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Energy Leapfrogging
Jamais Cascio, 22 Feb 05

Implicit in the idea of leapfrogging is a move not just to a more technologically advanced system, but to a better system: cleaner, more sustainable, less damaging to the environment and more in line with the needs of the local communities. Leapfrog systems are often distributed and decentralized, as these approaches often provide more flexibility and more local control. But there isn't a single path to leapfrogging; regions will adopt technologies which fit their needs and resources. Three examples of developing world adoption of new energy technologies make this clear:

We'll start with the report that the Asian Development Bank has given a $750,000 grant to develop solar energy technologies in rural Afghanistan. Solar power would be used for lighting (enabling after-work literacy programs), water pumping for irrigation and human use, water heating for hospitals and more. Afghanistan has sunny skies about 300 days per year, making it an ideal location for rolling out solar power systems; in turn, the rugged and remote geography of the landlocked nation makes centralized systems economically infeasible, if not functionally impossible.

The initial project will focus on testing how photovoltaic systems are received, and on training up local solar engineers.

The TA [Technical Assistance grant] will provide solar photovoltaic systems at household level in 10 communities on a pilot basis and train 10 persons from different ethnic groups as solar technicians at a community based training center in India. Upon return they will train 10 additional persons from their communities in installing and maintaining solar systems as energy entrepreneurs.

Specifically targeted are the poor, illiterate, and vulnerable and the primary beneficiaries will be those with no formal education, especially disabled people, youth, and women. In particular, disabled people who were maimed in years of conflict could be associated with the initiative by including them among these 'barefoot' technicians.

If that last reference sounds familiar, it should; we reported on the Indian Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources' program training rural women as solar engineers last July.

Solar is a perfect fit for Afghanistan, and not just for isolated farm communities. As some Afghan tribes are semi-nomadic, solar power technologies could potentially be useful for helping them maintain their way of life while still gaining access to electricity. The real questions will be how well it will be received, and how long the hardware itself will last in the politically, economically and environmentally rugged location.

But solar isn't the only option for sustainable, leapfrog energy. Biodiesel is another option, particularly for regions where diesel generators are already in use. Green Car Congress links us to a story about Rolls-Royce funding a biodiesel refinery for Durban, South Africa, able to make 8 million liters of biodiesel per year. The refinery design is modular, about the size of a large shipping container, and allows for distributed use.

The refinery manufacturer, D1 Oils, focuses on the use of jatropha plants for biodiesel production, and has projects underway in Africa, South Asia and the Pacific; we recently noted a new agreement allowing D1 to open a biodiesel refinery in Saudi Arabia. At least some of the Jatropha used for the Durban refinery will be grown in Burkina Faso, giving a boost to that nation's economy as well. The D1 site includes a nice illustration of how biodiesel production fits into a sustainable Africa, shown above (click the image or here for larger version).

The D1 Asia/Pacific project is in the Philippines, where they are both looking at the viability of jatropha nurseries on the islands, and the possibility of coconut methyl ester as a feedstock for biodiesel. But, as the Alt-Energy Blog discusses, citizens in the Philippines are looking at another alternative energy technology to help provide both rural power and electricity assistance to the growing urban population: micro-hydro.

Residents of the Philippines are debating whether they face a "preventable crisis" regarding electrical power. Setting aside the questions as to whether it's a real crisis, what's interesting here is the focus on micro-hydro power as an abundant natural resource for the islands. A front-page story in the January 30 Philippine Daily Inquirer argued that micro-hydro facilities (putting out 7.5 to 35 kW), already in use in a growing number of the 10,000 villages not connected to the national grid, may be a way for Philippines citizens to deal with a power crisis while national authorities bicker.

With an average annual rainfall of 2,360 mm and 421 rivers across the country, the Philippines are well-suited to take advantage of water resources for distributed power.

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