From Let There Be More Than Light by Bjørn Lomborg. Worth reading in its entirety. This is the part that leapt out to me, for purely personal reasons.
Worldwide, fossil fuels produce two-thirds of all electricity, with nuclear and hydro producing another 27%. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), solar, wind, wave, and bio-energy produce just 9.8% of electricity in the OECD, and this is possible only because of huge subsidies, cumulatively totaling more than $160 billion this year. Even ultra-environmentally aware Germany still produces more than half its electricity with fossil fuels.Then he gets to the ugly rub.
Yet there is a disturbing movement in the West to tell the 1.1 billion people who still lack these myriad benefits that they should go without. A familiar refrain suggests that instead of dirty, coal-fired power plants, poor countries should “leapfrog” straight to cleaner energy sources like off-grid solar technology. Influential donors – including even the World Bank, which no longer funds coal energy projects – endorse this view.
The underlying motivation is understandable: policymakers must address global warming. Eventually moving away from fossil fuels is crucial, and innovation is required to make green energy cheap and reliable. But this message to the world’s poor is hypocritical and dangerous. While fossil fuels contribute to global warming, they also contribute to prosperity, growth, and wellbeing.
There is a strong, direct connection between power and poverty: the more of the former, the less of the latter. A study in Bangladesh showed that grid electrification has significant positive effects on household income, expenditure, and education. Electrified households experienced a jump of up to 21% in income and a 1.5% reduction in poverty each year.
Over the past 16 years, nearly every person who gained access to electricity did so through a grid connection, mostly powered by fossil fuels. And yet donors say that many of the 1.1 billion people who are still without electricity should instead try solar panels.So many of our well intentioned do-gooders in the West chase after theoretically plausible solutions primarily because they want to imagine their way out of having to make hard choices. You can alleviate poverty for tens of millions with coal plants or you can condemn them to lives solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short in order to possibly have a cleaner environment a hundred years from now. Don't like that hard trade-off? OK, we'll talk about make-believe solar cell alternatives in order to morally preen and pretend that our heated imaginings will make a difference.
Compared with expensive grid expansion, providing an off-grid, solar cell is very cheap. But for the recipient, it is a poor substitute. It offers just enough power to keep a lightbulb going, and to recharge a mobile phone, which is better than nothing – but only barely. The IEA expects that each of the 195 million people with off-grid solar will get just 170kWh per year – or half of what one US flat-screen TV uses in a year.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the first rigorous test published on the impact of solar panels on the lives of poor people found that while they got a little more electricity, there was no measurable impact on their lives: they did not increase savings or spending, they did not work more or start more businesses, and their children did not study more.
Little wonder: 170kWh is not what most of us would consider real access to electricity. Off-grid energy at this level will never power a factory or a farm, so it cannot reduce poverty or create jobs. And it will not help fight the world’s biggest environmental killer: indoor air pollution, which is mostly caused by open fires fueled by wood, cardboard, and dung, and claims 3.8 million lives annually. This is not a concern in rich countries, where stoves and heaters are hooked up to the grid; but because solar is too weak to power stoves and ovens, recipients of off-grid solar panels will continue suffering.
Meanwhile, someone has to make hard decisions in the real world and you either choose to make people's lives better by means you do not like or you condemn them to grueling, grunting poverty. As Pete Seeger asks, Which side are you on?
As an undergraduate majoring in International Economics with a focus in International Economic Development, I was exposed to the Appropriate Technology ideas of Schumacher and his ilk. Developing nations, rich in labor and poor in capital, ought to avoid the stresses and strains of modern civilization by only adopting technology appropriate to their stage of development.
Sure, sounds pretty. Being a callow youth, I could parrot the ideas without having to actually think it through. A couple of years later in graduate school, I had to suffer the brutalist exposure of all shallow thinking. In an international business class, with an Indian professor, I suggested a solution based on Appropriate Technology thinking. He, with kind gentleness, then forced me to play out the assumptions behind my parroted words. I could string out the logical integrity of the argument but once I started examining the underlying assumptions it became very uncomfortable. Why should people in developing nations have to go through the same steps as earlier pioneers? Why not leap to the end state if at all possible?
Basically, why would you not treat people in developing nations as if they had the same aspirations as those in the developed nations? Why would you hold them back.
I suspect everyone must eventually have gotten hoisted on that unpleasant petard because you don't hear serious thinking about Appropriate Technology anymore. That said, in some ways, the new-found infatuation with Sustainability is merely the old failed Appropriate Technology in new clothing. Just as Diversity is the rebranding of the old failed Affirmative Action.
Rich NGOs advocating for solar panels for the poor in developing nations are the Appropriate Technology apostles of the current day. They don't want to accept other people's agency and the decisions other people make to optimize their own productivity. The feel-gooders would rather tell them what to do, or force them through financial inducements to do the things the rich want them to do even though it does not help the poor.