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Southern comfort

February 10, 2009

Wow, a lot has happened since the early 90s. We are in Varkala, a touristy beach town a few kilometres north of Trivandrun, Kerala. It is unrecognisable from my last visit here. In fact, the whole of India is very changed: brand new tarmacked roads, lots of cars, lots of different models of cars (although fortunately retaining some of the wonderful Ambassador cars, which used to be the only motorised vehicle on the roads), very few cows wandering aimlessly down the roads, lots of new concrete buildings, mobile phones and televisions everywhere, electricity and lighting at night (most of the time), shiny petrols stations, healthier-looking and fatter people and dogs, traffic lights, and where have all the elephants gone?… I could go on. When I consider what has changed in the same period in London, there are little, subtle things, like iconography (the Boots logo has changed, for example), and there have been some minor design changes to cars and so on. But nothing as drastic as this.

But down south the women still mainly wear saris and the men mainly lungis. The food is still delicious, although the menus are now full of pizza, burgers, Chinese, Mexican… as well as the fantastic local fare. We are staying in a cliff-top strip above the beach and although the pathway along the top is clean, great cascades of rubbish – mainly plastic – crowd the vertical cliffs to the beach. It is inconceivable to me how people who have a choice can live mere feet from their detritus like this. Every hour or so we watch as a shop or restaurant owner uptips over the cliff a dustbin that has been nicely filled by tourists with rubbish. So is it tourism that is causing this destruction of the clean beach and environment? There would be little to tip over the cliff without us, certainly.

There are still frequent, although brief, power cuts here. Back in Nepal, the outages are apparently spurring much activity: the birthrate in 9 months’ time is expected to blossom. I was thinking about Pachauri’s point, that 400 million people in India (40%) still don’t have access to electricity, and that these people should not be denied electricity just because it would come from dirty coal-fired power stations – something I disagree with him about. To paraphrase the Reverend Tony Blair, we need a third, green way. Poverty is an emergency, but so is climate change. Pachauri points out that poor India cannot wait for the price of PV or solar thermal or whatever other renewable to come down in cost until price and efficiency match that for coal (and remembering that India has its own coal). “And how would it be transported and distributed?” he asks. So there are two options, of course: either the West pays over the odds for India’s electricity (remembering its out-of-control population growth) so that India develops cleanly and a renewables industry is created in a nice byproduct; or we find another, better way. Or of course we do nothing – which is not an option, but nevertheless the one we are taking.

There are ways to help option 1 work, like setting up DC grids rather than the Euro-American AC model, so that electricity can be transported better over distance from, say the Thar desert (the only place where India could realistically find land for solar). Fast-tracking nuclear, which India is already toddling towards, with several tenders from France and elsewhere. In fact, this week, TVEL (Russia) is signing a $780 million deal to supply 2,000 tonnes of uranium pellets to India’s plants – the first to do so since the 30-year-ban on sales of nuclear fuel was lifted last September. Personally I would prefer India to make such deals with the Australians rather than the scary Russians, but as usual nobody consulted me.

Option 2 is harder. My friend Geoff Brumfiel would point to the promise of ITER in Caradache France, where the world’s problems will be solved through nuclear fusion – unless his affections have been swayed by the new girl about town, CERN. And it may well take a completely different source of energy to meet the non-carbon electricity needs of the future.

But something that’s been tickling my mind recently while I travel through the developing world is the idea that we do away with a grid altogether. Why not make every device self-sustainable energy-wise. I think this would be a hell of a lot less wasteful and cut power consumption down considerably. You would still need batteries (effectively a type of grid) but if all devices from TVs to hairdryers had a standard battery that could be charged in a variety of ways, including via the domestic or gym-based cycle chargers, solar, hydro, wind-up, thermal etc, then people could purchase a few of these and move them around devices as and when they needed them. 24-hour shops would do swaps on uncharged for charged batteries – they would charge batteries in a sustainable manner – even via piezoelectric. That’s my developing world solution to the energy crisis – it means that every house or community would need to have some method of charging batteries, be that PV, hydro or cycles. In the West, the grid would gradually be switched off – either through taxation that priced it out of reach, or because power cuts are predicted to increase. What grid power there is would be renewable or nuclear provided.

Lemme know thoughts on this.

And one last word on poverty: According to a meeting of economists and marjket analysts in Delhi last week, India is one of the five largest markets for luxury products in the world – it’s luxury goods service, currently Rs. 2,000 crores ($375 billion) is expected to grow by around 20% a year over the next 5 years.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Evan permalink
    February 10, 2009 3:26 pm

    Gaia, your distributed “grid” is sheer genius. My one worry is that it will encourage feckless reproduction, with parents converting their kids’ surplus energy & selling it to even lazier (or elderly, incapacitated etc) neighbours. On the other hand, your scheme should prevent those action packed blackouts, so the net result may still be environmentally acceptable…

    • gaiavince permalink*
      February 11, 2009 4:52 am

      Hello Evan, so long as all those kids are pedalling away furiously, i guess their impact will be manageable!

  2. February 11, 2009 11:09 pm

    Hello Gaia,

    I have a most interesting feature article about, among the other things, modernisation in India and the way it is being affteced by religions. You’ll need a while to read it all, so you can wait for a rainy day. If that’s ok with you, I’d send it to you…ET version…so I can use the “share” function, that makes things so much easier. Pls let me know. Safe journey now !

    • gaiavince permalink*
      February 13, 2009 5:11 am

      Lovely, thanks Roberto – I don’t have a lot of time to read long articles at the moment unfortunately, but it sounds like an interesting piece so do send me a link.

  3. February 13, 2009 10:59 am

    Hello Gaia,

    I know you’re quite busy, but I think you’ll find this article inspirational all the same. Here is the link:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/04/international/asia/04highway.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=india%20highways&st=cse

    Now, when you go to a scientific institution, where they do research and are looking for investors and/or keen to work in collaboration with other scientists elsewhere in the world, if you want to produce a 2 min video placing emphasis on how important it would be for them to benefit from investments, then I will be happy to include it in the series that I am planning to produce and stream through my web site and/or related spaces, ie, YouTube, on the Internet.

    Safe journey !

    • gaiavince permalink*
      February 14, 2009 12:06 pm

      Thanks very much for that article, Roberto. It was long, but so interesting and well written that I couldn’t draw my eyes from it. Very illuminating.

  4. February 14, 2009 3:28 pm

    Thank you Gaia.

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