As promised, this is a catch-up post, wherein I belatedly reply to various comments.
“Long distance transmission lines are good because they reduce the need for storage or backup if we use variable sources to generate electricity. (Storage is good, but transmission is almost always cheaper.)”
Gar, may I make the friendly suggestion that you qualify that statement. I can recall back in the 1970s when there was a lot of public resistance to new transmission lines, and with good reason: they can be unsightly.
Also, for developing countries that still have large populations not yet served by electricity, thinking in the multilateral lending agencies used to be that the answer was expand the grid everywhere. Over time, analysts have realized that opening up new corridors for transmission lines can disturb the environment (contributing to ecosystem fragmentation), and that in any case local, off-grid power, is often a better choice.
It depends on whether you are going to provide electricity to the population. If you are going to provide very small amounts of electricity, a few lights and a radio, nothing more than photovoltaics and lead acid batteries will provide clean electricity at a lower cost, even though the cost per kWh is above 25 cents. (However, this is clean only so long as the batteries are properly recycled, emphasis on the properly — which often does not happen in poor nations.)
If you decide to provide real electrification, 100 kWh a month to hundreds of thousands of people at a time, a grid powered by renewable electricity will be cheaper and cleaner. It depends on how poor you are going to leave your people. All sort of things make sense for extremely poor people that don’t make sense for people who are not poor, or even who are less poor — bucket-drip irrigation for example.
So I will qualify it to say that in some places, putting up a grid right now does not make sense; in those cases, adapting to poverty, making it more tolerable, may be the best we choose to do. However, if we begin to take ending poverty seriously, a grid will soon make sense.
Here are some examples of current technology that I think you would agree are anything but perfect:
- Flex fuel internal combustion engines running on corn ethanol. Why wait for cellulosic?
- Soy and palm biodiesel being burned in existing diesel engines. Why wait for algae technology or even pollution controls on these cars? In all seriousness, if we are willing to ignore downsides, we can increase average gas mileage by about 40% by replacing gasoline engines with diesel (as they have in Europe at the expense of air quality).
- Nuclear power using existing transmission grids. Why wait for pebble bed breeder designs or fusion?
All good examples. Due to low net energy in some cases, and horrible side effects in all cases, I’d argue they are not “good enough.” I don’t think we disagree so long as one exercises care in determining what is “good enough.”
Technology is moving at an exponential rate. I’ve replaced most bulbs in my house with curly bulbs not because I think they will save the planet, but because they will save me money and I am sick of replacing fricken light bulbs. A design that actually works finally showed up (they are bright, fast starting, long-lived, fit in existing fixtures, affordable).
I was actually given curly bulbs for free once by a local government attempting to get people to use them. They sucked. They started out dim, and didn’t fit in most of my fixtures. The government wasted time and money (mine) trying to promote a technology. Years later, when I saw one of the new technology bulbs shining in Fred Meyers, I bought a cart full.
I ride an electric hybrid bike using batteries that charge in minutes, not hours, weigh practically nothing and are expected to take thousands of charges. I don’t ride an electric bike to save the planet, I ride it because I like riding it and hate sitting in a car.
The bike uses bright flashing diodes powered without any batteries. Again, why buy or charge a battery when you don’t have to? We drive a Prius, far from perfect, but a hell of a lot better than what it replaced.
I’m laughing because three of your four examples are there for you to buy because of direct government intervention.
Take your curly light bulbs. The one you hated was probably from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Subcompact Fluorescent Lamp Program. They subsidized most the research and development, and those giveaways helped development of the market that supported the factories that ultimately brought that cartload to your Fred Meyer. (Incidentally, you can get better prices at Costco.)
The hybrid car is an even better example. Hybrid technology was first developed in the early 20th century to respond to municipalities and states that passed regulations on the amount of smoke trains could emit. From the mid-’70s through the late ’80s Mother Jones ran stories about individuals producing hybrid cars. Finally, under Clinton, the DOE jointly financed a program with GM to improved hybrid technology. Just as the program produced successful results, GM dropped out and Japanese manufacturers took the publicly available information developed with money from the U.S. government, improved it further, and incorporated in their automobiles. Not exactly a result of the free market, though definitely a result of GM’s stupidity.
I’m not going to give similar detail on diodes, but simply say that government R&D, and for that matter government purchase, has played a significant role there as well.