Combatting the Effects of Climate Change and Global Disparities in Energy Access through Solar Electrification
Climate Change: Current State
Climate change discussions are nothing new. Fossil fuels and alternative energy discussions have been in place since before Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth in 2006, and will continue long after this year. NASA reported that 2016 was the warmest year globally, and 2015 was the warmest before that, illustrating gradual increases in temperature. In turn, rising temperatures have contributed to increased intensity of weather related threats such as hurricanes, like the devastating Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina last year. Rising temperatures have also contributed to warmer water and air around the Antarctic, which recently resulted in a large iceberg, the size of Delaware, breaking off from Antarctica and “fundamentally changing the landscape of the Antarctic peninsula.” As the landscape around us reacts to changes in the environment, what does the future hold?
David Wallace-Wells, a journalist focusing on climate change and the environment, recently outlined his vision to this question in a New York Magazine article “The Uninhabitable Earth.” He paints a bleak future where disease burden increases, increased violence erupts, economic instability rises, and humanity faces the consequences of the resulting turmoil. Wallace-Wells warns “parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.”
Global Disparities in Energy Access
In order to feel the gravity of climate change consequences, one should first understand the disproportionality of electricity access and energy consumption. In the United States, virtually everyone has access to electricity. At the same time, the U.S. is also one of the highest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. The country produced 6.587 million metric tons of Carbon Dioxide in 2015, with 29% from electricity use.
Compare this to the 1.2 billion people (16% of the global population) who lack access to electricity. Nearly 95% of this energy-poor population resides in rural Sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, revealing one of the largest development challenges of our time. The world’s population is expected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050, with half the growth occurring in Africa. If these individuals were to gain access to electricity via natural gas or coal, given the expected population growth, it is likely that the Wallace-Wells perspective of climate change will be a quickly emerging reality.
So how are businesses tackling both the development challenge of increasing global electricity access while simultaneously understanding the importance of sustainability and limited resources?
Sustainable Developments in Solar Electrification
Enterprising companies have been creating alternate sources of renewable energy to bring electricity to individuals in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. By moving straight to clean technology and renewable energy in the form of solar and wind powered electricity initiatives, these companies are “leapfrogging” past the detrimental effects of natural gas and coal. This is right in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number seven to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”
Electrifying Sub-Saharan Africa is important – not just for those living in the region but also for the world. Increased access to affordable and reliable electricity will help poverty alleviation, as there are increased opportunities for business growth, longer hours of operation, and the ability to integrate technology into daily life. Hospitals are able to treat patients in better conditions, leading to overall health improvements. Schools are able to increase students’ access to education through different information communication technologies leading to increased teacher retention and student completion rates.
The main push, as described by Bill McKibben in the New Yorker, has been a “Race to Solar-Power Africa.” McKibben describes how both American and African led businesses are using innovative and affordable mechanisms to supply electricity though affordable off-grid solar kits in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Off-grid solar power systems do not require the same cumbersome and expensive infrastructure that currently exist in the United States. As a result, these innovative systems help cut labor and capital costs in bringing electricity to regions previously without access. These systems also help lower long-term costs as they are affordable – essentially the same cost, if not lower, as traditional kerosene – and provide clean electricity lasting up to four times longer.
Both the affordability and increased duration of electricity are partially due to the drop in prices of solar panels, coupled with technology advances enabling the creation of more efficient light bulbs.
Innovative Solar Companies
Several solar companies and entrepreneurs are entering the electrification space in Sub-Saharan Africa because it is relatively nascent and not yet monopolized. Companies are entering the market through different avenues including as a solar panel providers, solar panel installers, as utility companies, or as wholesalers or retailers of solar products.
One American company, Off-Grid Electric, sells a starter kit including “a panel, a battery, a few L.E.D. lights, a phone charger, and a radio” priced at just $8 a month for three years. After the three years have passed, the family or individual then owns the kit.
Black Star Energy, a Ghanaian company offers solar power in the guise of a utility company. Black Star installs solar micro-grids in communities needing electricity. Unlike Off-Grid Electric where individuals pay for the physical equipment, Black Star users “will always pay bills, but the charges start at only two dollars a month.” They are essentially paying for the utility of electricity, and therefore, will never own the technology themselves.
These personal home solar kits are one sustainable method by which to electrify Africa. Innovations, such as Off-Grid Electric, have gained traction due to venture capital support from Silicon Valley and USAID’s Power Africa mechanism which pledged four million dollars to solar start-ups focusing on African off-grid energy.
The benefits from electrification will help Sub-Saharan African nations close the gap in energy poverty while rising against several existing development challenges. Leadership from these nations benefitting from renewable energy initiatives will be essential in curbing global climate change threats, and can perhaps alter the way we currently think about development and growth.
RohiniRavi is a second year Master of Public Policy focusing on international development and global health.