That’s Ingenious: Bottle light

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23536914

Alfredo Moser’s invention is lighting up the world. In 2002, the Brazilian mechanic had a light-bulb moment and came up with a way of illuminating his house during the day without electricity – using nothing more than plastic bottles filled with water and a tiny bit of bleach.

In the last two years his innovation has spread throughout the world. It is expected to be in one million homes by early next year.

So how does it work? Simple refraction of sunlight, explains Moser, as he fills an empty two-litre plastic bottle.

“Add two capfuls of bleach to protect the water so it doesn’t turn green [with algae]. The cleaner the bottle, the better,” he adds.

Wrapping his face in a cloth he makes a hole in a roof tile with a drill. Then, from the bottom upwards, he pushes the bottle into the newly-made hole.

“You fix the bottle in with polyester resin. Even when it rains, the roof never leaks – not one drop.”

What I find fascinating is that the bottle light came about as a result of Alfred (and his friends) pondering a somewhat different problem. Residential power blackouts were frequent in Brazil in 2002 – a consequence of government action, which we’ll discuss shortly – and so Alfred and his pals saw a need to take time to think about how, in an emergency situation that would require signalling to rescuers, such as a plane crash, they would do so without lighting of any kind or the tools to light a fire. One of Alfred’s friends suggested filling a bottle with water and using it as a lens to focus the sun’s rays on dry grass in order to start a fire. It was this idea that set Alfred thinking about and experimenting with the refraction of light in bottles filled with water, eventually recognising how they were better suited to redirecting light outwards, which had the useful effect of illuminating a wide area, rather than inwards onto a single point in order to generate heat.

Alfred Moser’s bottle light is a splendid example of how the innate human desire to solve problems, combined with scientific knowledge, experimentation and the innovative use of very limited resources, can lead to the creation of enormous value for millions of people – even when the aim of their efforts was something quite different.

As promised, let’s quickly look at why households were experiencing power blackouts in Brazil back in 2002.

Brazil is highly dependent on hydroelectricity, which meets over 80% of its electricity demand, and is a net importer of electricity. In the years leading up to 2001 the country had experienced a few that were drier than average. As a result of this and “several delays in the commissioning of new generation plants and transmission problems in the third circuit from the Itaipu hydropower plant accounted for a third of the energy deficit. Reservoir levels reached such low levels that supply could not be ensured for more than four months.”

In an attempt to solve a problem exacerbated by existing government regulation (i.e. the delayed commissioning of new plants) and government-ownership of infrastructure (i.e. the transmission assets) and to avoid resorting to rolling blackouts, the state implemented a compulsory quota scheme for electricity with the intention of reducing demand. Quotas were based on historical and target consumption levels. Consumers were fined for going over their quota and rewarded with a financial ‘bonus’ for using less than their quota, and large consumers could trade their quotas on a secondary market. Whilst the government quota scheme certainly did reduce demand for a while (by 20% in an eight-month period) it resulted in US$200 million of ‘bonuses’ being handed out by the government. How much of that or indeed if any of it was financed by the fines collected for overuse isn’t well documented. No doubt the largest consumers, those corporations with close relationships with politicians, would have wangled highly favourable quotas for themselves and made a tidy profit out of the whole debacle – at the direct expense of the masses.

Mr Moser, who lives in a city called Uberaba in southern Brazil, mentioned that frequently in 2002 “The only places that had energy were the factories – not people’s houses…” and so it seems blackouts did happen, even though the government’s quota system was supposed to prevent them. The problem of a power shortage was easily foreseeable not only because of the few years of drier than average weather, but also because demand had increased by 45% whilst supply had only increased by 28% between 1990 and 1999. That supply was falling well short of demand is no surprise given that the government in Brazil monopolises the provision of energy, with the private sector accounting for only 10% of power generation.

Brazil’s energy ‘market’ is far from free and barely a market at all.  There is no freedom and therefore no competition at all in supply of energy to residential users, with only a limited amount of competition in the supply to large users. The Brazilian government couldn’t create more energy to solve the problem that arose in 2001 and so instead it forcibly manipulated the distribution of the greater scarcity. Not only did it fail to solve the problem, but it also prevented the supply of electricity to all those willing to pay the market price for it.

As economist, Murray Rothbard, explained in his 1977 essay The Water ‘Shortage’:

“…on the free market, regardless of the stringency of supply, there is never any “shortage”, that is, there is never a condition where a purchaser cannot find supplies available at the market price. On the free market, there is always enough supply available to satisfy demand. The clearing mechanism is fluctuations in price.”

If the energy market in Brazil were free and competitive, then it’s unlikely supply and demand would have become so unequalised in the first place because a greater number of electricity suppliers using both hydroelectric plants and alternative resources, such as gas, oil, biomass etc, would have emerged to meet Brazil’s rising energy demand. As it is, the Brazilian government continues to be the biggest hurdle to escaping from poverty to the masses of Brazil.

I’ll end by noting an interesting observation by Sajid Iqbal, the founder of Change, which is a charity that operates in Bangladesh and distributes the bottle light to people in the slums of Dhaka whose livelihoods depend on having sufficient light. Unlike other charities it charges an amount roughly equivalent to 2-3kg of rice for each bottle light.

“If you give the light for nothing, people don’t maintain them … They don’t understand their value.”

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