Cheap > good: renewable energy and the developing world

A chap from MIT called Daniel Nocero has been making a bit of a splash with a report on his recent development of a new catalyst for electrolysing hydrogen from water. While the catalyst itself is pretty big news, it turns out that Nocero’s research is geared toward a much larger vision – namely changing the way the global energy economy works.

Nocera pointed out that most of the work in providing carbon-neutral energy has focused on increasing efficiencies of existing technology and creating economies of scale, both of which will ultimately reduce the cost of electricity produced in the developed world. The problem has been that this has kept the price of the hardware expensive. As a result, the solutions we’re arriving at won’t make sense for the developing world. “We need to tackle the non-legacy world, and they don’t have any money,” Nocera said.


Hydrogen production isn’t generally considered a solution, because each step of the process involves energy losses and inefficiencies. But again, Nocera doesn’t care: if it’s cheap, the inefficiencies don’t matter, because higher-priced solutions are simply never going to be deployed.

There’s a strong general point here – namely that chasing after new and ever-more ingenious methods of generating clean energy is kind of self-defeating. We already have solutions that work – and while their efficiency curves may not appeal to the sensibilities of scientists and engineers, their ability to get the job done should be all the reason we need to roll them put to the places that need them most. We in the West can afford to wait for efficiency; the world’s poorest people cannot.

2 thoughts on “Cheap > good: renewable energy and the developing world”

  1. Agreed. I read about Nocero’s work with interest, but at the same time, I’ve long taken the view that many of the calls for “more research” (especially regarding cost-effectiveness using accounting methods overlooking the subsidies and externalitzations keeping fossil fuels “cheap”) is often a way of ducking that fact.

  2. I am continually amazed at the level of local innovation that is coming out of Africa. People there are figuring out ways to solve their own problems that are eminently affordable and available. Take a look at

    Small scale energy solutions are popping up there like mushrooms – ways of charging cell phones from bicycles, used batteries, cars and trucks; home wind turbines; keyhole gardens…. Some of these solutions are readily adaptable to the “developed world” as well.

    Daniel Nocera’s work is very interesting but probably years away from the market. His vision sounds very like the vision that Edison and Ford tried to market in 1914, autonomous energy for the home and vehicles. It’s a pretty vision but I ain’t gonna hold my breath.

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