Dirty Energy vs. Clean Energy in the Race to Power Off-Grid Energy Markets
By Justin Guay
A war is shaping up that pits an entrenched, aging and uncompetitive fossil fuel industry against a young, innovative and increasingly competitive set of renewable energy technologies. The former relies on their entrenched status chock full of obscenely high subsidies to fight of a set of disruptive innovations that could send them the way of whale oil.
While renewables are doing an impressive job they continue to play on the home team's turf. It just so happens that a new front—a guerilla insurgency—has opened where their opponents are weak that could help tip the balances—off-grid energy markets that serve the world's poor.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
This front is critical to the broader war because technological disruption, and more importantly economic activity, doesn't happen in a vacuum. It occurs in a world of imperfect information that is exacerbated by power politics—politics shaped by political maneuvering that would make Sun Tzu blush. That is why a value-destroying and increasingly expensive industry, like coal, is able to maintain itself in spite of the clear advantages of its competitors.
For disruptive innovations to succeed in this environment they must be fueled by reaching customers the incumbents aren't. In other words, attacking them where they are weak. For coal that is off-grid markets where 1.3 billion customers are waiting to upend the dominant narrative of coal's ability to cost effectively feed the world’s ever expanding appetite for energy.
This Achilles heel was confirmed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in a series of reports that conclusively show that in order to deliver universal energy access over half of all energy services flowing to the un-electrified must be provided by off-grid decentralized clean energy. The reports also show that an over reliance on the opposite (large-scale centralized power—often dirty coal plants) will still leave one billion of the world's poor without energy access by 2030. That means regardless of climate concerns, the right tool for the energy access job is decentralized off-grid clean energy.
It just so happens that a vast amount of entrepreneurial energy is laying the foundation for decentralized clean energy to succeed by piggy-backing on the most successful leapfrog technology to date—mobile phones. Currently 411 million people have access to a mobile phone network but lack access to energy. That's because over the past decade there has been a rapid increase in mobile phone users in rural parts of the developing world. India for instance is home to almost 300 million people without electricity access, but has nearly universal mobile phone coverage.
This leapfrog technology has induced demand for power from rural users who want to keep their cell phones charged—and from mobile phone providers who want those cell phones charged to increase revenues. This has touched off a race amongst mobile phone companies climbing all over one another to provide off-grid customers with cheap small-scale distributed clean energy. In 2010 the GSMA, an association of mobile operators worldwide, estimated providing clean energy to this market was worth nearly $3.3 billion in increased revenues for mobile phone companies.
On top of this scramble the mobile phone companies must now construct 639,000 off-grid "base stations"—radio towers that convert electricity into radio waves. In India alone there are an estimated 240,000 towers projected to grow to more than 350,000 by 2012. Currently these towers are powered by costly and insecure diesel supplies whose economics simply don't work in a world of ever increasing oil prices. In fact some countries like India have mandated that diesel be replaced with cheaper and cleaner decentralized clean energy—solar, biomass and wind. Current estimates peg the Indian cell phone tower conversion market alone (diesel to solar) at 2 GW.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Building excess capacity into these systems builds the bridge into the real market—the 1.3 billion people currently lacking access to electricity. This excess capacity can be sold to local communities via mini-grids, transportable batteries or by directly charging applications on site expanding this market opportunity through distributed community power. The cell phone operators provide anchor demand and a stable revenue stream, third-party entrepreneurs (the Husk Power), Frontier Markets, Simpa Systems, SELCO-India, GreenLightPlanet, and OMCs of the world own/operate these renewable energy plants, and local communities receive electricity and provide revenue for the entrepreneur.
But the opportunity doesn't end there. These social entrepreneurs are also busily pioneering 'pay as you go' solar systems that leverage mobile money and M2M technology to create flexible payment systems for the world's poor. This can break down traditional barriers of cost and cash flow that have halted efforts to shift away from dirty energy to the world's most sophisticated technologies. In essence innovations like these open the financial door to the 1.3 billion person strong market ready to fund our insurgency.
There is no reason to believe the scale and speed of this transition will be anything less than revolutionary. Remember in the U.S. the shift to cars from horses or from steam to diesel electric locomotives took less than 12 years. Or more recently the shift from landlines to mobile phones has largely happened in just 10 years. Already off-grid solar has grown leaps and bounds with countries like Bangladesh installing 30,000 to 40,000 solar home systems every month with a total of one million systems installed to date.
As the shift from centralized and dirty to distributed and clean speeds up it will remove the rhetorical justification fossil fuels rely on. But more importantly it will dry up the cash reserves that would have helped maintain political influence. That means that how we power the world's poor is just as important, and perhaps even more, than how we power the rest.
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.
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By Betsy Mason
For decades, climate scientist David Keith of Harvard University has been trying to get people to take his research seriously. He's a pioneer in the field of geoengineering, which aims to combat climate change through a range of technological fixes. Over the years, ideas have included sprinkling iron in the ocean to stimulate plankton to suck up more carbon from the atmosphere or capturing carbon straight out of the air.
Solar geoengineering would involve injecting reflective aerosols from high-altitude planes into the layer of the upper atmosphere known as the stratosphere, which stretches between 10 to 50 kilometers (6 to 31 miles) above Earth's surface. The idea is that the aerosol particles would reflect a small amount of sunlight away from the planet, reducing the amount of heat trapped by greenhouse gases and mitigating some of the effects of climate change.
The planned Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment will send a balloon carrying scientific instruments in a gondola into the stratosphere. The instruments will release a small amount of material — likely ice or mineral dust — to form a kilometer-long plume of aerosol particles (left). Modified airboat propellers will allow the gondola to maneuver above the plume (middle) and lower instruments into the plume to take repeated measurements of how the particles spread through the stratosphere (right). ADAPTED FROM J.A. DYKEMA ET AL / PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY A 2014
David Keith envisions using multiple approaches to combat climate change. The red line shows how the impacts of climate change would worsen with a business-as-usual scenario of unabated burning of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions. Aggressively cutting emissions bends that curve, and removing carbon from the atmosphere offers further cuts, but there are still consequences from the already high levels of carbon dioxide. In this scenario, solar geoengineering would lessen the impact from existing atmospheric carbon dioxide, effectively carving the top off the curve.<p>Some people think we should use it only as a get-out-of-jail card in an emergency. Some people think we should use it to quickly try to get back to a preindustrial climate. I'm arguing we use solar geoengineering to cut the top off the curve by gradually starting it and gradually ending it.</p><p><strong>Do you feel optimistic about the chances that solar geoengineering will happen and can make a difference in the climate crisis?</strong></p><p>I'm not all that optimistic right now because we seem to be so much further away from an international environment that's going to allow sensible policy. And that's not just in the US. It's a whole bunch of European countries with more populist regimes. It's Brazil. It's the more authoritarian India and China. It's a more nationalistic world, right? It's a little hard to see a global, coordinated effort in the near term. But I hope those things will change.</p>
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By Lisa Newcomb
Analysis released Thursday of the world's top 10 biggest plastic polluters in 15 countries reveals how major corporations hide behind the veneer of corporate responsibility while actively working to thwart regulatory legislation around the globe.
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<div id="688ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3370c14123ff2ac521085479120d1260"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306488205198401536" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">DELAY, DISTRACT and DERAIL: 3 tactics that help Big Plastic fight plastic legislation behind the scenes across the… https://t.co/f29Pc86aMj</div> — GAIA (@GAIA)<a href="https://twitter.com/GAIAnoburn/statuses/1306488205198401536">1600326036.0</a></blockquote></div>
<div id="eaab1" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0f6dbe75ec7e7ed4656a767958238c89"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306313773511303169" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Amount of federal government subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry every year: $15 billion. The amount it sh… https://t.co/NRWQWRiw5f</div> — Bernie Sanders (@Bernie Sanders)<a href="https://twitter.com/SenSanders/statuses/1306313773511303169">1600284448.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Urbanic urged lawmakers to act to protect the planet.</p><p>"The voluntary initiatives and commitments by the industry have failed," she said in a statement. "Policymakers should look past the industry smokescreen and adopt proven, progressive legislation globally to create the systemic change that this crisis so urgently needs."</p>
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The secretive blueprints for two of the leading vaccine candidates for the coronavirus were released Thursday. Pfizer and Moderna became the first two companies among the nine leading vaccine candidates to share their study designs, hoping that the disclosures will create trust and clarity for the public, as The New York Times reported.
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New Zealand could be the first country in the world to require its major financial institutions to report on the risks posed by the climate crisis.