Pollution vs. Development? Hardly!

It’s clean air vs. TV in poor India village – International Herald Tribune

Across the developing world, cheap diesel generators from China and elsewhere have become a favorite way to make electricity. They power everything from irrigation pumps to television sets, allowing growing numbers of rural villages in many poor countries to grow more crops and connect to the wider world.

The headline sucks, clean air vs. TV is not really the choice here. Is the implication that third worlders somehow need to make this a “choice”? It’s not as if the rest of the world has to make this “choice”! They do seem to have both. This is a situation where poor choices are made because of poor infrastructure. Other than the headline, it is a good article because it makes all the right points:

  1. Lack of infrastructure – No centralized power to remote areas
  2. Well meaning, but poorly executed subsidies – Cheap Diesel and Kerosene
  3. Subsidy induced corruption – Diesel/Kerosene pilfering
  4. Top down approaches to development – Throw the money, pay no attention to local experts, don’t follow up, then blame the lazy villagers!
  5. Competition for scarce resources with developed countries – Germany will outpay India for photovoltaics every time.

Biomass burning as an alternative to diesel?

Given the popularity of generators, perhaps the most promising alternative is a new type like the one at the edge of the village that contributes much less to air pollution and global warming. It burns a common local weed instead of diesel, costs half as much to operate, emits less pollution and contributes less to global warming.

The main material is dhaincha, a weed commonly grown in India to restore nitrogen to depleted soils. The dhaincha grows 10 feet tall in just four months, with a three-inch-thick green stalk. Wood from shrubs and trees is used when there is not enough dhaincha.

I am not a big fan of biomass burning, but using a weed that can be replanted repeatedly seems fairly harmless, especially compared to burning diesel.

The project has succeeded partly because it has the active backing of one landlord family, the Sharans. Family members have gone on to successful business careers in big Indian cities and in Europe, and have dedicated themselves to helping their home village.

Local involvement, especially by authority figures goes a long way in rural India.
China does suggests another way forward.

China has tried another approach: supplementing an expansion of electricity from coal-fired power plants with cheap rooftop solar water heaters that channel water through thin pipes crisscrossing a shiny surface.

Close to 5,000 small Chinese companies sell these simple water heaters, and together they have made China the world’s largest market for solar water heaters, with 60 percent of the global market and more than 30 million households using the systems, said Eric Martinot, a renewable energy expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Not so hot during the monsoon, I guess! I remember a friend of mine having a solar heater in their home in the 1980’s. Their company used to make them, so it is old technology, with price being the prime barrier. It will work as a supplemental source, not as the prime source.

Clearly, the wider availability and ubiquity of consumer electronics, and electricity-dependent agriculture has outpaced India’s, and to a lesser extent, China’s power infrastructure. It is easy to make a billion television, it’s not quite so easy to keep them powered!

1 comment for “Pollution vs. Development? Hardly!

  1. November 6, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    The project has succeeded partly because it has the active backing of one landlord family, the Sharans. Family members have gone on to successful business careers in big Indian cities and in Europe, and have dedicated themselves to helping their home village.