Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Clean Energy in Africa: What can we Learn?

For my individual project I looked at some case studies of clean energy investments in sub-Saharan Africa. The cases are very diverse and really highlight the tragic situation in sub-Saharan Africa but at the same time show how some groups are really making a difference. Different types of investment vehicles are used to provide students in Senegal with light to study or to provide health clinics in Rwanda with power. The case studies provided some lessons that might be very helpful in addressing the climate change issue in the US.

You’re probably asking yourself the question: what does Africa have to do with the US? In fact, Africa and the US, in regards to climate change, don’t have much if anything in common but the African case studies provide an opportunity to look at extremes and extremes are an excellent way to assess something – be it a theory, an equation or an implementation as in this case.

Most clean energy investments in Africa are focused on solar and the logic is that sub-Saharan Africa has no electricity (<5% of the people have access to electricity) so let’s give them electricity. Yes electricity is good and I’m not saying let’s not give them electricity but how many people are asking – what does Africa REALLY need? Perhaps sub-Saharan Africa needs something else. That something else is income generating clean energy like micro and pico hydro or cleaner biomass etc…The main point to get out of this is that not every “clean” option is the right option. Today we are seeing the same thing with corn ethanol in the US!

What does that mean for the US? Well in the US we’re looking at all these different forms of clean energy like wind, solar, ethanol (first and second generation) and the logic is we need to go rid of dirty coal and imported Saudi oil. Billions of dollars are being invested towards that effort and I’m not saying that that is a bad thing. However, maybe that’s not the problem we need to be solving! To me, it seems that we’re doing exactly what the grocery store does: Paper or plastic? Paper is the new clean energy (you fill in whatever new technology you want) and plastic is coal/oil/gas etc… What about the canvas bag?

There is a question that is rarely, if ever asked: why are we searching for alternative fuel sources? Really, what are we trying to do? Most people would say we’re looking for alternative fuels to replace carbon emitting fuels because of the adverse effects of carbon. However, how many people have asked themselves whether we really need all the energy we are currently consuming in the first place. The canvas bag option, in this context, involves a change of how we interact with energy and the role that energy plays in our lives. I use the African case studies to show that in some instances, in the name of doing the right thing, the wrong solution is provided.

Some of the changes that I advocate for in the paper involve a reversal of city expansion into suburbs (basically increased dense urban living – similar to what Austin is doing), home construction using concrete as opposed to wood and sheetrock to increase air tightness and another one involves the design of the electricity system (design for a portion of the peak and not the peak itself – similar to highways). I recognize that these are drastic measures and they’re somewhat different from the basket of solutions that are offered right now but who knows we might not have the luxury to choose whether to do these things or not…

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