Friday, November 14, 2014

Renewables for a new Africa

Of the world's 7 billion people, more than 1.2 billion (250-300 million households) currently lack access to electricity; hundreds of millions more contend with power supplies that are low-quality or very unreliable. Power outages cause businesses to lose, on average, 13% in Africa. Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest publicly traded coal company, unsurprisingly declares that coal is “essential to meet the scale of Africa’s desperate need for electricity.”

There are a couple of inescapable flaws in the “coal for Africa” argument.

84% of those living without energy access throughout Africa and India live in rural and remote areas — areas without an existing energy grid. Without an energy grid, the energy generated by coal would have no way of reaching its intended recipients, requiring a massive outlay to build the necessary infrastructure to reach the very people renewables apparently “can’t.”

Furthermore, coal is not distributed well to serve Africa’s energy poor. Only 7% of the people in sub-Saharan Africa who currently lack access to energy actually living in coal-rich countries. On top of that, the transport links necessary to remedy this problem — between north and south — are poor, and would once again require massive infrastructure costs to solve the problem.

It is clear that solar power is the future. Solar can be decentralized, and a simple solar panel, can provide enough electricity for one small home in the developing world. In Mongolia, one solar panel provides enough electricity for one hut, without the need for ugly transmission lines crisscrossing the country. Clearly solar, and small wind are better options than large dirty coal plants, which require miles of ugly transmission lines. Instead of trying to build massive coal plants which pollute and are expensive and transmission lines (where the copper is often stolen), at this point it is much better to do small local solar PV which is used to charge up LED lanterns, cellphones, radios, laptops, etc. Solving energy poverty also requires producing large quantities of electricity needed to power services, government buildings and of course the ever expanding cities that dot the continent. Oh, and let's not forget about powering the mines, factories and other forms of industry. Many African countries are beginning to experiment with utility scale wind and solar farms. And let's not forget about hydro-power: the vast rivers of equatorial Africa could almost single-handedly power the entire continent (Grand Inga alone could power the whole of equatorial Africa).

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