Monday, February 23, 2015

Geoengineering, Volcanoes, and Climate Change Experiments

We continue to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and climate change becomes ever more apparent, yet we are unable to take the steps necessary to respond forcefully to the threat.  There are many reasons for such a modest level of activity.  Disruptive problems often require disruptive solutions.  Those who benefit from the status quo will strive mightily to protect their investments and preserve their share of the economic pie.  The biggest stakeholders in the current economic order who should be at risk are the companies that find and extract fossil fuels for consumption.  It is well known that these organizations use their profits to support anti-climate-change groups and initiatives.  Less well known is the fact that these people also support those who believe that carbon emission and the associated global warming is such an overwhelming effect that we are unable to respond to it.  Instead, they suggest we should focus not on worrying about regulating carbon emissions, but concentrate on technologies that would cool the earth by regulating the amount of energy from the sun that is absorbed in the atmosphere.  Or, as Naomi Klein has pointed out, to them:

“….anything is preferable to regulating ExxonMobil, including attempting to regulate the sun.”

This notion of inevitable climate change is the subject of an article by Henry Fountain in the New York Times: Panel Urges Research onGeoengineering as a Tool Against Climate Change.  The panel referred to was assembled by the National Academy of Sciences and was sponsored by a number of government agencies.  The panel members recognized that the best solution to climate change was to stop polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and it also recognized that even small-scale experiments studying means of modifying the atmosphere carried significant risk. 

Most proposals for potential global warming solutions either involve devising schemes for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or reflecting sunlight away from the earth before it can heat the atmosphere.

“The panel said that while the first option, called carbon dioxide removal, was relatively low risk, it was expensive, and that even if it was pursued on a planetwide scale, it would take many decades to have a significant impact on the climate. But the group said research was needed to develop efficient and effective methods to both remove the gas and store it so it remains out of the atmosphere indefinitely.”

“The second option, called solar radiation management, is far more controversial. Most discussions of the concept focus on the idea of dispersing sulfates or other chemicals high in the atmosphere, where they would reflect sunlight, in some ways mimicking the effect of a large volcanic eruption.”

This notion that solar radiation management (SRM) can be compared to the effect of a volcano is important to both those who support such schemes as well as those are scared to death by them.  As always, it is important that people choose their scientists carefully.

Schemes employing SRM seem to assume that we would continue to pump carbon dioxide into the air indefinitely as we continually modify our cooling attempts.

“The process would be relatively inexpensive and should quickly lower temperatures, but it would have to be repeated indefinitely and would do nothing about another carbon dioxide-related problem: the acidification of oceans.”

“This approach might also have unintended effects on weather patterns around the world — bringing drought to once-fertile regions, for example. Or it might be used unilaterally as a weapon by governments or even extremely wealthy individuals.”

If a viable approach capable of modifying the climate was inexpensive enough to be fielded by a private individual, one would have to think carefully about proceeding with research in that area.

“But the panel said that society had ‘reached a point where the severity of the potential risks from climate change appears to outweigh the potential risks from the moral hazard’ of conducting research.”

Naomi Klein discussed the relevant issues in her book ThisChanges Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  She focuses on the ethical issues involved in experimenting with SRM techniques.  She argues that small scale experiments will not help in understanding what might ensue from such an application; only a program large enough to generate significant global effects will be able to quantify global effects

“Sulphur injections would need to be maintained long enough for a clear pattern to be isolated from both natural fluctuations and the growing impacts of greenhouse gases.”

That implies a program that might have to last years before deducing a clear indication of what its effects might be.

“As Martin Bunzl, a Rutgers philosopher and climate change expert, points out, these facts alone present an enormous, perhaps insurmountable ethical problem for geoengineering.  In medicine, he writes, ‘You can test a vaccine on one person, putting that person at risk, without putting everyone else at risk.’  But with geoengineering, ‘You can’t build a scale model of the atmosphere.  As such you are stuck going directly from a model to full scale planetary-wide implementation.’  In short, you could not conduct meaningful tests of these technologies without enlisting billions of people as guinea pigs—for years.  Which is why science historian James Fleming calls geoengineering schemes ‘untested and untestable, and dangerous beyond belief’.”

Proponents of SRM schemes counter with the notion that what they propose is merely a reproduction of what occurs naturally when volcanoes erupt.  They refer to their approach as the “Pinatubo Option.”  Pinatubo was a volcanic eruption that occurred in the Philippines in 1991.  Does anyone remember 1991 as being a particularly disastrous year?  Probably not, unless you happened to live in certain regions of the earth.  One has to look carefully for effects in order to pull them out of the normal variations. 

“A 2007 paper cowritten by [Aigio] Dai and Kevin Trenberth head of the Climate analysis Section at the Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research, concluded ‘that the Pinatubo eruption played an important role in the record decline in land precipitation and discharge, and the associated drought conditions in 1992’.”

Klein also quotes Alan Robock:

“’You get the same story from every [eruption] you look at,’ he said, adding, ‘….The global average precipitation went down.  In fact, if you look at the global average precipitation for the last fifty years, the three years with the lowest global precipitation were after the three largest volcanic eruptions.  Agung in 1963, El Chichon in 1982, and Pinatubo in 1991.’  The connections are so clear, Robock and two coauthors argued in one paper, that the next time there is a large ‘high latitude volcanic eruption,’ policy makers should start preparing food aid immediately, ‘allowing society time to plan for and remediate the consequences.”

The same people who model climate change from increased greenhouse gas concentrations can attempt to model the effects of SRM schemes. Klein reports that what the models predict is that significant weather modification will exist and it will affect some regions more severely than others.  In fact, the precise details of the particular SRM chemical release can determine which regions will be more severely affected.  Recall now the concern expressed by Henry Fountain in his article that “it might be used unilaterally as a weapon by governments or even extremely wealthy individuals.”

It is difficult to believe that the modeling results and the historical data can allow anyone to conclude that climate modification would be straightforward or benign.

Gillen D’Arcy Wood has produced a book titled Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World.  Wood has produced an interesting story about the effects of a volcano and its climate modification on the earth and the people living there.  It can also serve as a cautionary tale suggesting what could happen should climate change experiments go very wrong.

Wood’s book is discussed in an article in the London Review of Books by Thomas Jones.

“The eruption of Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in the Indonesian archipelago on 10 April 1815 was the most powerful volcanic explosion of the past thousand years, twice the magnitude of Krakatoa’s nearly seventy years later.”

As was the case with Pinatubo, the consequences of Tambora had been underestimated by a lack of detailed study.

“As recently as twenty years ago, Tambora’s 1815 eruption could be dismissed as not especially consequential….But Wood, who intends no hyperbole in his subtitle, makes a convincing case for Tambora’s role in causing ‘the most catastrophic sustained weather crisis of the millennium’. Wood’s isn’t the first book on Tambora’s aftermath, but it is the first to treat the event ‘as a three-year episode of drastic climate change’….”

Jones provides some examples from Wood’s work.  The first is from the events in Yunnan in southern China which was at the time a prosperous agricultural region.

“In the summer of 1815, however, because of Tambora’s ash cloud, the sun didn’t come out. The wind blew from the north instead of the south-west. Heavy rains flooded the wheat, barley and bean fields. The rice paddies could have survived the rain, but not the cold. Snow, frost and freezing fog enveloped the land in July and August. Villagers were reduced to eating soil. The conditions persisted for three years. Wood doesn’t give an estimate for how many people died, but ‘mortality’ was ‘high’.”

India has a fragile weather pattern depending on monsoon rains that are highly sensitive to climate conditions.

“The monsoon season usually starts in May, as the land heats up faster than the ocean and the colder, higher-pressure air blows in from the sea (the same thing happens on a much, much smaller scale in Torquay or Scarborough on warm summer mornings), bringing storm clouds and heavy rains. Three-quarters of Kolkata’s annual rainfall – and more than twice as much as drizzles on London in a year – pours down between June and September. Without the monsoon, as Wood says, ‘the land would be uninhabitable.’ That year aerosol particles from Tambora, lingering in the stratosphere above the Bay of Bengal, blocked out enough sunlight to alter the weather pattern, ‘inhibiting evaporation from the ocean and deflating the temperature differentiation of land and sea’. The ‘crippling monsoonal break’ of 1816, Wood writes, ‘is the longest in the historical record of the Asian subcontinent’.”

“Crops failed, wells dried up. When the rains came, too late, in September, they were ‘ruinously extreme’, bringing floods to the Ganges delta. The rains were early the next year: ‘On 21 March, an unprecedented hailstorm destroyed the spring grain crop and tore up orchards of dates, bananas and papaya all across the fragile alluvial plain.’ Two months later, people were dying of cholera.”

There is circumstantial evidence, as well as recent genetic research, that suggest the cholera pathogen mutated significantly just prior to this 1817 outbreak.  Whether it can be proven that the cholera pandemic that followed the outbreak in India was caused by Tambora is not critical.  Changing the environment of pathogens can lead to mutations favored by the new environment, and, perhaps, making them more dangerous for humans.  Let those who would cast the dice in modifying the earth’s climate try to predict such consequences.

“The disease had always been endemic in Bengal, but the unseasonal outbreak in May 1817 was also unusually virulent – and this, too, appears to have been a consequence of Tambora’s eruption. It spread across India, reaching Bombay within a year, then travelled southeast to Burma, Siam and Java in 1819-20, north to the Philippines, Japan and China, west to Persia, Russia, Europe and across the Atlantic, reaching North America and the Caribbean in 1832….”

Wood refers to the weather records kept by Luke Howard, a chemist in England.

“Recent research suggests that the 1810s were the coldest decade of the last five hundred years. Between 1807 and 1815, according to Howard’s measurements, the average daily temperature in London was 50°F (10ºC). In 1816 it was 38°F (under 4°C). Across the country there were ferocious thunderstorms, hailstorms, gales, darkness at noon, snow on Helvellyn in July.”

“Howard travelled on the Continent in the summer: ‘From the sources of the Rhine among the Alps, to its embouchure in the German ocean, and through a space twice or thrice as broad from east to west, the whole season presented a series of storms and inundations.’ Further north, however, in Scandinavia and around the Baltic, they were praying for rain. ‘Crop yields across the British Isles and western Europe,’ Wood writes, ‘plummeted by 75 per cent and more in 1816-17.’ There were food riots, authoritarian clampdowns, and mass starvation.”

For a brief period Arctic ice coverage was dramatically reduced, even though the climate was generally colder.

“Tambora’s overall suppression of global rainfall had reduced the flow of freshwater into the sea sufficiently to alter the ocean currents, increasing the flow of warm waters from the tropics to the Arctic.”

“The temporary melting of Arctic ice two hundred years ago is often cited by 21st-century climate change deniers, who point to it as a reason not to worry too much about the disappearing ice caps now, ignorant as they are (wilfully or otherwise) of its particular cause.”

Wood arrives at this conclusion:

“If a three-year climate change event in the early 1800s was capable of such destruction … then the future impacts of multidecadal climate change must be truly off the charts.”

By drastically reducing our consumption of fossil fuels we have the possibility of perhaps limiting climate change to a tolerable level.  If we continue on as we are the results can be catastrophic.  If we attempt to concatenate one type of climate change on top of another we are headed into uncharted territory where the results could be quite inhospitable to human existence.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Taxation, Redistribution, and Social Insurance

Thomas Piketty provided many interesting revelations about economics and society in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  Some of the most fascinating were the insights provided concerning the development of a distinct middle class in the years after World War II.  In particular, it was revealing to note that middle class wealth developed more readily in the high-tax welfare states that developed in Europe in the postwar years, than in the lower-taxed, less-regulated economy and society of the US.  This phenomenon and Piketty’s data were discussed in The Creation of the Middle Class.

Piketty uses a simple prescription to define economic class: the top 10% in terms of wealth comprise the upper class, the next 40% the middle class, and the bottom 50% make up the lower class.  Prior to the tumultuous era spanning the two world wars and the Great Depression the upper class in Europe owned about 89% of the wealth, while the US was slightly more egalitarian with an upper class in possession of 81%.  The fraction of wealth residing in the upper class bottomed out in both regions around 1970 at 60% in Europe and about 64% in the US.  The data implies that the wealth possessed by the middle class in Europe increased from 5% to 35% over that period, while it increased from about 14% to 25% in the US.

An obvious question to ask of this data is why the middle class fared so much better in Europe than in the US.  One is tempted to assume that the higher tax rates existing in Europe simply take money from the rich and distribute it to those in the middle and lower classes.  The situation is much more complicated than that—and much more interesting as well.  According to Piketty:

“….modern redistribution does not consist in transferring income from the rich to the poor, at least not in so explicit a way.  It consists rather in financing public services and replacement incomes that are more or less equal for everyone, especially in the areas of health, education, and pensions.”

All countries have their unique tax policies.  Consider the situation in France where Piketty provides this description of the tax base:

“….a detailed study of French taxes in 2010, which looked at all forms of taxation, found that the overall rate of taxation (47 percent of national income on average) broke down as follows.  The bottom 50 percent of the income distribution pay a rate of 40-45 percent; the next 40 percent pay 45-50 percent; but the top 5 percent and even more the top 1 percent pay lower rates, with the top 0.1 percent paying only 35 percent.”

 The taxes are certainly high by US standards, but it would be difficult to describe them as a “soak the rich” scheme.  It would actually be more accurate to describe the system as one that taxes most heavily those who benefit the most from the services provided by the taxation.  There is an intriguing sense of fairness about this approach.

Tony Judt discussed the European welfare states in his book Postwar.  He provided this insight:

“….although the greatest immediate advantage was felt by the poor, the real long-term beneficiaries were the professional and commercial middle class.  In many cases they had not previously been eligible for work-related health, unemployment or retirement benefits and had been obliged, before the war, to purchase such services and benefits from the private sector.  Now they had full access to them, either free or at low cost.  Taken with the state provision of free or subsidized secondary and higher education for their children, this left the salaried professional and white collar classes with both a better quality of life and more disposal income.  Far from dividing the social classes against each other, the European welfare state bound them closer together than ever before, with a common interest in its preservation and defense.”

So, the French middle class pays the highest tax rates, but benefits most from the services provided by the state and comes out ahead, thriving under the system.

An outfit called Citizens for Tax Justice tallied the total tax rates (federal, state, and local) paid by income group for the US.

By this reckoning, the US middle class pays about 30% of their income in taxes.  This compares with 45-50% in France.  However, the French middle class has grown wealthier than that of the US by paying a 15-20% higher tax rate.  How can this be?

What if an insurance company came to some US middle class household and made the following offer: “Pay us 15% (or 20%) of your salary and we will provide you and your family with a guaranteed income level, childcare, healthcare, education, and a pension at retirement that will allow you to maintain your lifestyle.”  Would that be considered a good deal?  Remember that financial advisors are telling those in the US that they should be saving at least 10% of their income just for retirement expenses.

One could argue that the proposal does not add up; the services promised would cost more than the revenue provided by the insurance premium.  The insurance representative would answer with the obvious reply that that is the way insurance is supposed to work.  If everyone pays their 15%, different classes of people will receive different levels of benefits.  Some will pay more and receive less, some will pay less and receive more, but all will pay the same rate and have the same access to benefits.  The lower class may have most need of income support, but they will have the same access to healthcare and education as everyone else.  The wealthy will have need for the services provided, but by paying about the same share they will have access to the services and support those who are less able to contribute.  The people who will demand most in terms of services from the system—relative to their ability to pay—are the middle class.  They will benefit the most.

This helps explain how Piketty’s indirect redistribution works via provision of services, and also provides an explanation for why the European middle class has fared better.  Casting taxation as a mechanism for providing social insurance that guarantees the services one might need as one goes through life seems more productive than thinking of it as a wasteful confiscation.  Of course, the government would have to actually provide the services.

We in the US are, at present, paying taxes at a healthy rate, but receiving services at an unhealthy rate.  Demanding lower taxes will not improve the service.  We should be demanding better services—the government works for us, doesn’t it?—and we should be willing to pay for them.

Greater prosperity through higher taxes—for everyone!  It actually makes sense!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Student Loans and the Revolution in College Financing

Kevin Carey provides a compelling argument to support his contention that federal student loan programs have transitioned to a more student-friendly form that should be recognized as a federal supplement to the traditional state support of public college education.  His discussion appeared in the New York Times under the title A Quiet Revolution in Helping Lift the Burden of Student Debt.

The federal government began issuing loans to students through commercial banks in the 1960s.  While the government provided subsidies to the banks to try to keep costs low, the banks had a good deal of discretion in the terms of repayment.  The banks also insisted that these student loans they disbursed could never be settled in a bankruptcy.  Over the years, the government has made changes in policy aimed at providing more generous options for students needing loans.  Finally, in 2010 the Obama administration terminated the support of bank-issued loans.

“In the 1990s, President Clinton helped create a new loan option that allowed students to borrow directly from the United States Department of Education. If they did, they were eligible for an income-based repayment regime in which loan payments were limited to 20 percent of the borrower’s income, after a deduction for basic living expenses. Any balance remaining after 25 years of payments was forgiven.”

This program was little known and little utilized at the time.  Further changes arrived in 2007 under the Bush administration when the Clinton program was modified to make it even more student-friendly.

“The 2007 law modified that idea and called it IBR (for Income-Based Repayment). Under the new program, the repayment terms were made more generous. Monthly payments were capped at 15 percent of income, rather than 20 percent, and the living expense deduction was raised significantly. The loan forgiveness threshold stayed at 25 years, with an important exception: Loan balances would be wiped clean after only 10 years for people who worked in public service jobs, broadly defined as anywhere in the government or nonprofit sectors.”

In 2010, under Obama, government subsidy of bank-issued loans was terminated and new regulations were put in effect.

“Important changes to the income-based repayments were made, but because they were passed under the same legislation that created the Affordable Care Act, few people paid much attention to them. IBR had been made even more generous. Now borrowers had to pay only 10 percent of their income per month, even as the forgiveness threshold was lowered to 20 years. People who work in government or nonprofits are still eligible for forgiveness after a decade. Although it was originally slated to become effective in 2014, Obama administration lawyers found a way to effectively speed up the IBR start date by several years. Most important, all students would now borrow directly from the federal government and be eligible for the more favorable repayment terms.”

Public college education has always been subsidized by taxes in order to keep tuition costs low so that that access would be available to as many people as possible.  Attendance at a public college was implicitly considered to be a right for all qualified students.  In recent decades college access has been threatened as state budgets have been unable to keep up with costs and legislatures have been unable or unwilling to raise taxes.  Some governors have been explicit in referring to advanced education as not a right but a privilege—a privilege that one should be willing to pay for.

Carey argues that students have always paid for this privilege.  Students who went to college earned more money and paid more taxes in their lifetime, thus returning the favor—perhaps many times over.  Carey sees the current income based repayment plan as a mechanism by which the federal government is assuming some of the role of states in maintaining affordable public higher education.

“The historical social contract used to be straightforward. All citizens were eligible for generous government college subsidies in the form of low tuition at public colleges and universities. Graduates ‘paid back’ that subsidy in the form of larger tax payments — and in most states, higher marginal tax rates — on the additional income that their diplomas helped them earn.”

“By moving more students into IBR, the federal government is essentially replicating this arrangement. Once again, those who earn more pay more, returning the full amount of their loan, plus interest, before the 20-year forgiveness threshold is met. Those who earn less, for whatever reason, pay less. Nobody will ever default simply because they can’t afford to pay.”

Carey also indicates that the recent Obama proposal to provide students with two years of free community college education is an additional move in this same direction.  The federal government will again provide a subsidy for state higher education.

The IBR approach is a much fairer approach for students.  It has essentially converted a loan program into an income-based tax of 10%.  The tax at 10% is much less burdensome than traditional loan repayment, and the forgiveness period allows those with low incomes to eventually escape from the levy.

Unfortunately, most of those burdened by student debt are frozen into the terms of earlier loans.  There is also a certain moral hazard involved.  The federal government is inviting state governments to relinquish some of their former funding responsibilities by lowering education funding or raising tuition on the assumption that the feds will make up the difference.

Carey provides this conclusion:

“In the long run, the signs point toward the federal government replacing states as the primary financier of American higher education. Given how much unnecessary financial hardship has been imposed on students, this is a welcome trend. The sense of pervasive student loan anxiety that characterizes much of the contemporary higher education conversation could become a relic of an older time.”

It is sad that we must resort to such indirect means to assist students who wish to attend a college.  Why can’t we just agree to pay for the things we need to do?

Friday, February 6, 2015

Climate Change, Energy Poverty, Africa, and Electric Power

It is a given that we cannot continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the current rate and expect to not suffer severe consequences for what we think of as human civilization.  The major driver for climate change is the extraction and burning of the various forms of fossil fuels to provide energy.  Many observers believe that mankind will not willingly trade their current lifestyles for a more environmentally friendly one.  They are the optimists.  The pessimists believe that humans are genetically incapable of choosing long-term gains over short-term benefits. 

The assumption in most evaluations of the future is that foregoing the consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas will lead to a poorer, less-pleasant world for all, particularly those already impoverished.  Is it really a given that a world with vastly reduced burning of fossil fuels must be greatly different than the one which we enjoy today?  Must we give up our cars and forego those vacation trips to far-off lands?  It is often claimed that our economy cannot be run on renewable energy because it is too expensive, or there is not enough of it, or it is too unreliable.  Fortunately, there are those who see climate change as an opportunity to do things differently, and to do them better.  While most of us have had our attention focused elsewhere, many researchers and companies have been out there trying to outdo each other in developing new techniques and new products aimed at preparing for a world in which energy consumption will be vastly different.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has been the most outspoken prophet of a new order in energy production.  He produced a fascinating article for the journal Foreign Affairs titled A Farewell to Fossil Fuels: Answering the Energy Challenge.  He made this claim:

“....a U.S. economy that has grown by 158 percent by 2050 could need no oil, no coal, no nuclear energy, and one-third less natural gas -- and cost $5 trillion less than business as usual, ignoring all hidden costs. Today’s fossil carbon emissions could also fall by more than four-fifths without even putting a price on them.”

If that was not sufficient to attract your attention, how about this:

“This transition will require no technological miracles or social engineering -- only the systematic application of many available, straightforward techniques. It could be led by business for profit and sped up by revenue-neutral policies enacted by U.S. states or federal agencies, and it would need from Congress no new taxes, subsidies, mandates, or laws.”

Lovins bases his prediction on the continued fall in price of renewable energy and the continued increase in its availability, but the critical component of his future is the increased efficiency with which we must use energy in the future.  Companies have for decades been taking actions necessary to avoid wasteful spending on energy in order to maximize profit.  That trend must continue and be encouraged to accelerate.  Time is running out.

Lovins makes a reasonable case that enormous savings can be obtained from moving to extremely light-weight electric vehicles, more energy efficient buildings, and a more reliable and flexible energy grid.  It is the latter that is of interest here.

“The United States must replace its aging, dirty, and insecure electric system by 2050 just to offset the loss of power plants that are being retired. Any replacement will cost about $6 trillion in net present value, whether it is more of the same, new nuclear power plants and “clean coal,” or centralized or distributed renewable sources.”

Renewable sources of energy are already competitive with massive, centrally located fossil fuel powered plants.  What is needed is a new electric grid capable of taking advantage of smaller, more widely distributed sources inherent in an economy run on renewable energy.  Think of every residence having rooftop solar panels.  Think of every electric vehicle charging when energy is plentiful and contributing power back to the grid when energy is low.

The traditional grid centered on huge power plants is no longer economically efficient.  These plants must be able to operate at peak energy demand even though average demand may be far less.  This requires an investment in excess capacity that could have been avoided by a system with smaller, more plentiful sources that can move power efficiently from a low-demand region to a high-demand region.  This is the kind of system that is inherent in a renewable energy economy.

“….U.S. and Euro­pean studies have shown how whole continents could make 80 percent or more of their power renewably by operating existing assets differently within smarter grids, in markets that clear faster and serve larger areas.”

“Diverse, dispersed, renewable sources can also make the grid highly resilient. Centralized grids are vulnerable to cascading blackouts caused by natural disaster, accident, or malice. But grid reorganizations in Denmark and Cuba have shown how prolonged regional blackouts become impossible when distributed renewables, bypassing vulnerable power lines (where most failures start), feed local “microgrids,” which can stand alone if needed.”

One of the issues that arises in the discussions of global warming is the role of developing countries with respect to carbon emissions.  It is often assumed that such countries will insist on—or have no alternative to—modernizing in much the way the current developed countries modernized.  That path required high energy consumption and high carbon emissions.  If this assumption were correct then there would be little hope that catastrophic global warming could be avoided.

There is an interesting article in The Economist discussing the state of energy production at the current time.  It included a section addressing development in Africa, a continent where many have lives that are restricted and harmed by the lack of a reliable source of energy.

“FOR THE WORLD’S 1.2 billion poorest people, who are facing a long and perhaps endless wait for a connection to mains electricity, solar power could be the answer to their prayers. A further 2.5 billion are “underelectrified”, in development parlance: although connected to the grid, they can get only unreliable, scanty power. That blights lives too. The whole of sub-Saharan Africa, with a population of 910m, consumes only 145 terawatt hours of electricity a year—less than the 4.8m people who live in the state of Alabama. That is the pitiful equivalent of one incandescent light bulb per person for three hours a day.”

“In the absence of electricity, the usual fallback is paraffin (kerosene). Lighting and cooking with that costs poor people the world over $23 billion a year, of which $10 billion is spent in Africa. Poor households are buying lighting at the equivalent of $100 per kilowatt hour, more than a hundred times the amount people in rich countries pay. And kerosene is not just expensive; it is dangerous. Stoves and lamps catch fire, maiming and killing. Indoor fumes cause 600,000 preventable deaths a year in Africa alone. But candles or open fires are even worse—and so is darkness, which hurts productivity and encourages crime.”

The article refers to an “electrical revolution” that is now underway in Africa.  It does not involve huge power plants gradually extending power lines to reach each remote village.  Rather, it is based on the ever lower price for solar power.  For lighting it is also assisted by the falling price of LED illumination.  However, beyond that are a host of devices being developed to work in an environment where solar is the only source of power.  Just as cell phones have leaped past the land-line phase of communication, solar power appears to be capable of leaping past the big power plant paradigm.

“But lighting and charging phones are only the first rungs on the ladder, notes Charlie Miller of SolarAid, a charity. Radios can easily run on solar power. Bigger systems can light up a school or clinic; a “solar suitcase” provides the basic equipment needed by health workers. A Ugandan company called SolarNow has a $200 low-voltage television set that runs on the direct current (DC) used by solar systems. A British-designed fridge called Sure Chill needs only a few hours of power a day to maintain a constant 4ºC. A company in South Africa has just launched solar-powered ATMs for rural areas with intermittent mains power.”

“Other companies offer bigger systems, for $1,500 and upwards, which can power “solar kiosks” and other installations that enable people to start businesses. Beefed up a bit more, these systems can replace diesel generators that will power stores and workshops, mill grain, run an irrigation pump or purify water. At an even larger scale they become mini-grids. A $500,000 aid-funded project in Kisiju Pwani, once one of the poorest villages in Tanzania, uses 32 photovoltaic solar panels and a bank of 120 batteries to provide 12kW of electricity, enough for 20 street lights and 68 homes, 15 businesses, a port, the village’s government offices and two mosques.”

Africa, as a continent, has enormous solar power potential.  Eventually, as economies grow and living conditions improve regional electrical grids or a continent-wide grid will have to be established.  Meeting the power needs with renewable energy sources will provide a healthier environment for both Africa and the rest of the world.

It is interesting that the world’s most wealthy countries and the world’s poorest countries all face a common problem: increasing their power efficiencies so that they can live in a world dominated by renewable energy sources.  Both have the need to design electrical grids that efficiently manage these sources.  Although they begin from quite different points, perhaps they can learn from each other’s experiences.

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