Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thankful for the Light

This is the United States in the 1930s:

Although nearly 90 percent of urban dwellers had electricity by the 1930s, only ten percent of rural dwellers did. Private utility companies, who supplied electric power to most of the nation's consumers, argued that it was too expensive to string electric lines to isolated rural farmsteads. Anyway, they said, most farmers, were too poor to be able to afford electricity.

The Roosevelt Administration believed that if private enterprise could not supply electric power to the people, then it was the duty of the government to do so. Most of the court cases involving TVA during the 1930s concerned the government's involvement in the public utilities industry.

The piece on the Rural Electric Administration goes on to explain the battles that ensued, with utilities and members of Congress concerned that the government’s plan interfered overmuch with the free market.

But:

By 1939 the REA had helped to establish 417 rural electric cooperatives, which served 288,000 households. The actions of the REA encouraged private utilities to electrify the countryside as well. By 1939 rural households with electricity had risen to 25 percent.

And of course much higher since then.

Let’s look at India in the 21st century.

“Electrification was central to how early nationalists and planners conceptualized Indian development, and huge sums were spent on the project from independence [in 1947] until now,” says Sunila S. Kale, assistant professor of international studies. “Yet despite all this, nearly 400 million Indians have no access to electricity. Although India has less than a fifth of the world’s population, it has close to 40 percent of the world’s population without access to electricity.”

This is from 2013 – I’ve noticed that counting those without electricity can be rather inexact. The following article from MIT Technology Review (from this year) sets it as “at least 300 million.” Place either number against the population of the United States and its immensity becomes clear.

Since he took power in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made universal access to electricity a key part of his administration’s ambitions. At the same time, he has pledged to help lead international efforts to limit climate change. Among other plans, he has promised to increase India’s renewable-energy capacity to 175 gigawatts, including 100 gigawatts of solar, by 2022. (That’s about the total power generation capacity of Germany.) And therein lies India’s energy dilemma.

A little more:

Already the world’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, India is attempting to do something no nation has ever done: build a modern industrialized economy, and bring light and power to its entire population, without dramatically increasing carbon emissions.

“Bring light and power to its entire population.” That sounds familiar. Different timetable, same goal - with the additional challenge, not faced by the REA, of keeping carbon emissions low. (Hydro power was a big part of U.S. rural electrification.)

Here’s the current plan:

Fifty-seven gigawatts of the planned new capacity is supposed to come in the form of utility-scale solar, including so-called “ultra mega” projects, ranging in size from 500 megawatts up to 10 gigawatts. … (In 2012, when Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, he presided over the launch of the world’s largest solar installation: a group of plants totaling nearly one gigawatt combined.) Another 75 gigawatts of wind capacity is also planned.

And, relevantly:

Together, these additions would boost India’s renewable capacity from around 10 percent of the total to as much as 32 percent. At the same time, the government plans a program of building nuclear plants that would roughly triple capacity by 2024 and supply one-quarter of the country’s electricity needs by 2050. India also aims to further capitalize on its abundant potential for water power, particularly in the far northeastern states, where rivers tumble off the Himalayan plateau.

That’s impressive and, with the push to renewable energy sources, it has the potential to speed the country’s goal of universal electrification, further industrialization, and lower carbon dioxide emissions.

So, yes, the nuclear energy industry could point at these developments and say, We’re thankful that the atom has played and will play such a significant role in India’s progress. And that would be justified. Really, though, that misses the point. The important part is that this will bring “light and power” to an entire population. Progress, it’s fair to say, doesn’t happen – in the United States, India or anywhere else - without electricity. That’s something to be thankful for. Thankful for the light.

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Baby_turkey_in_FLNEI Nuclear Notes wishes all its friends a happy, healthy, luminant Thanksgiving. May  good company and beautifully prepared food bring light, love and a certain drowsiness to all.

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