Power for the people
By Paul Driessen
In a scene reminiscent of Colonial Williamsburg, for 16 years Thabo Molubi and his partner had made furniture in South Africa's outback, known locally as the "veld," using nothing but hand and foot power. When an electrical line finally reached the area, they installed lights, power saws and drills. Their productivity increased fourfold, and they hired local workers to make, sell and ship far more tables and chairs of much higher quality, thereby also commanding higher prices.
Living standards soared, and local families were able to buy and enjoy lights, refrigerators, televisions, computers and other technologies that Americans and Europeans often take for granted. They could even charge their cell phones at home! The area was propelled into the modern era, entrepreneurial spirits were unleashed, new businesses opened, and hundreds of newly employed workers joined the global economy.
People benefited even on the very edge of the newly electrified area. Bheki Vilakazi opened a small shop where people could charge their cell phones before heading into the veld, where instant communication can mean life or death in the event of an accident, automobile breakdown or encounter with wild animals.
Thousands of other African communities want the same opportunities. But for now they must continue to live without electricity, or have it only sporadically and unpredictably a few hours each week. Over 700 million Africans – and some two billion people worldwide – still lack regular, reliable electricity and must rely on toxic wood and dung fires for most or all of their heating and cooking needs.
Mothers with babies strapped on their backs must bend over open fires, breathing poisonous fumes and being struck down by debilitating, often fatal lung diseases. Homes, schools, shops and clinics lack the most rudimentary electrical necessities. Impoverished families must live in mud-and-thatch or cinderblock houses that allow mosquitoes to fly in, feast on human blood and infect victims with malaria. And parents and children must carry and drink untreated water that swarms with bacteria and parasites which cause cholera, diarrhea and river blindness. When the sun goes down, their lives shut down.
The environmental costs are equally high. In Rwanda gorilla habitats are being turned into charcoal, to fuel cooking fires. In Zambia, entrepreneurs harvest trees by the thousands along highways, selling them to motorists heading back to their non-electrified homes in rural areas and even parts of cities. As quickly as First World charities hold plant-a-tree days, Africans cut trees for essential cooking.
If eco-activists have their way, it will be like this for decades to come.
In his DotEarth blog for the New York Times, columnist Andrew Revkin lamented this intolerable situation. "Access to the benefits that come with ample energy trumps concerns about their tiny contribution of greenhouse gas emissions," he wrote. But despite agreeing with the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow on this central issue, Revkin took issue on several items.
CFACT's "Stop energy poverty" slogan is clever, he wrote. But where are its "substantive proposals for getting affordable energy" to those who don't have it? Africa sits on vast deposits of natural gas and liquid condensates. Perhaps CFACT could find a business model that can lead to capturing, instead of flaring, those "orphan fuels," Revkin suggested, while wondering why the Committee offers solar ovens to a Yucatan village and uses its slogan in part to challenge global warming scares.
Converting orphan fuels to productive uses is a terrific idea. That's why CFACT opposes restrictions on using these fuels and wants to help find investors and build local support for gas-fired power plants that can electrify and modernize homes and businesses, create jobs, improve health and living standards, purify water, and launch companies that can build modern homes. Non-orphan deposits of oil, "tight oil," natural gas, shale gas and coal could do likewise.
Unconventional US shale gas reserves alone are now estimated at about 57 trillion cubic meters (2000 trillion cubic feet) – enough for 100 years at current US consumption rates, on top of conventional reserves. Africa almost certainly has large gas, oil, coal and uranium deposits of its own, lying untapped beneath numerous poor countries, waiting to fuel an economic boom – if environmentalists, self-interested companies and government agencies would stop using global warming and other scares to justify their opposition to large-scale generating plants.
Until then, the Committee will continue providing interim measures – solar ovens, used laptops and small solar-powered charging systems – while also training people in computer and business skills, and assisting Yucatan and Ugandan villagers with tree farm and other projects.
All these are akin to the help that first responders provide, before getting disaster victims to hospitals. They are important steps toward individual and community empowerment that comes from having property rights, free enterprise, and full access to modern technologies that improve, enhance and safeguard lives. But none of this is possible without reliable, affordable energy to power those technologies.
"If abundant, affordable, clean energy and water were readily available to everyone, all the other problems would become much easier to solve," Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley observed. Of course, "clean" does not have to mean non-carbon dioxide emitting, though Mr. Revkin seems reluctant to support energy that comes from fossil fuels, notes CFACT executive director Craig Rucker. "However, you cannot champion the poor, while supporting policies that perpetuate poverty," Rucker emphasizes.
Modern coal-fired power plants are far cleaner than their predecessors, posing few environmental or health problems, except in the minds and propaganda of eco-activists. They are infinitely cleaner than the open fires that provide pitiful, polluting, often deadly energy for the barest necessities. Gas-fired plants are cleaner still, and safe, modern nuclear plants could also support major economic booms.
To suggest that impoverished nations must worry more about CO2 than about tuberculosis, cholera or malaria is absurd. To tell them their energy options must be limited to expensive, unreliable, insufficient wind and solar power is immoral. To impose anti-hydrocarbon restrictions on poor countries ensures that they will remain poor and diseased, with life expectancies in the low forties.
As Dambisa Moyo and others suggest, it is time for rich Western nations to provide less aid, fewer restrictions – and much more trade, investment and banking expertise and opportunity; business, agricultural and property rights know-how; and energy technologies that will harness and utilize abundant, reliable, affordable hydrocarbon energy. They also need to stop propagating scare stories and imposing restrictions on the use of hybrid and genetically modified seeds to reduce malnutrition, and insecticides to reduce disease.
CFACT's goal is simple, says Rucker. "Give poor families, communities and nations the same opportunities we had, the same freedoms to chart their destinies, the same rights to create and manage their own wealth, develop their own free and healthy institutions, solve their own environmental and health challenges – and even make their own mistakes along the way."
Brazil, China, India and Indonesia are not about to stop building new coal-fired power plants; nor are developed countries going to tear their plants down or abandon their fossil fuel-powered vehicles. Africa and other poor regions need to adopt the same attitude – and also seek investors and trade opportunities, rather than just more aid that is often merely life support for corrupt dictators and bureaucrats.
CFACT's plan is also simple, Rucker adds. Help now with solar ovens, laptops and other first aid. Challenge and change harmful, immoral, lethal policies that limit access to energy and other modern technologies, hobble job creation, impair health and kill millions. And help persuade investors and Third World communities to provide the energy technologies that will make health and prosperity happen.
"We hope Andrew Revkin and millions of other caring people will join us in supporting a global energy quest that advances human progress, while limiting actual environmental risks."
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for CFACT and the Congress of Racial Equality.