Saturday, December 25, 2010

Tidings of Great Joy

I had fully intended to take today off from blogging. It is, after all, Christmas and as a practicing Christian (OK, so I haven't gotten it right yet) I treasure this holy day. I meant to just slap up a Christmas Tree graphic with a few well-wishes and to leave it at that. But I came across this article in the New York Times and couldn't resist.

It's about the use of off-the-grid electricity generated by renewable energy sources such as solar panels, biomass, and mini-hydroelectric dams by poor people in the third world located far from traditional power sources. The lead example is the torturous path a woman had to take to recharge her cell phone (the only access many have for financial transactions in rural areas in this part of the world). Finally, she scraped together enough money to put a single solar panel on the roof of her home. That provided enough electricity to not only recharge her phone, but also to run some LED lights so that her children could study at night. She's saving money now that she doesn't have to pay for a wild three hour ride to the closest charging station and she doesn't have to pay for kerosene for the only light source her kids had.

The article notes that such devices are gaining in popularity, and are providing an alternative to waiting for the governments of poor countries to find the money to extend power far from the capitals. And these devices are not adversely affecting the environment the way traditional energy sources and the grid to deliver that energy would.

As small-scale renewable energy becomes cheaper, more reliable and more efficient, it is providing the first drops of modern power to people who live far from slow-growing electricity grids and fuel pipelines in developing countries. Although dwarfed by the big renewable energy projects that many industrialized countries are embracing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, these tiny systems are playing an epic, transformative role.

It's healthy trend, but it's limited at the present for a number of reasons, not the least of which is economy of scale, as noted by John Maina, executive coordinator of Sustainable Community Development Services based in Kenya.

“Finally, these products exist, people are asking for them and are willing to pay,” he said. “But we can’t get supply.” He said small African organizations like his do not have the purchasing power or connections to place bulk orders themselves from distant manufacturers, forcing them to scramble for items each time a shipment happens to come into the country.

Part of the problem is that the new systems buck the traditional mold, in which power is generated by a very small number of huge government-owned companies that gradually extend the grid into rural areas. Investors are reluctant to pour money into products that serve a dispersed market of poor rural consumers because they see the risk as too high.

Developed countries are more interested in the grandiose: the huge windmill farms, the major hydroelectric projects. Simple devices which would serve the millions of poor rural dwellers are just not sexy enough for the much smaller investment which would be needed to proved such a major difference in the lives of so many people.

The United Nations is beginning to "get" the benefits of the smaller but wiser projects involving single solar panels and individual biomass tanks filled with the manure of the family cows. Now it's a matter of educating the rest of the world, and, quite frankly, this article does a fine job along those lines.

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Blogger Southern Beale said...

Merry Christmas to you!

You and I are often on the same wavelength. I just read that New York Times story about renewable energy transforming rural villages in Kenya. I thought it was so fabulous! And I was also struck by the fact that it was a CHINESE-made solar panel which transformed Sara Ruto's family and village.

It never ceases to amaze me how ridiculous the hyper-partisan American renewable energy narrative is. How short-sighted and foolish we are! While we fight about how fat Al Gore is (or isn't) and corporate titans like the Koch Brothers invest hundreds of millions of dollars fighting a propaganda war to secure the last few remaining drops of liquified dead dinosaur bones, the Chinese are kicking our asses in the next great energy initiative.

The Third World -- Africa and South America primarily -- will not be transformed by some hugely expensive pipeline, where warlords and military juntas must be appeased so Halliburton and KBR and the Bin Laden Group can rake in billions of dollars on construction contracts. It will (and is) being transformed one solar panel at a time, made in China.

People need to get a fucking clue. We are fighting the last century's battles while the world has quietly changed all around us. We have bankrupted our nation on a useless war for oil in Iraq, while China churns out the photo voltaic cells.

What fools we are!

7:09 AM  
Blogger ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Merry Christmas, Diane.

It is nice to read something hopeful, for a change.

7:51 AM  

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