Who Needs Infrastructure? (II)

Commenters on the earlier post having raised several good points, I decided to write a follow-up rather than attempt to provide individual responses.

I should first say something general about technological advance and prediction horizons. Due to the immense effects of nanomachinery, as hazardous as near-future speculation may be, it becomes extraordinarily difficult more than about 20 years out. What interests me in this context is what can be done with “bulk technology” before the transition to nanotech, and how many of the developments forecast by Drexler et al may occur relatively gradually and in unlikely places, rather than swiftly and obviously emanating from North America or some other high-technology region. Jim notes the potential of the combination of desktop fabricators and satellite links. I believe that few people on Earth will see more change in the next generation than young Haitians.

On solar energy and stored energy, I write with some trepidation, knowing that several Chicago Boyz have considerable knowledge of these issues.
Not enough trepidation, however, to refrain entirely. Coincidentally, the ratio, ≈40:1, of per capita GDP in the US to that of Haiti closely resembles the HTG–USD exchange rate. This provides a handy way of imagining your circumstances as a typical Haitian: just think of how you would live if you were being paid, and whatever you owned was worth, the same number of gourdes as you now get/own in dollars.
At that rate (literally), much-touted installed photovoltaic systems at $≈1 W-1 are G≈40 W-1 and need to drop by over 1½ orders of magnitude to become analogously affordable to Haitians. A best-case Moore’s Law-type relationship would halve the price every 18 months and get us there in 8 years; a pessimistic halving only every 5 years gets us there in 27 years. The geometric mean of the two cases is less than 15 years, allowing me to blithely predict ubiquitous household-based solar power units throughout Haiti in the mid-2020s.
Thermal energy would indeed be abundant at least 8 hours a day year-round. Stirling-cycle engines seem like an obvious possibility, and used as heat pumps would be good for air conditioning, which is available only to the very wealthiest Haitians now.
Energy-storage systems already exist in every substantial Haitian building; they’re just kludgy – racks of car batteries and inverters. In a spectacularly useless attempt at rationing, the electric utility in Petit-Goâve routes power to the central business district (such as it is) during the day, then switches it over to more residential areas at night. There is absolutely no net gain from this, because everybody draws twice as much power as they ordinarily would while the electricity’s on in order to charge up their batteries for the 12 hours out of 24 when it’s off. Most buildings also have generators, mostly small gasoline engines, with a few larger diesel units. I don’t know what the main power plant uses; I’m guessing natural gas simply because I saw no sign of a coal-fired plant anywhere.
Anyway, again I see this as a matter of incremental improvements rather than a single big breakthrough. A reasonable assumption is that price:performance of power-storage mechanisms will halve every few years and at least keep pace with affordability of solar power.

The Maine island house that Tatyana linked to indeed addresses many of these challenges. Replicating it in Haiti would be simultaneously made much easier by the labor rates ($≈1.50 day-1 for the most basic tasks) and much harder by the unavailability of lumber; nearly all permanent construction in Haiti is done with concrete. It would be a fascinating exercise to get some Yankee-workshop types together with Haitians and see what they could come up with.

A proper response to Randall’s insights deserves its own post, but I’ll try to fit it in here anyway.

The internet backbone in Haiti consists of microwave links east over the mountains into the Dominican Republic, where it eventually hits undersea fiber. Rumor has it that there is a fiber-optic cable running into Baie de Port-au-Prince, and that the earthquake knocked it out of service. Rumor has many things in Haiti. I saw satellite dishes and antennas everywhere, most of them nonfunctioning. Even conducting a comprehensive inventory of technological assets in that country would be a huge accomplishment.
There are, however, such things as gigabit radio links (“E-band”), which could provide high weather availability (99.9%) over distances of a few kilometers even in the rainy Haitian environment. The combination of nearby mountains and high population density could actually make this more economical than in many places in the US. Free-space optics using lasers and photodiodes may be a more distant possibility.
I do not for a moment mean to imply that Haiti is, as of 2011, anything other than Ballardian in its dysfunctionality, and not only as regards electric power. Ubiquitous purified water and insect control alone (a simple matter of screened windows and indoor spraying of DDT) would probably add close to a decade to life expectancy. A cultural fear of going on the water results in a fishing industry much smaller than would be expected, with associated absence of an excellent source of nutrition in most people’s diets. Trap a few thousand Americans in a place like Carrefour and in a matter of hours they would be organizing themselves into work brigades to build sanitation systems, with their bare hands if necessary.
Nor did I necessarily mean to extol the virtues of somehow living apart from society; I cordially detest survivalist fantasies and would direct anyone enamored of “self-sufficiency” to its well-deserved evisceration in The Rational Optimist. In any case, living in splendid isolation is not something that very many people will ever do in a country whose population density already exceeds 300 km-2 (≈ Massachusetts), one full order of magnitude higher than that of a typical US state.
But whatever their material conditions and cultural idiosyncracies (customer service is atrocious), Haitians seem as individually technophilic as Americans. It is that tendency, combined with technological cost curves, that is certain to bring drastic but unequal and frequently (by Western standards) bizarre change to Haitian lifestyles in the near future. William Gibson has notoriously written that “the future is here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” That distribution in Haiti may be characterized by someone living in a tent, next door to their intact house which they have nonetheless been afraid to set foot in for fifteen months since the earthquake, regularly visiting a cyber café … to use a computer with a QWERTY keyboard and English-language OS and applications in a country whose official languages are French and Kreyòl. The strangeness has only begun.

7 thoughts on “Who Needs Infrastructure? (II)”

  1. Just out of curiosity, not really trying to change the subject from self-sufficiency and distributed power… but what sort of potential does Haiti have for wave power?

  2. A while back I ran across an article about these guys:

    http://www.carnegiecorp.com.au/, who have a wave power generation scheme that can be used to either generate power or generate high pressure water that can be used to operate a reverse osmosis plant.

    I don’t know if their idea works, or if it would be useful to you if it does.

  3. We build communal infrastructure because it is cheaper to have large scale infrastructure than to build out small scale equivalents for each household. The only reason not to do this is because of fear of theft, first by the politicians of the large pots of money that have to be assembled prior to construction, secondly by copper and other infrastructure thieves, and thirdly by the politicians again of the maintenance monies.

    Individual infrastructure is possible. It is also expensive and a contributor to continuing poverty at large.

  4. I suspect the choice of wood in case of that house in Maine was dictated by its availability and low cost precisely for local conditions. Same principle – choosing what’s available locally and is very inexpensive – could be applied to Haiti; if concrete is the material of choice, than be it. Means of its treatment (ventilation, insulation, moisture protection, etc) will be adjusted, that’s all.
    Hurricanes in Haiti are not random events; the geoclimatic conditions guarantee that hurricanes will occur periodically. So I think it makes sense not to rely on infrastructure for supplying utilities/water to population, but adopt an autonomic schemes: if/when centralized infrastructure is disrupted (as it inevitably will there), large number of customers are not affected.

  5. Wood construction is an aberration confined mainly to the United States and Canada. Elsewhere the norm is masonry, nowadays almost always concrete. In most of Central and South America there is a thriving industry in production of bad brick and block, which is cheap compared to most masonry because it has almost no structural integrity. Buildings up to ten stories, usually lower, are constructed using a masonry version of “half timbering”, in which vertical posts and horizontal beams are made of steel-reinforced concrete; the voids are filled with bad brick and plastered over to make a weather-resistant wall. Floors are sheets of steel-reinforced concrete, and quite thin to American eyes. A small construction contractor’s entire inventory of wood will be tied up in reusable forms; larger ones will have those, plus steel forms for larger projects.

    As with anything, this has economic side effects. Masonry is energy-intensive; it’s difficult to see how a brick kiln or a cement oven could be run on solar panels or any other cottage-scale distributed-energy system. Coal “clinker”, a byproduct of burning coal (especially in high-efficiency central power plants), is a valuable addition to the raw material stream for concrete, and if it isn’t available concrete will be more expensive. It’s also heavy, and without a road infrastructure is difficult and expensive to transport to the job site.

    It’s odd to think of American and Canadian housing being solar-powered, but trees use solar energy to produce the wood for construction. Masonry requires generated power.


  6. Given the willpower and money on our part, the Haitian’s lack of lumber would seem easily fixed. Between beetle-killed trees in the Rockies, houses built on spec for buyers that never came and a lumber industry geared to cater to the builders of same, there would seem to be an abundance of timber we can send down there.

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