environment/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Are Bioplastics a Better Environmental Choice?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-straws-problem-solution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plastic Pollution Is a Problem — These Kids Are Working for a Solution</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/thai-activists-fight-trash-taboo/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Thai Activists Fight Trash Taboo</a></p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/taralohan/" target="_blank">Tara Lohan</a> is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-archives/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Hundreds of endangered sea turtles were stranded on beaches after suffering "cold stunning" in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass. Local rescuers and wildlife rehabilitators stabilized the turtles at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) and National Marine Life Center and began treatment. Many of the sea turtles were transported by land or air to partner facilities around the Eastern Seaboard for longer-term care to make room for more incoming, cold-stunned animals.
Rehabilitators at The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys assess critically endangered, cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtles flown in after rescue in New England. The Turtle Hospital<p>NEAQ and local rescuers begin seeing turtles every fall when water temperatures drop to that 50 degrees F threshold, and typically expect to find them into early January. After that, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/sea-turtle-cape-cod-weather-2621527394.html" target="_self">temperatures are so cold that any animals found are usually no longer alive</a>.</p><p>Merigo estimated that this year's cold season "looks very busy" and noted that local rescue efforts had already surpassed 400 turtles.</p><p>"It is a lot of animals. They're still coming in," she told EcoWatch as she surveyed 39 rescued turtles that day and 20 the day prior. "So far, this is a huge year."</p><p>At NEAQ, the turtles are gradually warmed up about five to 10 degrees F a day. More aggressive warming can cause serious damage and the turtle might not survive, Merigo said. Emergency treatments also include providing replacement fluids, balancing electrolytes and addressing pneumonia. Assessments take place for other serious problems too, such as shell or limb fractures, frostbite, emaciation and eye damage.<span></span></p><p>As local aquariums don't have the capacity to care for all the injured turtles, a group of private pilots called <a href="https://www.turtlesflytoo.org/" target="_blank">"Turtles Fly Too"</a> donated planes, fuel and time to transport some to various partner facilities around the country. Other turtles were driven to closer care facilities.</p><p>"We have a huge network of really great partners working with us, so if we can spread out the care, we can give better care to all the animals," Merigo said.</p><p>The 40 Kemp's ridley sea turtles recovering in The Turtle Hospital will continue to be treated and rehabilitated anywhere from 30 days to a year, depending on the severity of injuries, Zirkelbach said.</p><p>The turtle expert noted that while she's treated cold-stunned turtles from the north before, the newest arrivals were the most cold-stunned Kemp's ridleys ever received at one time.</p>
After rescue, cold-stunned sea turtles received immediate emergency care and assessments at the New England Aquarium. Caitlin Cunningham / New England Aquarium<p>In the past decade, the Gulf of Maine, which spans from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, has warmed 99 percent faster than the rest of the ocean, Zirkelbach said. The warm water encourages turtles that migrate north along the Gulf Stream in warmer months to stay in the bay longer.</p><p>"Turtles that fail to migrate south get stuck in the unique horseshoe-shaped topography of the Cape Cod peninsula, and when temperatures drop, the bay becomes a death trap," she added.</p><p>Before ocean temperatures warmed, the waters of Maine were too cold for many of these sea turtles, Merigo echoed. Now, with warming sea surface temperatures, Maine can reach the high 70s to low 80s, which is "perfect turtle temperature," she said. The potential for more turtles getting trapped in the bay and then cold-stunned is nerve-racking for Merigo.</p><p>In addition to shifting habitats as waters warm, warming global temperatures also disrupt natural gender balance in sea turtles, Merigo warned. Gender is determined by the temperature of eggs in nests, and as the planet warms, it will result in all females at some point, she said.</p><p>"The turtles we work with are all endangered and threatened," Merigo said. "For sea turtles in general, the future is a little grim. Climate change is real; it does impact them."</p>
- 9 Super Cool Facts About Sea Turtles - EcoWatch ›
- Sea Turtles Often Get Lost for Miles, but Always Find Their Destination ›
- 100% of Sea Turtles in Global Study Found With Plastics in Their ... ›
The night sky has a special treat in store for stargazers this winter solstice.
- NASA Satellites Enable Scientists to Observe Climate Change ... ›
- Why Scientists Are Searching for Life in 'Alien Oceans' - EcoWatch ›
- To Save Endangered Species, Scientists Point Stargazing Software ... ›
By Dena Jones
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was sued three times this past summer for shirking its responsibility to protect birds from egregious welfare violations and safeguard workers at slaughterhouses from injuries and the spread of the coronavirus.
By Julia Conley
Conservation campaigners on Thursday accused President Donald Trump of taking a "wrecking ball" to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the White House announced plans to move ahead with the sale of drilling leases in the 19 million-acre coastal preserve, despite widespread, bipartisan opposition to oil and gas extraction there.
The Sheenjek River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alexis Bonogofsky / USFWS
- Bipartisan Bill Seeks to Ban Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ›
- Bank of America Promises It Won't Fund Arctic Drilling - EcoWatch ›
- Trump's Drilling Leases on Public Lands Could Lead to 4.7B Metric ... ›
- Trump Administration's Alaska Oil and Gas Lease Sale a 'Major Flop ... ›
- Will Oil Companies Drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ... ›