Cheap energy or continuing poverty?

I wait with mounting fear and trepidation for my coming gas and electricity bills, after a dull and cold winter, and realise once again how much we took cheap energy for granted back in the days when no one talked at all about global warming, and before state governments stopped thinking they had a proper task in providing households with electricity. Indeed, I remember going to the Bell shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1965 to get some free light bulbs: Bell wanted me to use more electricity. It was cheap there too.

As I have written in earlier posts, it was only really at the beginning of my working life that virtually all of Australia became connected to the electricity grid, and electric motors replaced those that ran on various liquid fuels. Our wealth and income increased, and energy became cheaper and cheaper, as did petrol. In the last twenty years all that has changed, partly because of privatisation and an accompanying  failure to undertake improvements in infrastructure at the right times, and because of the AGW scare, and carbon taxes and their outriders, like subsidies for wind and solar.

I hear what are as yet anecdotal tales about fuel poverty in the UK, and about 600,000 homes in Germany losing their electricity because of unpaid bills (German apartments are heated from a central source, so we are talking here largely of light, not heat). All this is about we wealthy Westerners, who already have abundant energy available to us.

But what about the really undeveloped nations?  I have come across an absorbing essay by Roger Pielke Jnr, whose work I admire and have referred to before (if he is new to you, his blog is in the blogroll), and Morgan Bazilian, a well-regarded energy analyst. They focus  on the moral choice involved in helping poor countries to move into electric power, lights and all the rest, even if they need coal and oil to do so. You can read it here.

I should make it clear, first, that I am not someone who thinks we should be helping other countries to set up energy systems. People have to create their own nation-state, and what I think are misguided efforts on the part of  ‘developed’ countries to introduce ‘democracy’ or anything else to those less-developed seem to me fraught with problems. What we can do is make our values clear when we offer help: if they would like our help in some respects, and we are willing to provide it, then the recipient country needs to recognise that we have values and they form part of the package. The recipient country can decline, and that is its privilege.

That’s perhaps a digression, and it comes from my feeling that in offering education or health assistance we should make clear that we regard the education of girls as equally important as the education of boys, and that health for women includes their capacity to control their own fertility.

That is not what Bazilian and Pielke are about. Rather, it is their discovery that the US is ‘essentially prohibited’ from providing assistance to developing countries to build oil-fired power stations, even when that is the obvious way to go for the recipient country. The UN notion that all energy ought to  be ‘sustainable’ seems to me ludicrous for countries that as yet don’t have much electricity anyway.

Bazilian and Pileke make the point that all countries aspire to a high-energy future, because you need large amounts of energy to power schools, hospitals, factories, transportation and all the rest of the social and economic infrastructure that we take for granted — but was largely absent a century ago.

And there is the moral dilemma. They quote James Hansen as saying that ‘if you let these other countries come up to the level of the developed world then the planet is done for’. But that is what they all want. China has passed the US in total emissions, and is going its own way. If you believe in the AGW scare (I don’t), then the developed countries should be making it hard for the others to become developed too, which seems astonishingly selfish. Three quarters of the world’s population use only ten per cent of the energy generated worldwide

We haven’t solved the storage problem for solar energy yet, and a solution does seem a long way off, as does the perfect battery. In the meantime, everyone else wants to live like us, and they will do their best to do so. And are we giving up coal, oil and gas? Not a bit of it. The whole AGW debate is full of hypocrisy. We in Australia talk of ‘carbon pollution’, which is a nonsense anyway, but happily export our coal so that others can pollute, making us virtuous as well as rich.

it really is remarkably silly stuff, but no one much seems to notice, other than the Greens. But then, they believe the scare.

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