Sun, Jan 14, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Clean air or TV: Where will Asia find more energy?

Too many polluting diesel generators are an energy staple in Asia


A toxic purple haze of diesel exhaust hangs over the rice and jute fields here in northeastern India, and bird songs are frequently drowned out by the chug-a-chug-a-chug of diesel generators.

Across the developing world, cheap diesel generators from China have become a favorite way to provide electricity.

They power everything from irrigation pumps to television sets, allowing growing numbers of rural villages in many poor countries to grow more crops and connect to the wider world.

But as the demand increases for the electricity that makes those advances possible, it is often being met through the dirtiest, most inefficient means, creating pollution in many remote areas that used to have pristine air and negligible emissions of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases.

"There has been a mushrooming of these decentralized diesel generators," said Ibrahim Rehman, a rural energy expert at the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.

While many generators are purchased initially to power irrigation pumps, they have also opened up a huge new market for television sets, which in turn creates demand for even more diesel generators.

"You either want clean air or television" in many villages, said Nandita Mongia, the chief of the UN Development Program's regional energy program for Asia and the Pacific.

In nearly all cases, television wins.

Rising prices for diesel fuel have improved the commercial potential of alternatives, but renewable energy sources have been in an often-losing race against smoke-spewing backyard diesel generators, and occasionally coal, to become the energy source of choice in outlying areas.

Renewable sources have made some inroads, including tiny hydroelectric dams for Himalayan streams, biomass generators for India and Southeast Asia, solar-powered lanterns for India and Africa and rooftop water tanks in southern China.

But demand for electricity has been growing even more swiftly across the developing world, particularly in China and India.

When night falls here in Baharbari and countless stars blaze from an inky sky virtually uncontaminated by outdoor lighting, many of the thatch huts glow softly with the violet light of television screens, and occasionally a small bulb providing reading light for a child.

Three years ago, practically no one had a television set in this isolated community tucked between Nepal and Bangladesh. It is an area so remote and roadless that the only access is on foot or by bullock cart, after monsoon rains turn dirt paths into bogs that become impassable even for farm tractors.

Even so, half of the 1,000 households have TV, paying about US$0.40 every few days to the owner of a diesel generator to recharge the batteries that power the sets. Ranvir Kumar Mandel, a slender 22-year-old, has built a bamboo hut here just to serve as a television repair shop.

"Before, there was no market," he said, sitting near a pile of mostly black-and-white sets to be fixed.

Lavish government subsidies for diesel, kerosene and other fossil fuels have held down prices in many developing countries and made it harder to introduce renewable energy technologies.

While entrepreneurs and organized crime syndicates frequently raise the subsidized price of kerosene and pocket the profits, it remains very cheap and is frequently mixed with diesel to reduce the cost of running generators. The mixture shortens the life of the generator, however, and can make pollution even worse.

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