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Wind Power Racing Ahead in Asia - At Some People's Expense?
Sarah Rich, 28 Sep 06

bigfarm4.jpg This morning kicked off the first annual West Coast Green conference and expo in San Francisco. I couldn't have been more pleased with the choice of opening keynote speakers: Ed Mazria, a truly forward-thinking, staunchly proactive architect whose numerous efforts towards overhauling our building and design practices include Architecture 2030 and Imperative 2010, for ecological literacy in all design schools. He began his talk -- which we'll have more on later -- by emphasizing that the world is largely not moving in the direction we want to see it go (no surprise there, of course), and that coal is one of our worst - and fastest growing - problems.

So it was synergistic to sit down at my computer and see this New York Times article on the growth of wind power in India and China catching up to and surpassing many of the large wind producers in the West. Although 79% of coal growth last year happened in China, the country is also had a 65% increase in wind turbine intallation during the same period. This fits into their resolution to achieve reductions in coal and increased use of renewables by 2020 (again paralleling Mazria's call for solid deadlines and goals, though as Jamais pointed out when this was first released, the goals are somewhat unambitious and could be pushed further given the simultaneous explosion in non-renewables).

The Times piece focused in particular on an Indian company, Suzlon Energy, which has an interesting success story, having in the last four years raced past Siemens and become a major provider not just within India, but also in China. They play a juggling game between providing for and competing with China, which has an advantage in terms of domestic manufacturing, while India manufactures some parts abroad and must import them.

What really intrigued me about the article was a nearly skimmed-over comment toward the end of the piece about the forced elimination of squatter settlements (and displacement of squatters) in order to make space not even for the wind turbines themselves, but for the turning radius of the giant trucks that carry the turbines into urban outskirts and remote areas; and the fact that the company holds no obligation to offer recompense to the displaced persons. It was too quick a mention to offer any insight into the backstory there (if one even exists, given that squatters don't generally attract much media attention), but it does raise questions about the ripples of human and social impact around the progress we hear so much about in renewables.

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Most renewables are anti-poor and anti-social from another perspective. Both wind and solar offer almost no extra jobs compared to the coal, oil or natural gas sector (in fact, wind offers fewer jobs than coal in the developing world). Moreover, their energy is more expensive than traditional forms of energy (like burning biomass), which means they're not really pro-poor.

In this sense, renewables and 'clean' energy sources only benefit that abstract thing called 'humanity', which is the least of the worries of the 3 billion people who earn less than a dollar a day.

The only renewable energy source that really offers pro-development and pro-poor opportunities is bioenergy (liquid and solid biofuels and biogas), because it's a labor intensive sector, and because the energy can be traded on a global market (unlike electricity coming from solar and wind). Moreover, it offer jobs to many people who can earn a small income from it, whereas wind/solar offer few jobs to a few people who can make a larger income from it. Now distributing small amounts of wealth over many people is a far more powerful development strategy than distributing a larger amount of wealth over a few people.

In short, when it comes to the potential for genuinly beneficial social impacts of renewables on the developing world, then bioenergy and biofuels yes, wind and solar no.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 28 Sep 06

Wind may not be the most pro-poor tech, but it seems better than the evil that is coal. Between those dying in the mines and those from the haze in the cities, coal is an abomination.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 28 Sep 06

Actually, wind provides more jobs at every step of the industry than fossil fuel industries. Wind requires more labor to build the equipment per megawatt (MW) of capacity (that's why windfarms cost more per MW to build than fossil fuel plants), more labor to install the equipment per MW of capacity, and more labor to maintain/operate per MW of capacity. After startup, a typical wind farm will require 1 maintenace / operations employee for every 10-15 MW of installed capacity. When factoring in the production to capacity ratio, the ratio falls to about 1 operations/maintenace employee per 3-5 MW of realized capacity.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, the total number of people employed world-wide is about 240,000. (This total includes manufacturing, marketing, design, transport, operations, an other functions.) Given the fact that there are about 60,000 MW of wind capacity standing today worldwide, that means the wind industry now employes about 6 people for every 1.5 MW windmill.

All and all it makes sense that wind must provide more jobs - because generally electricity made from wind costs more than electricity made from fossil fuels. Because there is no intrinsic cost to turn the windmill blades, all of the wind costs go to people to build, operate, finance, and maintain the windmills.

Posted by: mweirick on 28 Sep 06

The idea that decisions on power generation should
devolve on the number of jobs they create is totally absurd. Progress in standards of living only occur when technology allows for the same output with FEWER JOBS. This tendncy for those uninformed about the nature of economic progress is not new. It was rmpant during the desperate 1930, when completely self defeating programs of public works were created. It's the idea that there are a finite number of jobs out there. The real story is that savings from one area allow new technologies (and jobs) in another.
There is also ignorance here in the belief that
renewable fuels will create jobs (plowing corn fields , presumably) but that's absurd : there isn't enough land in the entire country to
grow enough corn to meet our transportation needs.
Renewable fuels will be biodiesel from algae, and
the like, will be highly automated and employing
few workers in production.
Thsi article is nothing more than a case of
finding that new technological production methods ALWAYS displace workers and ALWAYS result in large benefits for society as a whole, even including those whose jobs are lost. Narrowly focusing on
the displaced workers job losses misses the big picture. Jobs are made to be destroyed at some point in the future. Assuming jobs to be never ending is to assume that no economic or technological progress will occur.

Posted by: kent beuchert on 29 Sep 06

To be frank, it's China. Let's remember that China doesn't get high marks for the treatment of its citizens. Let's remember all the communities, some many centuries old, displaced by the Three Gorges Dam Project.

India, being democratic, is probably a little better but then they do have a history of big companies, foreign and domestic, simply railroading projects through over local objections.

And let's look to ourselves. I can think of lots of local examples here in Seattle where homeless camps were displaced because of development. It's sad. I rather it wasn't true but, its a tough problem. Money talks.

And I agree with mweirick, wind and solar do provide local employment. Biofuels have their place in the energy source equation but I disagree with the argument that they are somehow more benign than wind and solar. In fact biofuels have drawbacks of their own.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 29 Sep 06

@ kent beuchert
isn't the economic theory you use a bit outdated? Real world economics and development economics looks at how wealth is *distributed* over the long term over a population.

You somehow suppose that there is a fair and just mechanism at work in free market capitalism that distributes wealth in a fair way. This is of course absurd and has been debunked countless times. Even the World Bank now agrees, when it devoted its 2006 theme to the question of rising inequality.

It is a simple fact when these jobs are displaced, those who lost theirs do not end up where you think they will (in an equally income secure situation); instead they end up lower, in unstable, insecure situations. In the developing world this is even more apparent, with much faster increases in wealth gaps.

A good introduction to the big picture of development economics is:
Growth isn’t working: the uneven distribution of benefits and costs from economic growth

This is why the labor intensity and employment opportunities brought by an energy sector are indeed very important.

This is the real world, you know, not some abstract void. A coal miner in China who loses his job finds himself in poverty; he will not find a similarly secure employment situation, not immediately, and not over the long term. You think otherwise.

It's all about the *distribution* of wealth over concrete populations. Not about the total amount of wealth created. (You can create vast amounts of wealth, but to what use if it only benefits a few?)

In short, your economic ideology (which many consider to be outdated) is different from mine.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 29 Sep 06


There are many economic injustices in the world and we should world to reduce or eliminate them.
But I think you are unfairly singling out wind and solar energy projects in the developing world as somehow contributing to this problem.

Perhaps they do but, they'd hardly be unique in this regard. We have to decide what's the greater evil: Long term environmental damage (measuring in centuries.) or short term economic displacements (measuring in decades.)?

Posted by: Pace Arko on 29 Sep 06

Pace, I fully agree with what you say, but at times some people have to be reminded by the hard economic logic used by poor people. If a poor farmer in Malaysia can quintuple his income by growing oil palms boosted by the biofuels market, and he has to cut down a tropical forest plot for it, then he will. Even though his action is detrimental to the long-term health of the planet.

Similarly, when you arrive at a poor village in Africa and tell people there that they should spend US$ 1000 on solar panels, whereas they can get the same amount of energy much cheaper simply by burning biomass, then you stand no chance of convincing them.

Finally, if it ever comes to choosing between social justice ('poverty alleviation by cutting down rainforests') and environmental sustainability, then I side with the red boys and not with the green ones.
Simply because the wealthy West can be 'blackmailed' into paying for its ideology of progress, which has led the poor in the South to think in terms of hard economics and global markets. The West is responsible, both economically and historically. So they should pay up.

It makes no sense to tell a father of 12 who lives on two dollars a day, that he must spend 3 dollars a day on clean energy. If you want him to, you pay those 3 dollars.

Of course, things don't have to be put in such stark terms, but the ideological and political undertones of this debate should not be obscured either.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 29 Sep 06

For wind versus coal I was referring to: Daniel M. Kammen, Kamal Kapadia, and Matthias Fripp (2004), Putting Renewables to Work: How Many Jobs Can the Clean Energy Industry Generate?

And for the poverty alleviation potential of bioenergy in the South, I was referring to:
Sivan Kartha and Gerald Leach (Stockholm Environment Institute, 2001), Using Modern Bioenergy to Reduce Rural Poverty

I'm not at all saying solar and wind are 'evil'! Just tried to show that *if* a situation exists where wind, solar and bioenergy are equally optimal choices from a purely site-specific context, then the scarce money we have should be invested in bioenergy, because it alleviates poverty far more than any of the two other alternatives.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 29 Sep 06

Lorenzo wrote, "Similarly, when you arrive at a poor village in Africa and tell people there that they should spend US$ 1000 on solar panels, whereas they can get the same amount of energy much cheaper simply by burning biomass, then you stand no chance of convincing them....

"Simply because the wealthy West can be 'blackmailed' into paying for its ideology of progress, which has led the poor in the South to think in terms of hard economics and global markets. The West is responsible, both economically and historically. So they should pay up."

So you're saying the post-industrial countries ought to heavily subsidize green energy projects in the developing world, right? If so, I entirely agree.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 29 Sep 06

Thank you! This is a good discussion of something I think about quite often. What no one has mentioned is the constant outflow of cash from communities to owners of centralized energy systems vs the local recycling and reinvestment of the energy dollars of individuals and communities who own their own means of renewable energy capture. Political power follows the cash, to a significant extent. Look at the oil executives in the White House and the unprecedented powers being handed to the president. Yesterday I read that the presidents (all right wingers) of the US, Mexico and Canada are having discussions with oil company heads and other industry executives about forming a North American Union. I hope that a popular movement toward distributed energy will slow the slide toward increasing centralization of political power. But widespread fear makes consolidation of power easy for determined and well funded autocrats. Courage, mates!

Posted by: lancemckee on 30 Sep 06

Energy policy, when it attempts to mitigate or eliminate the destructive impacts of fossil fues, should not be held hostage to its impacts, if any, on the poor. A society, especially if it is capitalistic, decides through its redistributionist polices, how much poverty it will tolerate. India, by design or just neglect, has decided that energy projects, from whatever source, override the needs of its poor. I would argue that its poor should be compensated in some way, but then I live in the still wealthy United States, which would have the means to do so.

To sacrifice part of all of the natural planet to provide jobs in the short term is short sighted, just as it is short sighted to encourage development without also encouraging population control. It seems like a humanitarian gesture in the short run. But in the long run the poor will suffer and die in greater numbers than the non poor. And more of the rest of us will end up poor if we have overshot and depleted our natural systems.

In the future, when the planet is dried up, dead and dying, and the few remaining are huddled together, perhaps somewhere near the north pole, will people look back and thank God we destroyed those rain forests for short term energy and jobs?

Looking at the big, long range picture seems cruel and heartless to some. It's not. Just focusing on the short term, especially when it is in the rich United States, is the ultimate cruelty.

Having said that, we need far more equality in the world. But don't lay the burden on energy policy to fix the problems of a dsyfunctional and unfair social/economic system.

Posted by: tom on 30 Sep 06

Energy: On a Person/Family Scale
Can a person (or family) use the resources available to them produce more energy than they use to provide for themselves and the production of the energy. Their limited choice: Burn fuel used to create heat and cook. Fuel could be wood, biomass, coal, oil (animal or petrol), or dung. Mostly, heat is needed to over come cold and/or to dry out in rainy climates. The shelter to stay dry in other than a cave could be made from wood, mud, brick, cement. Performing even these tasks (mostly pretty low tech) will still require some tools and/or technology, such as shovels, axes, knives. Technology comes from somewhere, and usually somewhere else. And technology requires someone to pay for it, up front, which is cash, or that dirty word capital. Even the old prospector needs a “Grubstake” to find and retrieve the fortune he will share will his benefactor.

A (remote area) person/family could build a (adobe) mud home with beer bottle windows, a central fire place and use dung or wood to cook food in mud pot.

But one does not get to the point of generating “electricity” from wood, biomass, water, wind or solar without someone “investing” in the up front tools to “retrieve” the “fortune” of energy. Not only that, the person/family can’t use any of the fortune of energy unless they “spend” some of their hard earned income on such things as a radio, cell phone, flashlight or other product of technology. The person/family can upscale (convert their labor and resources to a more valuable level) the land and resources they occupy and sell their more valuable commodity to whoever for whatever they negotiate for it. They may have to deliver the upscaled product to a remote market or sell for less to a “middle man”. This middle man invests in the delivery tool, and takes the risk of making the journey and does this for a markup. Provided they deliver the product and collect, then they may prosper, provided the product market is not flooded with like product.

Unless a state or collective (commune) is involved, the risk of crop loss or market failure is always a possibility. This is true today and was true in ancient times as well. The state or collective can (maybe) try to protect the person/family from failure by retaining an overhead from everyone else (a collective loss) and sustaining the person/family for a week, a year or a lifetime. The cost overhead (loss) can be provided until the collective is unable or unwilling to continue to do so, much like paying “workers” not to work. These discussions are not so much about economies of energy as they are about economic theories, capitalism versus communism.

So, which side would you prefer to butter your bread?

Posted by: jbordato on 30 Sep 06

Tom wrote: //Having said that, we need far more equality in the world. But don't lay the burden on energy policy to fix the problems of a dsyfunctional and unfair social/economic system.//

You're right, the burden should not solely be put on energy policies; it should be put on *all* economic and technological sectors where one must look at the effects on social inequality - so that includes the renewables and energy sector.

The way climate change is being fought in some countries -- via expensive energy policies -- is anti-social and anti-poor (as some labor parliamentarians in the UK have noticed).

The point is that you can never sell the message to the poor that it's in their "longterm future" interests to pay up now and become poorer now, so that they don't end up even poorer in 50 years time due to climate change. You can't sell that message, because the poor live in a temporal space where urgency and immediacy reign: what am I going to give my kids to eat today.

Moreover, making the poor even poorer via anti-social renewable energies and anti-poor climate change strategies, will result in even more environmental damage. It the small-holders who are destroying rainforests, for example, not because they like to, but out of necessity. If you make them poorer, the forests disappear faster.

So again, the West (and in the developing world the rising middle classes) should subsidize the fight against climate change, not the poor. It's the only way.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 1 Oct 06

If jobs are the most important criteria, why not use treadmill power? That way we can employ everyone, and healthcare costs would go down as a bonus, because everyone would be in such great shape.

Posted by: macrumpton on 1 Oct 06

I believe every single person listed above has made great claims and points. You all must take into consideration that the world has been developing on a day to day basis not decade to decade or century to century, as wind and other renewable technologies are being developed we still have a giant! need for burning. there are no two ways about it.

Eventually as the world will progress burning fuels with phase out and renewables will phase in and i can promise you that even when renewables become main stream there will still be a burning sector. Jobs will still be there what the will be we dont know but new jobs will come about. Its as simple as looking at it as the evolution of the job sector or the energy sector or simply the world.
Just like the global economy it will take time but it will eventually evolve into one central economy with one or two main currencies.

Posted by: Ory Moussaieff on 10 Oct 06



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