Saturday, July 26, 2008

It's the Distribution, Stupid!

Borrowing a variant on that famous line by Bill Clinton (as long ago as 1991!) I had a thought this morning.  Not a world shattering thought but one that was triggered by the lights going out.

Pointe Noire, Congo, is an oil town, a port that basically serves the oil industry.  As such it is a good place to live, having a strong French influence as well as a population that have a really pleasant attitude to work and life in general.  Things get done in Pointe Noire.

The lights went out this morning, as I mentioned.  Immediately the hotel's back up generator kicked in, sending a plume of black smoke into the air.  The lights went back on.  I realized that this was a relatively rare event now that the dry season is upon the area.  When it is wet the power trips off and on all the time.

Pointe Noire has a new 25 megawatt gas-fired power station, utilizing associated gas from one of the offshore oil fields.  Gas that otherwise would have no value and would have been flared or re-injected.  These signs of progress stop at the transmission lines, however, which clearly can't cope.

And this is surely symptomatic of one of the major problems in the world today.  Distribution.

The cost of distribution has never been considered that important.  And only now are we beginning to see the rumblings from those who control the distribution.  Petrol delivery drivers recently went on strike in the UK and it didn't take them long to get what they wanted (incidentally I think petrol tanker drivers should be paid a good wage - their job is an extremely responsible one).

We, the consumers, are also beginning to see that unnecessary transportation is wasteful so the concept of food miles has crept into the average grocery shopper's vocabulary.  Out of season fruit and vegetables may be next on the agenda.  Of course some of this is driven by pure economics which is as it should be (remember the Clinton quote!)

Investing in power plants always seems to hit the headlines.  Investing in the distribution system never does.  We've got something seriously out of kilter here.  Britain's railways, another form of distribution, has suffered from years of neglect and inferior investment.  Yet now we are being urged to "dump the pump" in favor of using public transportation.  The rhetoric is crap, I know, but so is the overall concept.  A sort of dumbing down of expectations simply because the investment was never made when it could have been.  All those years of "we've never had it so good" are history and there is too often so little to show for it.

Distribution.  We need to be thinking about more often, not just when the lights go out.