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Alternative Energy: A Bridge Too Far?

Below is a contraption powered by an old Ford engine pumping irrigation water from the Eurphrates.   Doing the job for 70+ years.

 old engine

I knew about it & promised myself that I would avoid the trap, but I still fell into it.   In some ways it is the flip side of the confidence and sense of purpose I needed to do the job here.  When you have the power to spend the government's money and the broadly defined duty to help rebuild or even just build a whole region it is easy to use the discretion you have to do what you think it right - and be sure you are right.

Alternative energy has been an interest of mine since I was in high school more than thirty years ago  I really do believe that we have to transition into cleaner non-carbon-based energy sources, such as solar, wind and nuclear.  When I got to Iraq, I made alternative energy sources a preference.  I always asked if we could use solar or wind.  I was not alone in this.  I think many of us were beguiled by this possibility.   CERP money was spent on solar street lights.  We put extra money into QRF for alternatives.  I think we all felt good about it.  The people back home think it is great, so we get confirmation all around.   We feel virtuous.

But such things are not always appropriate everyplace.  I have begun to notice complaints when I do my foot patrols.  People look with a jaundiced eye on our solar street lights.  They would prefer electricity nearer their homes.   They often know the price of each light.  And the lights are not attractive.  Beyond that, the rapidly developing technologies will probably make them obsolete too soon.  I still believe in alternative energy, but I think we made a mistake in pushing it.  It was the trap of arrogance and the trap of applying my own cultural preferences and prejudices to the problems of people with different priorities and needs.

I am sure that I could make a very logical argument for alternative energy in Western Iraq.   I could win a debate on that position.  I am good with words.  But it just isn't the best solution in this here and now place.   The time is not ripe.   There are practical problems.

We have problems with dust, for example.  We get plenty of sun in Anbar and even more dust.  Dust settles on everything, including solar panels where it tends to stay in the absence of rain to wash it off.   The Anbaris have very little in terms of a maintenance culture.  It is one of the things we are trying to help them with, but they are not there yet.  Solar power is dispersed and decentralized.   It presents a particular maintenance challenge that I don’t think we/they can properly meet, at least in the near term.

The lesson I have learned, or should I say relearned, is that you cannot always get what you want - even if you are convinced it is right.  And having the power of the government to back you up exacerbates the mistakes you can make.   I guess the old saying goes, "To err is human, but to really screw up you need government support."   Fortunately, I don't think it is that bad.  We never pushed this program to the exclusion of everything else.  It was always in the nature of an experiment.   It was maybe even a good idea.   We have some success.  I - we - just got a little too enthusiastic about it and I am a little embarrassed.  Lesson learned - again.

I still think the alternatives are the way of the future.  When I build a new house, I will install solar and use the site to advantage, but I can do that because I have already satisfied other needs.   In many other situations, we will still need to rely on the “old oily energy” as a bridge us to the new.   We will get there faster if we recognize reality.

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"The Ugly American" is a book a lot of people talk about, but few seem to have read.

People who have read and understand the book know that one of the "good guys" in the book is the one who goes overseas, works directly with people in the field, and pushes indigenous, appropriate technology. But he and his wife are physically unattractive middle-agers, the "Ugly Americans".

As I've worked overseas, the book has actually been pretty helpful at times. For one, the military and state department types characterized in the story turned out to be far more common than I would have liked.

What I have always hated is when somebody starts lecturing me not to be an "Ugly American". When I ask why, they invariably cite Burdick and Lederer's book, without having seemed to have really read it themselves.

What I get out of reading your blog is that you're trying your best to be an Ugy American out there in the bush, and I salute you for this. If more diplomats in tough places were Ugly Americans, we might be a little farther along.

Thanks. I don't know if I like the ugly part, but thanks.

How about mounting a windmill (or something more like an anemometer) next to the solar cells, with strips of soft cloth which would brush the dust off as the blades (or cups) go round. No gears needed, just a couple of nylon or PTFE bearings. A bike repair shop could knock up a prototype.

I can think of lots of things, but at this time and place, an ordinary petrol fired machine is probably best. A man's gotta recognize his (and their) limitations.

Hey, John. I was perusing your blog and caught this piece from August...made me chuckle just a bit remembering some of our discussions about alternative energy projects and the downstream maintenance gap. :-)

Good luck to you back stateside, it was a great pleasure working with you.

Aloha and Mahalo Nui Loa,
thanks. A man has gotten know his limitatiions.

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