Sustainable Energy in the Developing World

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Back in June I was in Kenya to learn about the business challenges they faced there–especially after all the post-election violence. It was a very eye-opening trip in many ways; I had the opportunity to meet everyone from the most notable dignitaries and business leaders to the poorest slum residents. Each of the meetings was very interesting, although I didn’t find the one with the executive director of Climate Network Africa to be very productive. She was full of climate change blame for the US/Europe, didn’t offer any constructive solutions, and demanded reparations for the damage that would surely come to the African environment. I found this unproductive for several reasons.

First, her supporting data were misleading. She drew facts and figures from several years ago, when the US and Europe were way ahead of everyone in carbon emissions. Don’t get me wrong; the US and Europe are still way ahead, but the gap is closing a little and the trends, which show developing nations like China overtaking them in the future, reveal that the problem must be addressed globally, not just in a few countries. She also used exclusively per capita carbon emissions statistics, which are irrelevant. The environment doesn’t care how many people are producing the emissions; it just cares that they are being produced! By her logic, the US could become a better global citizen just by increasing its fertility rate instead of reducing its emissions!

Second, she was all problem and no solution. Yes, we all know that the industrialized countries have been the greatest emitters, but it is unproductive to rehash this over and over and over again. Yes, we screwed up. No, we didn’t know the consequences industrialization would have until relatively recently but yes, we accept responsibility for it. Now let’s stop playing the blame game and all work together to find a solution!

Finally, her antagonistic “The West is evil” presentation isn’t likely to motivate any action. A large organization exhibits a collective subconscious that behaves in a very irrational, human way. Attacking developed countries is likely to induce defensiveness, not action. A collaborative approach would be much more constructive.

Her presentation did motivate me, however, to think about a topic I often ponder: what IS the solution? Specifically, she motivated me to think about it in an African context. Africa has huge, open spaces with significant sun exposure so one idea might be to develop solar and wind farms there. In addition to generating renewable energy, this would create jobs on a continent that has major population growth and poverty. In fact, Africa could become a hotbed of renewable energy generation, producing even more than its current (No pun intended!) needs and exporting the surplus around the world.

The problem with such a plan is two-fold. First, these renewable energy technologies are expensive and the political climate in Africa is somewhat volatile. Investing in such projects is therefore risky. Furthermore, to export power—or even to distribute it around such a huge continent—would require major advances in transmission technology. Current power lines are very lossy, losing a significant percentage of the power transmitted over them over long distances. This is especially important for centralized solar and wind, which A. are usually located far away from power consumers (in areas with the least obstruction of their power sources) and B. are bursty—we can’t control when the sun will shine or the wind will blow. More efficient transmission (and storage, for that matter) technology would allow areas that need power, regardless of weather conditions there, to draw energy from areas where the sun is shining or wind is blowing around the world. This problem of energy transmission and storage is the main theme addressed by the vision of Nobel laureate Dr. Richard Smalley. His proposed solution naturally uses nanotechnology, his principal area of research.

As I am no great nanotechnologist, this leads me to the fundamental question that still drives me today: what can business leaders do to address this energy/environment/social challenge? We can certainly enforce responsible energy usage within our companies but that won’t be enough. It will barely make a dent in consumption and won’t address any other social issues. To effect more profound change, business leaders will need to invest (either by starting up new ventures or by launching initiatives within their own companies) in R&D of renewable technologies (reducing renewable production costs and increasing efficiency), R&D of energy transmission and storage technologies, and development of renewable operations in places like Africa.

These are very basic, high-level ideas. What ideas do you have? How can business leaders change the world for the better?

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  • http://cleantechies.wpengine.com/ian Ian

    Funny… I think that there are other more interesting and appropriate responses to bringing sustainability to the developing world than solar (for at least some portion of the need). Check out dissigno.

    Perhaps you have a thought on this Gary (from)? Ironically he is in Tanzania right now. Here is the blog he is going to try to maintain when he can find internet: http://dissignotz.blogspot.com

  • http://cleantechies.wpengine.com/bryan bryan

    I’ll admit that I’m not incredibly well versed in “appropriate technology” but the idea is interesting. I met with an entrepreneur in Kenya doing something similar with water pumps for irrigation. An individual could purchase (with some microfinance help) an efficient, manually operated pump and create a business by renting it out to his agricultural neighbors. I’d be interested to know the net cost of such manual devices that require human energy in parts of the world where food is scarce–do you know of any studies that have been done?

    Regardless, it seems to me that something like pedal-powered batteries can be a great part of the solution–but only a part. Many social issues in the developing world stem from the massive disparty between it and the developed world. These countries aren’t taken seriously or treated with dignity. After my [admittedly brief] time in Kenya, I have a hard time believing that they will accept a pedal/battery-based solution while the rest of the world is living la dolce vita.

    Utility-scale solar (or even distributed solar at traffic lights, street lamps, etc.) could help such countries in Africa increase their energy resources or even become a net energy exporter. In today’s energy climate there are few better ways to garner respect than to have natural energy resources–as exhibited by the benefits to several African countries due to their relationship with China re: oil exports.

  • http://cleantechies.wpengine.com/gary gary

    Interesting stuff, and certainly not surprising. As Ian mentioned, I’m in Tanzania putting together a power and lighting project. The key we find to getting these projects implemented is local partners. Working with a community partner makes all the difference in getting local buy in. The partners act as champions, know all the local players(in the gov’t and business community), are locals and therefore trusted, and understand the customs and cultural hurldes. I’ll try to post some info here, or through Ian on our project as we proceed, on keep our blog updated. Thanks Ian!

  • http://cleantechies.wpengine.com/bryan bryan

    Sounds great, Gary, I would love to learn more. Please do keep us updated as you proceed!