Renewable energy is often thought of as an initiative of advanced, sane countries such as Portugal and Germany. But there is another arena where green energy is making an impact– on the lives of the world’s poorest populations, in the global South. For them, it is not a luxury or prudent planning for the future or a dutiful attempt to save the planet from the looming catastrophe of climate change fuelled by humans pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Rather, it is a way of solving their present, low-tech energy crisis.
Kevin Bullis explains that many villagers use expensive kerosene for cooking and heating, and to fuel lamps for light. Cell phones have spread rapidly in Africa and Asia (where often there is no grid of copper wires or underground fibre optic cables and so mobile phone towers allow them to leapfrog to a newer technology). But given that many villagers do not have electricity, they have to take their phones to private charging centres and pay an arm and a leg for the recharging.
Both kerosene and the private charging stands can be replaced right now, in the present, with cheaper solar batteries. For light, solar-powered light-emitting diode (LED) panels are much cheaper than light bulbs powered by burning kerosene.
Even the Economist agrees that for the 1.6 billion human beings not already connected to the electrical grid, renewable energy is now cheaper for them than carbon-fueled electricity. Kenyan families, for instance, pay $10 a month for kerosene, and $2 a month to charge their cell phones. A British company is now allowing them to buy via an installment plan a solar set that costs them less than $12 a month, so that in 18 months they will own it. They can then, if they like, take some of their savings and get a larger solar set with more power generating ability.
In India, too, the poorest are getting access to solar cells. Since 2007, India has doubled its green power ability, from 10 gigawatts to 22 gigawatts. It may be investing more in research on renewable energy than any other nation. In 2011, India put $10 billion into this sector.
Likewise, Nicaragua’s commitment to green energy is such that that Central American country is hoping to get almost all its electricity from renewables by 2016. Admittedly, it will accomplish a good deal of this goal with a traditional hydro-electric generating plant rather than primarily with wind and solar. But the latter are an important part of the energy mix in Nicaragua. Going green is not only cheaper than increasingly expensive oil, but has other benefits as well. It discourages villagers from burning down the forest for wood to burn.
It is likely that the cost of solar power generation will cross with that of hydrocarbons sometime in the next 5 - 10 years, even for the advanced countries. Because they don’t have a built-out grid and because even an electric light is expensive for them, the villagers of the global South are pioneers of the new, renewable world.
By. Professor Juan Cole
Juan runs the popular geopolitics blog Informed Comment where he provides an independent and informed perspective on Middle Eastern and American politics.