In the United States, energy is easy to come by. There are gas stations on most urban corners, nuclear plants dotting the coasts, Teslas on the roads and telephone wires spanning the continent. Connecting to the grid is as simple as locating the nearest socket, a journey that takes the typical American homeowner no further than ten feet. Indeed, in most developed nations, electricity is as convenient as turning on the tap for a glass of fresh water.
Speaking of which, over 300 million Americans live with the conveniences of ready electricity and running water, and the majority of them have done so for several generations. Yet in this respect, the majority of Americans are in the minority of the global population. According to the United Nations, an estimated 1.2 billion people have zero access to electricity. An additional billion are connected to electricity networks that are unreliable or provide intermittent power, and nearly three billion people worldwide must burn wood or charcoal to heat their homes and cook their food. The World Health Organization calculates that 4.3 million people die prematurely every year due to illness linked to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels.
The quarter of the world’s population living without electricity are concentrated mainly in Africa and southern Asia. These are regions that have been struggling up the economic hill for decades––in some cases centuries––yet in this modern age of microprocessors, digital communications and countless scientific innovations, the question arises, why are they still so far behind? Several experts on international policy have stated that the problem is not financial. The problem is multi-faceted, encompassing health, entrepreneurship and empowerment.
Electricity, unsurprisingly, is the key to all three.
INTASAVE: Electricity as the Seed of Development
For the last several years, Dr. Murray Simpson has been working to bring solar power to Africa through his organization, INTASAVE Energy.
“It’s not energy just for energy’s sake,” he told Planet Experts, “but actually providing positive impacts in terms of development. That empowers women, it helps children in terms of health and education. It means micro-credit and environmental impacts, building impacts, and enabling micro-enterprise and entrepreneurialism across the African continent.”
In Africa, INTASAVE Energy has specialized in producing Solar Nano Grids (SONGs) that can be easily installed and utilized in even the remotest locations. They are clean, efficient and require no cables, which frees African families from the cumbersome and outdated energy grid model.
“As long as you have the storage facility and system set up correctly, solar power provides a much more stable platform than the grid,” explained Dr. Simpson, “in terms of load shedding and fluctuation, in terms of brownouts and so forth. In most cases, the solar power system that we’re rolling out will provide a cheaper alternative to the grid, and our research shows that people will choose solar, even if they are connected to the grid, because it provides that stability.”
That stability is dangerously lacking in Nigeria, where even hospitals are not exempt from rolling blackouts. In December, Dr. Laurie Stachel, an obstetrician and founder of We Care Solar, described to Planet Experts the terror of performing surgery when the lights suddenly die.
“I cannot do life-saving maneuvers if I can’t even see patients,” she said. “To be in an operating room when the lights go out, that was the scariest thing in the world to me, realizing that a body is open and there is no light to see what there is to do next.” In Africa, said Dr. Stachel, areas of energy poverty directly correlate to areas with high maternal mortality ratios.
Where electricity is in short supply, communities that can afford fuels like kerosene and diesel will use them to power generators. Yet in eliminating one hazard (lack of energy), these fossil fuels create more than one of their own.
“Not only is it [fossil fuels] affecting their health and creating lung complications – particularly for women and children, who tend to be the ones who are in the houses and using that as lighting and power – but also it’s not sustainable,” said Dr. Simpson. “It creates environmental problems. And solar power now, the model that we’ve created, is actually cheaper than kerosene and diesel.”
With solar, there’s also the added benefit of having a cleaner, quieter way for children to read books at night without breathing diesel or kerosene fumes.
Solar Nano Grids: How They Work
The pilot phase for Solar Nano Grids (SONGs) has begun in Kenya. Each SONG is composed of a hub of solar panels that feeds power to a bank of lead-acid battery cells. When a household needs energy, a battery can be removed from one of the lockers attached to the hub and used to power necessities such as lighting and phone chargers. The power is also used for community necessities, such as egg incubators, water pumps, milling and grinding machinery and refrigeration.
According to Dr. Simpson, one SONG can typically serve around 50-60 households (at 20 Watts peak per household), and each battery can provide a home with enough power to light three light bulbs and a phone charger. Installing the SONGs is being undertaken in partnership with the University of Oxford, Loughborough University, the United International University (Bangladesh) and the University of Nottingham.
The technology used to create the hub, said Simpson, is largely off the shelf, and its simplicity and scalability has made it very appealing to investors in renewable resources.
“All of the major investment banks have expressed real interest, as well as private equity houses and fund managers, and the reason is because we’re able to roll this out in a relatively simple fashion,” said Simpson. “In terms of the panels, they’re very robust now, they have a very long life and they’re also much much cheaper than they used to be a few years ago. There’s no cables and that obviously saves an enormous amount of installation cost and hardware cost, and it’s also better for the communities to be able to add batteries to that system very simply.”
The batteries themselves, developed by University of Oxford startup ionQube, are also easily installed and maintained at a relatively low cost, requiring just two trained people in each community to operate the system.
Last December, INTASAVE Energy crowdfunded over $100,000 to install SONGs in five villages in Kenya, with the first two already underway. Now in talks with major investment banks, Dr. Simpson believes INTASAVE Energy could install as many as 1,500 Solar Nano Grids in Africa over the next three years. The company is also expanding its SONG mission into Guyana in South America.
“Right now we’re negotiating with a number of investment banks and private equity firms to create a corporate structure to deliver a very large rollout of these Nano Grids in Eastern Africa, South Africa and South America, starting with Guyana there. That will be funded by a combination of private equity, term loan or debt funding and ultimately leading on to green bonds issuance. I think our initial time, within that period of two or three years, we expect to raise tens of millions and roll this out on a bond market basis.”
The response from Kenyan communities so far, said Murray, “has been very positive.”
Indeed, across Africa, Asia and South America, renewable technologies have been enthusiastically embraced. According to Bloomberg’s Climatescope 2014, developing nations grew their renewable capacities by 143 percent between 2008 and 2013. If projects like INTASAVE’s solar hubs continue to receive funding, many regions could sidestep dirty and hazardous fuels like coal and oil and move directly to sustainable resources.
This kind of technological leapfrog––from a centralized grid to a Distributed Energy Source––has already had great success elsewhere on the continent in the case of mobile phones. Many African countries have adopted cell phone technology without the interstitial phase of building landlines.
Energy for Empowerment
The energy freedom that the West takes for granted provides for so much more than a handy means of powering appliances and video games. It is the backbone of modern living. With clean, unlimited power, developing communities can be unshackled from unreliable and outdated energy systems. They can move from subsistence to prosperity.
“What we’re doing is to provide energy for developments and energy for empowerment, to communities and households,” said Dr. Simpson. “Investment in something like this is essential if we want to help give Africa and other developing regions a kickstart into being healthier and happier and their livelihoods being enhanced.”