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.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.