Sorry, Africa needs its telegraphs

The energy ladder: Developing nations first use firewood, then move “up” to coal, then kerosene, then a select few might get oil and gas.  Eventually, lucky developing nations may work their way “up” to nuclear power.

RECENTLY, Barack Obama stopped US government financing of most overseas coal projects due to climate concerns.   The predictable reaction from the  energy industry and its friends was expressed in an opinion by Ken Silverstein  in the Christian Science Monitor:

“Sorry, Mr. Obama; Africa needs coal.”

The underlying philosophy here is that if a developing country is going to move “up” the energy ladder, it needs to develop basic cheap energy sources first, use them to fuel development, then move “up” to more complex fuels, and then finally move “up” to nuclear power.

If Mr. Silverstein had been talking about communications in this same vein, he would have said: “Sorry, Mr. Obama; never mind the cell phones — Africa needs its telegraphs.”

Of course, we all know that to “leapfrog” technology, and to avoid mistakes others have made, is a common notion in communications.  Cell phones are just one example.

But energy technology – from boiler room to your home grid connection — hasn’t changed that much in a hundred years.  There are thousands of planners and economists and policy makers in the energy field who cling to the past like a drunkard clings to a lamp post.

They insist —  as did Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank  last week —  that we can’t be “serious” and still say “no” to coal and nuclear energy.     “We know that intermittent energy will not lead to economic development,” he said.

Of course, it’s not like we have to say “no” to the telegraph, or to the walkie-talkie or the three-meter satellite dish or the IBM 360. These technologies are already dinosaurs.  No one is trying to foist these obsolete communications technologies on the developing world.

Unfortunately, the obsolete energy technologies still have their full-throated champions,  even though much safer, much cheaper, much more effective energy technologies are out there, and they work just fine for developing nations.

When the president of the World Bank says that intermittent energy won’t lead to economic development, you have to wonder where some of these guys studied economics:   the TVA – ExxonValdez university of Fukushima?  How serious do you have to be to incorporate gross enviromental damage into economic development cost projections?  And what exactly, Mr. Kim, are the economic development prospects for the coastal Ogoni region of Nigeria where Shell Oil company has done so much good for the people?

Mr. Kim and others keep talking about economic development for Africa as if there were some kind of reward waiting at the top of the old feudal energy ladder.

Comments are closed.