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Sunday, March 15, 2009

LEDs + Solar Power = Hope for Rural Africa

This recent New York Times article on LED lights and Africa caused me to reflect on how the climate change challenge is so much bigger than the United States and the choices we make with regards to sustainability issues, paper or plastic, how we commute or light our homes, etc, etc. Don't get me wrong - CFLs are great and so are hybrid vehicles, but mainly because they, for the most part, make sense both environmentally and economically. But what about what is going on in the developing nations, particularly the rural areas in India and the African continent? Why do they matter, you ask? Well, did you know that 30% of the global population does not have access to electricity? That is 1.6 billion people, or more than 5 times the population of the United States. Now, imagine if we were someday able to figure out how to get half of those people electricity, but instead of electricity from clean energy sources it came from dirty coal plants. I hope you understand that no matter what we do to combat climate change here in the US or over in Europe, how the developing world, the high growth regions in the rural Asia and Africa, is electrified matters more because if we allow these nations to go the way of China - with its haphazard construction of toxic spewing coal power plants, all hope of preventing catastrophic climate change will be lost.

What can we do? Well, to start the focus on climate change should be on the bottom of the pyramid. The people in these parts of the world, the rural Indian people who do not have electricity, the Rwandans who do not have access to reliable source of drinking water, will hopefully have access to electricity and clean water one day. The best thing we can do to help is to support the organizations that are already bringing clean sources of electricity to rural parts of these countries, or, if you are ambitious, you could start your own venture that aims to bring low cost renewable energy solutions to these remote areas.

While researching this issue it seemed that Africa is the focus, since 60% of the 1.6 billion without electricity are live somewhere in that continent. Solar Light for Africa is an American faith based non-profit that has been working for years on raising money so that its members can go on missions to Africa, where they install solar power systems in the rural villages. They have had some successes but being as small as they are they need some help. The World Bank and International Finance Corporation (IFC) have joined forces to form Lighting Africa, an NGO that partners with global businesses and entrepreneurs to bring renewable lighting solutions to African villages. Lighting African sounds very promising but like many World Bank endeavors the intent is good but the results, or the follow through, tend to be another thing. I was disappointed when I read that the World Bank led venture only had a budget of $12 million, although, I can't say that I too surprised by that low figure. Below is a blurb from the Lighting Africa website, followed by a youtube clip that shows you just how using a simple LED light can make a world of difference in the life of an African family.

Every year, African households and small businesses spend upwards of $17 billion on lighting, dominated by fuel-based sources such as kerosene, a costly an inefficient alternative. However, despite these huge expenditures – many households spend as much as 30% of their disposable income on fuel-based lighting – consumers receive little value in return. Fuel-based lighting is inefficient, provides limited and poor quality light, and exposes users to significant health and fire hazards. Exacerbating this problem, fuel-based lighting also produces Greenhouse Gases (GHGs), leads to increased indoor air pollution and associated health risks, inhibits productivity and jeopardizes human safety.

I realize that these last two posts by James and I have opened up a huge can of worms, because now we're not just talking about being green here in Pittsburgh, PA, in North Carolina, or in Austin, Texas. We're going to start talking more about green and clean energy on a global scale, because as I said above, if the developing nations don't grow and develop with a clean energy infrastructure, nothing else we do to halt climate change really matters.