Africa

LEAP

IS IT DREAMING THAT THE DEVELOPING (NOT THE DEVELOPED)

WORLD HAS THE EDGE ON NEW TECHNOLOGIES?


In the developed world we are hearing about, for example, Elon Musk's Power Walls which re-purpose degraded car battery packs to smooth out the solar power at the home. Ideally, each home becomes self-sufficient and green, or at least less dependent on the grid and centralized fossil fuel power plants. On the other hand, in the developing world, a rural off-grid home or village with solar lamps is already self-sufficient. They don't need a central power plant nor the associated costs of a massive copper wire distribution grid!  The payback is quick:  a few months savings from kerosene for lamps pays for the solar lamps.   Contrast this with the years to pay back a typical solar installation in the US or Europe.  Advantage: Africa! 


Sure, the power is small at first, just enough to charge a couple of cell phones and reading lamps.  But the savings by not buying kerosene can soon be used to buy a larger panel and maybe a microwave or refrigerator.  The process expands to a washer and cook top.  Who needs the expensive, central, fossil-fuel power plant grid?  Who needs the complex and expensive massive grid infrastructure? Who wants the politics of siting the plant and the grid or the huge costs and big banks?  

The situation is analogous to cell phones which took off in the developing world earlier than elsewhere.  For both cell phones and self-sufficient renewable energy, the new technologies bypass expensive wire infrastructure.  In both cases, the developing world has the advantage of leapfrogging over the obsolete technology and, in fact, teaching the developed world how to do it.


But it is a difficult lesson because the expensive  infrastructure in the developed world is already paid off.  This makes dirty energy cheap, which, in turn, inhibits the introduction of newer cleaner technologies.  Again, the pay back for solar panels in the West, competing against cheap and dirty energy delivered by existing infrastructure, is years. But in the developing world, it takes only months to pay back the solar lamp that displaced the kerosene one.  Fortunately, the politics and big money for a grid and power plant slows the introduction of dirty power.  We hope the developing world escapes addiction to dirty energy and helps the West kick the habit. 


Many in the developed world see the benefits of financing green projects in the developing world.  By displacing kerosene in rural areas with solar lamps and cookers, villagers enjoy better light and health, lower costs and less carbon emission.