A Parable of Power

Originally posted May 2009, given today’s news about Venezuela’s electricity woes, it seems appropriate to repost. I predict sales of diesel generators to do up exponentially across Venezuela on the heels of this news.

A farmer in western Venezuela is tired of his intermittent electric power. For several hours every day he is without electricity. Why? Primarily because Venezuela’s government controlled electrical system is inadequate to the growing population. They have large hydro electric dams in the eastern part of the country, closer to Caracas, to the major population center of the country. But that power must travel across the country on an unreliable grid to get to the farmer’s property in the mountains above San Cristobal in the west. So, for several hours each day, the farmer is without power.

This is more than just annoying for the farmer. Because he has no centralized source for water, he relies on a local well for his water with a pump. When there’s no electricity, there’s no water either. If there’s not water, he can’t water the tender plants in his subsistence garden when the rains don’t come at the right time. He also can’t get water for bathing and cooking.

So what should this farmer do?

Well, first, he built some additional tanks to store water so that during these outages, he can water his plants, cook his food, and keep himself and his family clean. But still, this lack of power holds the farmer back. Unreliable power is a key contributor to his community’s inability to grow and develop. They cannot count on electricity to light their homes, heat their water, run their computers.

So what should this farmer do?

He decided to put in something to generate electricity whenever the government provided system failed. What should he install?

A solar array? He lives in an equatorial region high in the mountains, a solar array would certainly provide significant power, but only during daylight hours and not at peak efficiency when it rains (a frequent occurrence in this region). To install a solar array means that he must also install a complex battery storage system and inverters. He is not a technical person, this is more than he can manage.

A wind turbine? The wind blows down the valley to his home pretty steadily, but again, there is an inconsistency to deal with. Perhaps it would still suffice, at least most of the time, the wind blows sufficently.

A nuclear plant? Geo-thermal facility? Both require far more resources than the farmer has at his disposal, even his little community could not band together to build such complex facility. The Venezuelan government is giving serious consideration to a nuclear plant, but the time is years away.

So what DID the farmer do?

He installed a gas-powered generator. Why? Because the Venezuelan government subsidizes gasoline to where it costs about 5 cents/gallon. A generator is easily started when it is needed and can be run only when it is needed. It is a relatively simple mechanical system that the farmer and his community can maintain without a degree in engineering. At 5 cents/ gallon, fuel is relatively inexpensive compared to his income, so the operating costs as well as the initial installation costs are low.

So what is the lesson from this parable?

Ultimately, all of the “green options” failed for this farmer. Instead, he chose a technology that provided him with the needed power, in a way he could understand and manage. We, in the developed countries, sit in our heated and air-conditioned homes, with our computers, microwaves, and refrigerators and argue the relative merits of the low-carbon options that are available to us.

How do we change this conversation?

Added 5/5/09  This is not just a parable, but a true story, not something made up by me to provoke discussion. I personally know the farmer involved in making this decision. Some facts have been altered to preserve his anonymity.