Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Right to Steal Electricity

Photo Source: Flickr/Matthew L Stevens
Note: I wrote this post for the BERC Blog last December.

“If Einstein saw this, he would roll in his grave!” exclaimed my friend.

It was only yesterday that my friends and I were buying samosas at a Berkeley restaurant, where hanging on the wall was a photo of a typical electric pole in a typical small alleyway in a typical old section of Delhi. Like the tangled hair of an electrified hairbrush, black lines meshed and shot out from the top of the wiry mess, winding from the pole through windows and across streets to electrify homes, shops and factories.

These wire entanglements are a product of people for years eyeing the fruit of energy on these poles and throwing up lines and connecting to some of that electric juice; in effect, stealing power in plain sight. I have seen this in urban areas across India and my initial misguided reaction is to think that the government simply needs to cut down the extra wires, put in meters and make everyone pay. Ah, if only the world worked so simply.

Soutik Biswas of the BBC, recently reviewed the film, “Katiyabaaz (Powerless),” showing how such simplistic plans can get you reassigned. First of all, I have not actually identified the problem. What is the problem here? Stolen electricity? That’s just a symptom. What the film seems to confirm is that people need power, and once they get it for free they do not want it for not free.

This reminds me of attitudes toward water. Instead of extracting water, making it potable, and distributing it; coal or oil is extracted, made into electricity and distributed. It is as if people eye electric poles as one would a community well or drinking fountain. It’s there and it’s ours to use.

I remember one hot day, sitting with a man while he sold ice cream from a cart on the street. Up to that point, I had assumed that these carts bought ice to keep their goods frozen. I had worked with kulfi (ice cream) sellers in a slum that used no electricity—only salt and procured ice—to make and sell their frozen dessert. However that day, the man explained that the cart was itself a freezer and just needed to be plugged in all night. And what if there was no power all night? Then, a lot of melted ice cream and no money for the day.

In India, there is an incredible amount of adaptation around unreliable electricity. In the past, I have set up a battery back up in my house in order to make sure I have a fan running all night and have experienced 24 hours without electricity still being expected to take exams in 110°F weather. However, ice cream vendors and cottage industries cannot afford generators to back up their systems. In these conditions, if you knew that power was only a wire throw away, wouldn’t you tap into it?

With UN’s Ban Ki Moon aiming for sustainable energy for all, like water, energy is becoming more and more like a fundamental human right. However, water and energy—to be sure—are not the same things.

But then again, I suspect Einstein might have something to say about this.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The softer side of hydro

Note: This was my first post on The Berkeley Blog (cross-post from the BERC Blog).

Natel Energy
What I understand so far is that we are about to visit a company that develops renewable-energy technology. On the way to an old Navy air station in Alameda, I ask my fellow passengers, “So, what do these guys do, again?” Someone mentions wind; I have assumed solar, but I am a bit taken aback when I enter the presentation room.

I am on a group tour at Natel Energy with ERG’s Energy and Society course. The person at the front asks us to share what we are interested in. People mention energy, engineering and policy. Feeling a bit like an outsider in the room, I am telling her, “I work with water and development…” when I glance up at the slideshow presentation, which says “EcoSmartHydro™.” I do a double take, thinking “Hydro? That’s got to mean something else.” But as I stare at the screen, I continue, “… and, I guess I’m interested in hydro?”

I am surprised because the popular image of renewables is the archetypal wind farm or solar panel. I believe that hydro seems to get marginalized due to controversies surrounding its ecological and social impacts, but more on that later.

Natel project in Arizona (Source: Natel Energy)
The person at the front is Gia Schneider, CEO of Natel Energy. The company’s strategy relies on the development of cost-effective low head hydropower technology. While large dams can rise anywhere from a hundred to almost a thousand feet in height, “low head” here refers to drops of thirty feet or less. What intrigues me about the system is that instead of installing turbines directly into rivers, they retrofit them into canals, taking advantage of pre-existing water infrastructure. Natel claims that California’s irrigation canals have a hydropower potential of 255 megawatts (MW).

The question in my mind is then: “What about the context of developing countries?” Schneider mentions Chile where Natel claims they have 1,000-MW hydropower potential through existing irrigation infrastructure.

My experience has been in India where earlier this year I had visited a canal, part of the Indira Gandhi system in the Thar Desert. I happened to be at a point in the canal where the opposite of hydropower was occurring: Water was being pumped higher in order for it to flow downward. You could potentially call this hydro-consumption.

Today, India still has about 84,000 MW of general economically exploitable hydropower potential, however I am not sure if this number includes potential low head hydropower within their existing water infrastructure. At present, Natel’s projects reach up to 0.5 MW in Oregon, however Schneider emphasizes the accumulative effect of low head hydropower across an entire water system.

This echoes the “soft path” strategy popularized by Amory Lovins. For Lovins, even renewables, such as solar and hydro, could veer a nation toward an unsustainable and socially discriminatory future if they are incorporated into large, complex development projects. Large hydro development (hydel) projects do end up displacing already marginalized communities while fostering energy elitism due to the operation of complex technology and centralized energy distribution.

What Natel and small hydro in general offer is somewhat simple technology used within existing infrastructure at a local level—homegrown energy or the softer side of hydropower.

This is not to say at all that this will work in India at a national scale — let alone in the utterly dry Thar Desert. However, as India negotiates huge hydro deals with Bhutan and Nepal and environmentalists blame hydel projects for “man-made disasters” in the Himalayas and as these large projects take at least 4 to 5 years if not longer for approval, these smaller local projects may in the meantime be able to light up a few unconnected villages—putting some power into local hands.

Cross-post from the BERC Blog and The Berkeley Blog.

Monday, November 4, 2013

When we drink the devil's water

(Source: Flickr/len4its)
In the context of groundwater, she started by reading this Australian folk song from the turn of the century:
Sinking down, deeper down,
Oh, we’ll sink it deeper down.
As the drill is plugging downward at a thousand feet of level
If the Lord won’t send us water, oh, well, we’ll get it from the devil
Yes we’ll get it from the devil deeper down.
(Banjo Paterson, 1896)
At the Philomathia Forum last Friday, Sally Thompson, Assistant Professor of UC Berkeley’s Environmental Engineering program, presented on the Arkvathy River in South India, whose flow has declined since the 1970s and has now run dry in many areas; similar to the Colorado. In places where depths used to be over people heads, they can stand in what basically is now a dry field even during the rainy season.

Where has this water gone? Thompson explores the basic explanations: Has the rainfall changed? Has evaporation increased? What about channel encroachment?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A negative museum experience

I went to the Monterrey Aquarium last weekend with my family. Just wanted to express my experience there... negatively.

Whale... cafe

Monday, October 7, 2013

Redford film puts water back into river

Note: I have started writing for the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC) Blog. Below is my first post there.

“Where do you think your water comes from? When you drink water from a water fountain here in Berkeley, what river are you drinking?” I attended a water talk recently and the speaker already knew that we wouldn’t have a clue about the answer. Where does our water come from? 

When I lived in India, I usually knew where my water came from—either I pumped it straight from the ground right by the house or it came from the river a few blocks away. I could see the water source. I had a connection with it. I swam in it. When I pumped it either by hand or machine, I controlled its extraction. However, most of us in Berkeley don’t have that experience. Water comes to us by the press of a button, the turn of a knob or by intermittent infrared sensors in restroom faucets which shoot water at us from hundreds of miles away.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Green, the film: Wood, paper, palm, orangutans and why I'll keep buying

This is a film where everything dies but us. I just watched the short 40-minute film, "Green." My first gut-level reaction? Oh my God.

Green the film
There was a point in the film where I said out loud, "Oh my God." The camera zooms out to acres and acres of palm fields. Though green and lush, you understand through the excellent editing of the film that "green" does not always mean "good."

Unlike many short environmental films, "Green" has no narration, but it does posses a strong story line sustained by the life of orangutans. It's funny how last blog post I had mentioned that I had—tongue-in-cheek—missed Orangutan Day. Now, I'm not so sure if it should have been a joke.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Grad students don't know anything, really

I'm starting grad school next week and I've been thinking—despite all of my past education and experience—I feel like I don't know anything. Really.

Study of the environment is so vast and nebulous that though for years I've been absorbing green streams of knowledge I still can end up in an ocean of question marks. Like, did I know that yesterday was "Earth Overshoot Day" and that earlier this week I missed Orangutan Day? No. Okay, maybe these holidays are a bit obscure and I'm overreacting.

Dang it! Missed Orangutan Day again. I'm worthless! (Photo: Flickr/guppiecat)

In any case, going to grad school, you have a sense that you're special. You're put on an academic pedestal, because you're the next Rachel Carson, David Suzuki or Henry Thoreau. But, I don't feel like Thoreau.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Cows and your happiness will save the world

You know what? There is a lot of environmental clamor. Can you hear me? I said, "A LOT OF ENVIRONMENTAL CLAMOR!"

Food, Food, Food: Happy World Environment Day

The hoopla (really? hoopla?) of World Environment Day is still stirring from last week, and--let's face it--there seems to be so much environmental information, advice, NOISE around here that it's getting a bit confusing. Ever since Rachel Carson wrote that book of hers, white people have been worried about the environment. That's what people say anyway. And when white people get worried, the blogosphere goes crazy and everyone has something to say and a new way to say it.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Biodiversity goes Bollywood

For your information, "biodiversity" in Hindi is jaiv vividhataa. And... don't ask me to say that again. It's somewhat nerve-racking to pronounce it in front of a class of kids.

So how did I avoid saying "biodiversity" while teaching about biodiversity in class yesterday?

Easy. I used Bollywood.

[Cue the dancing pink flamingos.]

But seriously... I've been helping at Asha Deep School here in India for the past couple months and I finally got to teach the kids about the environment... in Hindi.

Sadly, there is a dearth of resources in Hindi about the environment. This is why projects such as Dhara are so important. Resources appropriate for kids are even more difficult to find. The Government of India does make a good effort through the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and programs like Paryavaran Mitra, however kids' resources need constant updating. As young people become more and more fast-paced, even the slum kids that go to our school need things to be new and exciting.

This is why I was amazed when I found two recent animation projects that put a Bollywood twist on biodiversity.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Boston Terrorism, Development and the Earth (Day)

Today is Earth Day and, surprisingly, I'm not so much thinking of climate change nor biodiversity nor water, but these days my thoughts have been on terrorism. Since the bombings in Boston, the insecurities of 9/11 have come to the national forefront.

So what does terrorism have to do with Earth Day? I'll get to that.

Aftermath of the 2013 Boston marathon bombing (Source: A. Tang)
Interestingly, I'm not even in "the nation" (a.k.a. USA) at the moment, but actually I'm in India where there have been three bomb blasts since January, making a rate of almost one act of terror every month. In India in 2013 alone, 23 people have died and 145 people have been injured due to bomb blasts... and it is only April folks. In fact, of the 45 odd bomb blasts that have occurred since the year 2000, arrests or verdicts have been made in only five cases.


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