People stand next to solar panels of the solar energy power plant in Zaktubi, near Ouagadougou, on Nov. 29, on its inauguration day. (LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A recent story about a solar power project at a Syrian refugee camp made me cringe a bit. There are good reasons to use solar power in this instance: the camp is isolated and (hopefully) temporary, so that connecting it to the grid is unlikely to be cost-effective. And refugees are much more tolerant of intermittent power than homeowners, although the idea that it reliably powers refrigerators might be a stretch. Charging a cell phone, on the other hand, is the perfect use for unreliable, intermittent power. (Unless you’re using the phone to watch Game of Thrones, and then you might not tolerate waiting for daytime to get caught up.)
The crucial part of the story is not “refugees get solar” but “refugees get power.” Their carbon footprint is probably not a priority for a war refugee, although many pundits in the West will no doubt feel that they are being ‘empowered’ by renewables. It reminds me of the story about the Californian who wanted to provide fitness classes for the homeless, or the tattoo artist raising money for the same to get tattoos.
The energy impoverished are often told that renewables is the answer for them, even when it’s not. Solar power stations can be the solution to an isolated village’s lack of power if it isn’t near the grid, but the high-cost and intermittency will afflict the just and unjust alike. And when solar is more expensive, and governments have limited budgets, telling the poor that they cannot have power until the government has money for solar is rather like Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake.”
Activists reply that solar power is actually superior in many ways, but as Rachel Pritzker, co-author of “The Ecomodernist Manifesto” put it: “If we knew how to power a modern life on a small amount of intermittent energy we’d be doing it in the OECD already. Why expect the poorest to do something we haven’t figured out yet, and thereby slow their ability to escape poverty? Poverty is not my favorite climate solution.”
There was a real-life application of the “what they really need” approach when Enron developed the Dadhol project in India, intended to rely on imported LNG to power gas turbines and sell very expensive electricity. It would, however, be clean and reliable, something the company insisted were priorities for India. Reliability was definitely valuable for Indian industry, but the political backlash resulted in the contract being rewritten to reduce the power price (and the project’s viability). The plant is now owned by the Indian government, but the reliance on imported LNG (or petroleum), far more expensive than domestic coal, means it still struggles (to put it mildly).
Better to emulate Alan Lloyd, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board in the late 1990s, who canceled the electric vehicle mandate, arguing that his job was to reduce pollution, not promote electric vehicles. Too many proponents of renewable energy in Africa want to promote renewable energy, regardless of whether it is the optimal approach in a given place and time, because they are not addressing either energy poverty or climate change, but because they have fixed on renewable energy period, as if it were a moral question rather than one of costs and benefits.
This kind of posturing is all too common amongst many in the West. GMO foods, for example, have an excellent safety and health record, yet there are activists who oppose its use in poor nations because malnutrition is better than, well, whatever is wrong with GMOs. As The Economist says, “The more sensible reason for being wary of GM foods is that there are people who, not being in any danger of starvation, are precious about what they eat. They are called Europeans.”
Actually, I would call them “Antoinettes,” as in “Let them eat organic cake baked on solar ovens.”