Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Monday, February 18, 2008

Can income uncertainty predict use of electric water heaters among the Cairo poor?

Justification for posing and posting the question here: Solar CITIES is interested in finding out what the barriers are to adopting solar hot water systems in Egypt, and T.H. Culhane has chosen to research hot water demand among the poor to understand existing hot water system choices.

The "energy ladder" literature assumes that "progress" in development involves a move away from "natural fuels" (biomass and environment-mediated solutions) toward the Edisonian panacea for civilization - the modern miracle of electricity. Such literature shows residents of developing countries climbing an "energy ladder" whose bottom rung is solid fuels -- animal dung, wood, and detritus, whose intermediate rungs take them on a lexicographic climb through charcoal to coal to oil-based liquid fuels and from there on to gaseous fuels (methane, butane, propane etc.), peaking at the spiritual apex of the transformation from mass to energy with the use of the quantum fields of nearly massless electrons.

One might argue that solar energy is a further evolution up this ladder , reasoning that light is the lightest of all things -- massless and pure, and we could conceivably use this argument in favor of solar energy on a psycho-spiritual level, saying "FIAT LUX" in a Godly tone to motivate policy makers to create mandates for solar energy.

The problem is that the energy ladder is an absurd fiction.

For one thing, since biomass and fossil fuels are all stored transformations of light energy, and are thus all forms of "solar energy", the metaphor breaks down. Our concern at Solar CITIES is not to get people to abandon various form of energy storage -- we assume that light energy must be stored somehow to be useful, and it is as immaterial to us as it is to the urban poor what form of storage we use PROVIDED THAT THE LIBERATION OF THAT STORED ENERGY DURING USE DOES NO HARM TO ANYBODY OR ANYECOSYSTEM.

For another thing, electricity does not by itself constitute a medium in any way equivalent to the fuels that supposedly precede it in the energy ladder literature. Electricity is not a form of stored or potential energy, it is a carrier of kinetic energy. When people "switch" from biomass or fossil fuels to electricity they are not necessarily switching from anything at all -- the electricity provider could also be using the stored energy in biomass or fossil fuels in order to generate the electricity being shipped to the household.

When this is the case, using electricity to heat water in a household can do double environmental damage because its creation and transport involves huge losses in first and second order efficiencies and thus results in by products and residuals causing what we call "negative externalities." Those externalities have a cost associated with them, and when those costs are internalized (as they must some day be) then the price of the electricity will reflect those costs and could end up far more expensive than the original price of the fuel that stored the potential energy.

In Cairo, probably for these reasons (primarily the rising price of oil), the cost of electricity is going up quickly and sharply. Many of the urban poor are beginning to question the rationale behind purchasing and/or using electric appliances for utilities, such as heating water, for which substitute goods exist. Some of our colleagues, particularly those in the Zabaleen community who own pigs, are even arguing that it makes more sense to produce biogas in the community and either continue using the kitchen stove or buy a gas heater to take advantage of this. They all see that it would make more sense to burn the biogas directly to heat water than burn it in a combustion engine to drive a dynamo to generate electricity to heat a coil to then heat water.

It doesn't take a Ph.D. in physics or engineering to figure that one out!

So the energy ladder hypothesis is breaking apart in the inner city.

The question then remains -- why and when will the poor prefer electricity for heating water?

In my last blog entry I talked about the need for clean fuels in houses without ventilation. Electricity also offers the advantage of being "push button easy."

But is it suitable for households with income uncertainty? If it IS suitable as a method of heating water, in what way can we make the provision of electricity safer for the poor -- not just in terms of the danger of electrocution and fire-starting, but in terms of its rising costs of supply and the danger of service interruptions?

These are some questions that emerge from my study. At the bottom of this entry is some data to explore the questions. But first, a justification for using a blog to write a Ph.d. thesis that I have to get off my chest:

Blogging your Dissertation

I'm sure I am not the only graduate student who is using the blogging phenomenon to write his dissertation. It serves several purposes actually.

One is to overcome the anxiety of losing one's data due to a hard disk crash or to theft or destruction of one's computer. I have had these tragedies occur three times in my life -- as a Senior at Harvard my bag with my drive and disks and all my thesis materials was stolen from me down at Tommy's Bar and Grill by a punk in leather and chains. I was able to chase him down and -- the only time I've used the threat of violence against an assailant - force him to give me my bag back; at the bus stop on the way to the airport from the L.A. Eco-Village one early morning in 2003 I was mugged and beaten up at gun point by two drug addicts and had all my luggage stolen - including my laptop and my backup drives (kept in separate pieces of luggage "for safety") and had to painfully recreate my three Ph.D. field papers from scratch (it took me over a year and a half, delaying my advancement to candidacy); at UCLA last year my new laptop suddenly died without warning -- in this case, fortunately, I was able to remove the hard-disk and reload the contents on a new computer -- once I could afford one!

For parapatetic people like me, carrying my laptop around the world and into ghettos and slums, riding public transit and walking for hours in the hot sun on dangerous roads or climbing onto rooftops, the internet and the generous hosting services of folks like those at make it possible for me to save and store critical data, writings and images on a world-accessible computer so that, should I suffer such losses again, I can recover what I was working on from any internet connected computer in the world. That is key.

Another reason emerges from the first argument -- by working on my thesis on a globally networked computer server, I don't NEED to carry my expensive and vulnerable laptop and hard-drives around the world -- I can stop into an internet cafe and pick up where I left off.

But there is a more important social reason for writing one's dissertation "on-line" that has to do with collective intelligence. A nice justification can be found on page 28 of "Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart" wherein the Gigerenzer and Todd and the ABC Research Group state, "Indeterminate theories hinder scientific progress by resisting attempts to prove, disprove or improve them. In this book, we therefore propose computational models of heuristics, putting our theoretical cards on the table so that others can see them -- and even pick them up and play with them."

I love that: put your theoretical cards on the table so others can pick them up and play with them!

The nightmare of every "social welfare" motivated Ph.D. student is that his/her dissertation will end up "sitting on some shelf somewhere, unread, gathering dust". I cannot tell you how many times people have used that as an excuse to get me to hurry up and get my Ph.D. finished, thinking that it will somehow motivate me to know that nobody really gives a hoot what I say in my thesis. In fact the opposite occurs -- if the opportunity costs of what I am doing are not somehow offset by the utility my research will give to the world, then I lose all interest and hope. The idea that we should just "get the thing done" so we can "move on to the important things in life" belies the motivational foundations of the entire enterprise (I know Brown University's environmental science graduate student Andy Posner can sympathize!).

Doing a Ph.D. merely in order to get a degree so one can climb the social ladder is the poorest motivation for somebody involved in social welfare. And this is particularly true in a field like mine where the three letters behind your name do little or nothing to enhance your economic prospects.

In fact, students like me are motivated most by the idea that we might contribute a little something to our collective understanding of certain grave problems facing humanity, and that somehow, by getting those contributions out there, we might find some solutions.

So the blog, for students like me, is the perfect environment to write a Ph.D. -- particularly when we are so often abroad, and cut off from our professors and our fellow students, and completely out of touch with the energiziing discussions and debates that help hone theories and lead to scientific progress.

For that reason, I thank those of you who have been reading my arcane posts and leaving comments -- making me feel like I am in a virtual and democratic seminar which is, in my mind, the best possible use of this global medium -- and I invite any and all others reading this blog to contribute and challenge and cajole and question and share. You will definitely get credit in my acknowlegements in the actual paper tome that will be gathering dust in the UCLA library!

But most importantly, you are helping me, and our fellow stakeholders in the urban poor areas of Cairo, figure out how we can improve welfare for those who suffer from deprivation, and helping me get the professional degree that will help us gain the political clout we need to take our ideas for community-based participatory ideas for sustainable development to a higher policy level.

So with that justification, I now will continue to present in these blogs my preliminary data and unformed ideas on the use and demand for hot water services among the urban poor of Cairo, always keeping in mind that at some point we are all going to have to implement WATERGY (water and energy)solutions that do not harm our environment or rely on non-renewable resources.

So now, let us ask,

"Can income uncertainty predict the use of electric water heaters among the Cairo poor?"

The assumption is that people who do not have steady jobs are averse to using watergy solutions that lock them into a fixed payment schedule in general, and particularly averse to technologies whose monthly cost burdens have low predictability. If you don't know how much you are going to pull in each month, and you further don't know if your use of the technology is going to present you with a bill higher than you can pay, you will probably avoid that technology in favor of one that allows tighter cost control.

To investigate this question, our survey asked our respondents a simple binary question whose best translation into English is "is your work steady or interrupted", meaning, in our communities "do you have a steady job, or are you scavenging for work on a daily level".

Later in the survey we asked what kind of hot water heating systems the family uses.

The results are as follows:

As you can see, in the Zabaleen community, only 23 % of those with uncertain income used electric heaters, as opposed to 37% of those who held steady jobs. In Darb El Ahmar half the people who had uncertain income had electric heaters, as opposed to 61% of those who had steady jobs.

The ratio of people with uncertain income to those with steady jobs is 136/89 or 1.5 in the Zabaleen sample, as opposed to 127/104 or a ratio of 1.2 in Darb El Ahmar.


Marcel said...

To support your statements above, I am fairly certain that were you not blogging your dissertation, I would not read it — even if you mailed me the printed version, gold edged, hardbacked, glossy, in a box with a bow on it. (no offense meant). The fact is, I don't enjoy reading from paper, I have an exceedingly short attention span for such communication. Put it on screen, in chunks and I'm away.

Mind you, reading this stuff has meant me using my Mac dictionary service (Cmd, Ctrl, D) rather a lot, and indeed wider internet dictionaries for many of the mighty words you use!! :D

Keep going, I'll try to stay with you!


Fady Hanna said...

Hi T.H.

My name is Fady, a master's candidate at Faculty of Environmnetal Studies, York U. Toronto, Canada.

I would like to mention that I just find your amazing blog.. I would like to thank you so much for your moral endeavours to alleviate the poverty of poor people. I liked a lot your easy and rational way of introducing the topic in this article..

I am an Egyptian Canadian, and i just start writing my thesis about Al Darb al-Ahmar, thus, I wonder if you can you give me your e-mail so i can get in touch with you.. (


Andy said...

T.H. i also recommend you read 'The Wisdom of Crowds' by James Surowieki. I jsut read the audiobook version (because I am absolutely obsessed with audiobooks--I read then on my ipod while i walk, do dishes, exercise, contantly. . .it enables me to cram my brain with ideas and information all the time!) I too plan on writing my thesis online. In fact, I'm having a my personal site re-designed, and it's going to have a wiki built into it. Also, have you ever used google docs? It's absolutely amazing--and free. Create a google account, and then you can literally collaborate with anyone you choose to, in real time, on a word document, spreadsheet or presentation. We'll have to try it out. It's a great way to avoid having 50 versions of the same document, and to share ideas without sending constant emails.

Im still hoping to find some time to talk to you while you're in Germany about what we've both been up to!


Marcel said...

An interesting insight into solar water heating in China...