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Electricity, Kyoto, and the African Sun
Jamais Cascio, 23 Feb 05

Recent developments in photovoltaics tantalize those of us in the West, allowing us to imagine a future of energy-producing fabrics and widely distributed power grids. Solar is seen to be one of the many parts of an emerging, renewable energy system, potentially embedded into our material goods and contributing to our efforts to build a bright green lifestyle. If new solar developments are slow to bring down prices, that'll just mean wind and wave power take on a greater load.

But in the developing world, Africa in particular, solar has the potential to be a life-saver, providing clean energy in the remotest of locations. With no moving parts, solar panels are harder to make but simpler and cheaper to maintain than traditional diesel-powered generators, needing only batteries to store the power accumulated over the course of a sunny day. Their expense, however, remains a problem; if new solar developments are slow to bring down prices, efforts in the developing world to shift aggressively to renewable energy sources could fall by the wayside. The Kyoto treaty, however, may provide a solution.

It's not hard to find stories about African governments, businesses and non-profits expressing an interest in bringing more solar power to the continent. The logic makes sense. Photovoltaics are perhaps the ultimate in leapfrog energy systems. Solar can be used anywhere the sun shines, without the ongoing expense of trucking in and consuming fuel. While the maintenance of the systems isn't difficult, it provides opportunities for local business development (especially for women, "barefoot engineer" style). Moreover, solar panels work both as stand-alone sources of electricity for particular needs or as part of a village (or even regional) power network.

The stand-alone model has characterized the majority of the solar power deployment in Africa, from Digital Links providing 800 combination laptops and solar PV chargers to schools in Rwanda, to the Lagos government planning solar-powered water treatment plants for remote regions. The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) project in Benin is another example, with the ongoing introduction of solar-powered pumps for agricultural villages.

Broader rural electrification projects based on solar do exist. Some, like the work in Uganda by the religious group Solar Light for Africa, rely on the contributions and volunteer efforts of non-profits. But increasingly, African governments, sometimes with international aid support, are providing incentives to foreign corporations to bring in solar investment. Late last year, for example, South Africa signed a deal with the Dutch energy company Nuon to bring in 8,000 solar energy systems to KwaZulu Natal over the next two years, replacing the oil lamps now in use there; just this week, BP Solar signed a deal with the Zambian government to bring in 250 kilowatts worth of photovoltaics for "lighting, radio, television and refridgeration."

Expect such deals to happen with greater frequency. The Kyoto Treaty lets signatory states get credit for emissions reduction regardless of where the reduction actually takes place:

Kyoto’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) enabled companies and governments to purchase emission reduction credits from energy-saving projects in developing countries, and either offset them against their compliance targets, or trade them on the open market.

For example, converting a power station in Zambia from coal to gas represents a considerable reduction in its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. If that saving can be measured, and verified, it can be converted into carbon credits, and these credits can be sold on.

As the Kyoto Treaty comes into force, companies and countries are scrambling to build emissions-reducing projects in the developing world in order to meet their obligations. South Africa is taking advantage of the opportunity to replace its aging coal-fired power plants with newer technologies, and other African nations are beginning to pick up on the opportunity. This isn't just about charity -- the South African projects alone should generate nearly R620 million (a bit more than $100 million) in revenue through 2012.

As much as I support the idea of greater use of photovoltaics in the West, the leapfrog potential for greater use of solar in the developing world -- and Africa in particular -- is much more exciting. They can provide the underlying power for literacy programs, information access, and the basic work of making a living, and do so sustainably. Developments making photovoltaics cheaper, or more rugged, or more flexible in use will certainly be welcome by those bringing the sun's power to remote parts of the world; we may find, however, that the fastest engines for solar's spread are countries trying to live up to the demands of an international treaty.

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I love this idea. This is a great way for developing nations to embed the idea of sustainability into thier social concience. If it become second nature to live that way, perhaps they will lead the world as they develop providing new ideas to help us in the west advance.

Posted by: David on 24 Feb 05

Some thoughts on these and related matters here:

Posted by: Dave Roberts on 24 Feb 05

Thanks David. A good post and a terrific continuation of the conversation.

Two comments.

The first is that I think you're spot on when you argue that it's not a zero-sum choice between infrastructure investments and Kyoto/CDM investments. Some projects (particularly around water and energy for schools) can meet both needs. Other projects could be thought of as "enablers," where the infrastructure work makes the Kyoto/CDM investment possible or the energy investment makes the infrastructure possible.

The second is that Thomas seems only to be thinking about the initial CDM rush, not a few years down the road after the low-hanging fruit have been grabbed and the Kyoto requirements start to bite. South Africa's level of development means that getting in and doing something is easy, and can have a significant carbon effect. But in a few years, when competition for market-bought credits is steeper and work in the more-developed developing nations has less of a payoff, it's plausible that Kyoto countries and companies will find that CDM investment in the less-developed developing nations is, in the end, the cheaper option.

I guess we'll see how it turns out.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 24 Feb 05

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