Energy growth and education go together: now, what produces the energy?

Hans Rosling, in this brilliant TED Talk, shows the direct link between the availability of electricity and education. He uses the electric washing machine as an example of how the lives of millions of poor women have changed as a result of electrification. This has a personal resonance for me. My mother grew up without a washing machine; see her comment below.

I love Rosling’s question about 04:30 into his talk: “how many of you [environmentalists] hand-wash your jeans and bed-sheets?”

I would not describe myself as an environmentalist. That is because the label has been misused by many who do describe themselves that way. This does not mean I don’t care about the environment. I do, passionately.

Regardless, I actually have hand-washed my jeans, and in exactly the way Rosling describes: by heating water with firewood, then soaking the jeans in the heated water and working them by hand until I think they are clean. I did this at my cottage in Muskoka, in wintertime. (Chalk it up to my addiction to fast food and bad driving habits: en route to the cottage one winter day I picked up some KFC, with fries and gravy, and spilled the gravy into my lap while driving, while wearing the only pair of pants I had brought.)

Here’s what I had to do.

  1. Make a fire in the wood stove inside the cottage; that’s how I heat the place.
  2. Make a hole in the lake ice, using a hand auger and saw (the ice at the time was about half a meter thick, so using an axe would have been even more time consuming and inefficient).
  3. Draw pailfuls of ice-cold water by hand, and carry them into the cottage (we have running water in summer but not winter).
  4. Pour the cold water from the pail into a pot.
  5. Put the water-filled pot on the wood-fired stove.
  6. Wait for the stove to warm up and in turn warm the water.
  7. Pour the hot water from the pot into a hand-tub and put the jeans in, with a bit of biodegradable soap.
  8. Work the jeans by hand until I thought they were clean.

This whole process took many hours of hard physical effort. Compare that work with what you do if you are washing your jeans in an electric powered washing machine:

  1. Put the jeans into the machine.
  2. Put soap in.
  3. Set your water level by pushing a button.
  4. Push the “On” button.
  5. Go and do something else, like read, while the machine is doing the work.

The eight steps involved in hand-washing your clothes are extremely time consuming and exhausting. Most people in the developed world do not realize how much energy it takes to move and heat water. If you had to do that all the time, you would have very little time for anything else. That includes education. That is why education levels tend to be higher in countries where there is ubiquitous cheap electricity. It frees you from the drudgery of manual labour.

Now, in most countries in the world, that electricity comes from one or more of only four sources: hydropower, coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Most places have tapped out their available hydropower, which leaves coal, gas, or nuclear as their options for adding generating capacity.

Jurisdictions that need new capacity, and that includes most developing countries, are now facing these choices.

Which should they choose?

Here’s a debate on exactly that subject, in the form of another TED Talk. The debate is between Stewart Brand, one of the early founders of the Earth movement, and Mark Jacobson of Stanford University. Have a watch:

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9 years ago

Hi Steve: you are more than my dear son, you are also a free spirit and very creative…by testing your hypothesis, washing the jeans up at the cottage in wintertime. In my youth, to help my mother out did a tub full of family laundry(before we had a washing machine). It took one day of leaving the load to soak overnight and another half day for me to do the washing using a scrubbing board and 2 rinses. After hanging the whole thing on the line to mother came home to me suffering from a terrible backache and fever. I was sick for a week. But more important I learned how to empathize with ppl who have no aids to help with backbreaking work…with you in solidarity. Mom

Maury Markowitz
9 years ago

“Most places have tapped out their available hydropower”

Oh that’s not true by even the most negative projections. The only people who say that are the salesmen for competing technologies.

This article is about the developing world, so let’s start there. As hydro is almost always a “big ticket” item, it is precisely for this reason that capacity is so underdeveloped. Currently, about 1% of all power used in the developing world comes from hydro, but estimates show that it could be as high as 10%. That means there is *ten times* more hydro to be developed.

Consider the poster-child for hydro in the developing world; Egypt. Right now they have about 2.7 GW of installed hydro. There’s about another 2.9 GW undeveloped. That is, in one of the best developed hydro resources in the world, there’s still over 50% capacity undeveloped. And so what are they doing with this? Building gas-fired plants. Why? Because the world is decidedly short of cheap capital, and gas plants are cheaper and faster to build. Note that this argument applies to nuclear as well, except that $/W are on the other of three to four times higher for nuclear.

And although it’s true the developed world has taken better advantage of their hydro supply, it’s by no means tapped out there either. On average it is believed there is another 30% capacity undeveloped – big easy capacity, not tidal or micro or anything like that. And that’s not considering that much of the infrastructure is hopelessly outdated; Oak Ridge recently calculated that the US could add another 12.6 GW of capacity simply by upgrading existing installations to use modern equipment. That’s 20% of their existing capacity!

But given the title of this blog, let us consider Canada… hydro already produces something on the order of 60% of our electrical power, from a generation pool of 88 GW. There’s another 60 GW of *large easily accessible* hydro capacity currently unbuilt. If built, and we continue to ignore tidal and micro sources, we’re still looking at around 150 GW of capacity, which is greater than all the electrical use in Canada.

So let’s put this tired old canard to bed – simply put, hydro is nowhere near done.

Steve Aplin
9 years ago

Looking at Ontario, OPG has 1,611 megawatts of greenfield hydro planned around the province. OPG says that of the 12,000 MW of theoretical hydro potential in Northern Ontario, about 5,000 has any practical/economic value.

OPG lists a set of “issues” involved in developing those 5,000 MW:

First Nations participation
Transmission requirements
Restrictions on Northern & Moose Rivers development
Environmental considerations

Ten bucks says OPG’s greenfield projects are the only ones that actually get developed.

That’s what I mean when I say hydro is tapped out.

I just spent a weekend canoeing in west Quebec, on a lake created in 1929 when the utility decided to divert water for electricity. Back then, it was no problem. If locals including Aboriginals didn’t like it, too bad. A few years ago I canoed across the Ottawa River upstream of the Des Joachims dam complex (493 MW). To get that capacity (which is less than that of one Pickering reactor), Ontario Hydro had to relocate the highway, a railway, and a bunch of farmers and who knows how many Aboriginals.

Could Quebec or Ontario create all those hydro generators today if they were starting from scratch? Not a chance.

Maury Markowitz
8 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

“Ten bucks says OPG’s greenfield projects are the only ones that actually get developed.”

If you limit yourself only to greenfield, maybe, what time frame?

In the meantime, there’s 1500 to 2000 MW of redevelopment at existing sites, lots of that already underway.

“Could Quebec or Ontario create all those hydro generators today if they were starting from scratch? Not a chance.”

Fallacy of the excluded middle; you’re asking for a do-over on hydro but no one else.

The real question is, “if we have to build an electrical generation system today, starting from scratch, do you think you would get to build all that hydropower, nuclear, or something else”.

By that measure, I suspect the fastest growing source of power would be PV. NIMBY doesn’t apply when you’re the builder too. After that, hydro, then wind and finally nuclear.

Honestly, which do you think would cause greater political anguish, a new flow-of-river plant 300 km outside of Fort Severn, or a new reactor plant in downtown Pickering? After Fukishima!?

I don’t think that argument holds much water. Heh.

8 years ago

Making a hydro dam has some negative impact. We got all the easy stuff tapped. Just like we got all the easy oil. Making a dam today means disrupting peoples’ lives. Perhaps you can help them out Brazil with their Belo Monte project? They’ll be glad to hear how we can keep adding capacity to hydro without any worry.

Richard Wakefield
9 years ago

We need to take all the money that is being wasted on wind and solar and put it into building a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. Don’t need hydro.