1.2 billion people on Earth still don't have electricity. Even where cell phones are now common, like sub-Saharan Africa and parts of India, villagers still walk miles to charge them. But new large-scale, sustainable solutions will not only usher in a new era of light, but be an important first step in lifting people from poverty and putting them on a road of sustainable economic development. Also, a unique, transforming opportunity for Western thinkers and practitioners will be created. These areas have largely skipped the analog stage of power development, and have moved straight from the middle ages to the digital age. They are not encumbered by existing infrastructure, dependence on fossil fuels, or too many outdated laws and regulations. An ideal innovation incubator, the developing world might just be the best way to make progress on our own energy issues at home.
Jim Rogers is leading a grand collaborative effort to bring sustainable, clean electrical power to everyone who lacks it. This reverse engineering, he contends, could solve the energy crises of America and Europe, while also making the world a cleaner, smarter place. But it won't be easy. In Lighting the World, Rogers details the bold thinking, international cooperation, and political will required to illuminate the future for everyone.
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About the Author
Jim Rogers is a Research Fellow and Associate Lecturer at the School of Communications, Dublin City University. His research focuses on the evolving form and nature of the media and cultural industries in the digital era.
Stephen P. Williams is a writer and entrepreneur in New York.
Read an Excerpt
Lighting the World
Transforming Our Energy Future by Bringing Electricity to Everyone
By Jim Rogers, Stephen P. Williams
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Jim Rogers
All rights reserved.
A Vision of What Will Be
While there is as yet no such place, I know that, about 15 years from now, I will live in this world:
As I leave my well-lit home in Charlotte, North Carolina, the lights go off and the air-conditioning stills, all automatically. We've finally started to take energy use seriously in America, and I'm pleased. As I drive across the leafy city to the airport, off-grid streetlights flicker on, their nighttime power guaranteed by small, durable batteries. I board my flight and travel through the night and most of the day until I'm over East Africa at dusk.
I could swear it's brighter now than it used to be, even from thousands of feet in the air, but that can't be right. More villages are lit up, but less light is wasted. It's rare these days to see bright cities at night, especially in the US. The brightness on the ground, in thousands of villages and urban neighborhoods, is more subtle than it was in the first quarter of the century, when cities still lit themselves like torches, and people expected streets to be bright as day, even after midnight.
It's not just lights that are being conserved. I remember people leaving their houses clutching sweaters on 95-degree days because they knew the air in the shopping mall would be too cold. Given all that was happening with climate change, it became clear that we had to do things differently. And as a global culture we did just that, and faster than I would have ever thought possible.
But the beautiful part is that we still aren't deprived. We haven't given up light. We haven't given up computers. We haven't given up air-conditioning. Instead, we've learned, and are still learning, how to generate power in a less harmful way, and also how to use it more efficiently — only when we need it, rather than 24/7.
After 14 hours, the pilot announces that we are preparing to land in Kigali, Rwanda. Now here is a place that has changed dramatically. In 2015, less than 10 percent of the people in the country had steady access to electricity, but now the countryside is twinkling with lights. The country has done an amazing job of building out its grid, now powered by gas from methane ice crystals harvested from the depths of Lake Kivu, and by solar power, wind, and hydro power. At the same time, it has built up a market for efficient TVs and lights and other devices. Since the country now has a decent power supply for the first time in its history, it is even starting to create local entrepreneurs who are supplying parts to the larger appliance manufacturers, printing much of their inventory on 3-D printers. Everyone assumes that within the decade they'll be manufacturing the actual appliances here, because those big companies are looking at the Kigali area as a place not only to do business, but also to make their products. Rwanda has always had smart people and plenty of desire, but until recently it didn't have reliable, affordable electrical power and all the services that come with it.
The hills, once the scene of horrific genocide, are now packed with wind turbines spinning to feed the many large microgrids that dot the city, generating electricity for the main grid as well as backing it up when it fails. As the plane descends, I notice that many rooftops are covered with large solar panels, some to feed factories and stores, others supplying electricity to private homes and the grid. It's thrilling to see so much power in the works.
The electric tram from the airport is swift and comfortable, crowded though it is with men in suits, some women in Western attire, and others in traditional Rwandan patterns and head wraps. The tram stops at stations in some very poor areas of the capital to pick up and let off passengers. It stops at the Gisozi Memorial Genocide Centre, which, from what I can see, appears to be powered by a solar-wind hybrid microgrid.
This country, which once violated the most basic human right of over 800,000 people, was among the first to embrace the UN initiative to make access to electricity a basic human right, on par with life, food, health care, and water. It was a remarkable transition for the country, and a great boost for the UN's mission.
I'd long thought that getting the UN to recognize the vital importance of electricity as the foundation of all the other human rights was essential. Many people worked long and hard to get that resolution passed, and when it happened, I watched as country after country embraced the concept. That in turn prompted their governments to focus on increasing access to electricity. Tariffs on solar equipment were reduced. International money flowed more easily into countries that were prioritizing electricity and abandoning economic and legal barriers to getting it. It was a remarkable effort.
I awake early and eat breakfast on the terrace overlooking the city. Below, a fleet of electric vehicles are charging at a solar microgrid. I can see their sleek shapes in the gaps between the solar panels, which are slanted at this hour to capture the maximum yield of the strong morning sun. Japanese auto makers were quick to spot the market for all-terrain electric vehicles with long-life batteries — vehicles capable of taking people into the distant reaches of countries like Rwanda — but American, Chinese, and Indian manufacturers soon caught up. Now, there's a huge market for durable electric vehicles in what were once called the developing countries. These days they should be called re- innovating countries.
If anything, they've surpassed us. These countries are consistently on the cutting edge of energy, communication, and innovation. I hope that we in the West will catch up soon, although we have the larger hurdle of dismantling our previous industrial grid and manufacturing system and replacing it with something more like that of Rwanda. The world has truly shifted, and wise companies are spotting opportunity. Those whose interests are entrenched in the old ideas will quickly fall by the wayside.
After I've had some yogurt and fruit, Ali, a representative of the village of Nyabarongo, comes to collect me so I can get out and see these astonishing changes up close.
"We're doing great!" he says when I ask about life in his village. "You'll see. It hasn't been as much about new technology as it's been about new ideas we had about how to move forward. We got a lot of help from outside experts — and from studying on our own. But in the end, it came down to us wanting something different, and making it happen."
We drive in one of the electric vehicles through busy intersections marked by sophisticated stoplights that not only tell cars to stop or go, but also warn the numerous pedestrians about oncoming traffic. The activity at these intersections is relayed wirelessly to a central station that keeps the traffic flowing smoothly — the entire traffic flow system is powered by various microgrids that can be called on to join forces when more power is needed.
Soon we leave the city behind. Set back from the side of the road here and there are brick homes in which families live primarily on what they can grow. They eat most of the squash and potatoes, bananas and beans from small plots themselves, and sell any crops that are left over. This is how rural Rwandans have lived for centuries, and it works, in many ways. But today's subsistence farmers have a distinct advantage over their ancestors: power, generated by the sun and stored in batteries, to run water pumps, radios, lights, and even refrigerators and cook stoves.
We take a left off the main road, heading deeper into the countryside. The pavement soon turns to red earth. On either side of us vacant hills spread nearly empty except for grazing cattle. All the trees were cut down years before for fuel. I wonder how people feel about having decimated so much forestland, now that they have efficient electric cooktops and solar ovens that work just as well as gas or wood-burning models. I'm sure they wish this progress had come sooner, so they were still surrounded by shade trees and songbirds.
Soon we come to a village of perhaps 50 well-cared-for brick homes, surrounding a broad, shady dirt plaza. There's a church at one end and a small store at the other. Solar streetlights stand tall in front of each. We stop for a bottle of water, and I notice electrical lines running from a small building to the church. On top of the building are a few solar panels. The woman who runs the store tells me that the church got solar power several years before. Kids from the village study there at night for free, she says. However, many of the houses here are still without electricity, which is puzzling, given all the possible ways people could obtain light. She says the residents of the community have a lot of trouble working together, and they have not been able to figure out how to build and manage a good microgrid. Some of them have solar home systems, but most don't share. The interior of her own store is lit by three very bright LED hanging lamps.
"One of these days we're going to figure it out," she says, laughing.
Ali and I drive on for about ten miles into the countryside until the distant landscape starts to look surprisingly green. Unnaturally green, I think.
"What's going on?" I ask Ali.
"It's the solar irrigation pumps," he says. "It's a small miracle, really. We printed them from plans we got online."
Outside his village is one of the most ambitious off-grid irrigation projects I've ever seen. It's a community effort, in which each villager is able to apply for a parcel of land to work. Amazingly, where once there was dry, washed-out earth, now there is a fertile farm divided into individual plots.
In the past, some families grew maize and other foods in the land around their houses, and women carried water jugs on their heads from the central village pump to water the plants. It was hard, inefficient work, and the results were rarely great. And in addition to carrying water for their gardens, the women had to carry more water home for their families, who had little to eat. Many suffered from malnutrition.
These days, 40 or 50 village families work the small plots and produce a surprising amount of food. These solar-irrigated gardens can yield several thousand pounds of food per harvest. A lot of that goes to feed the families, or is sold cheaply to the other villagers, but at least a third of it is sent to other parts of the country. The community has organized a truck for delivering goods to market, and they have tools that everyone pays for on a rental basis. They grow as much as they can, and sell any excess to people as far away as Kigali. The new electric buses, run by the government, make getting around a lot easier than it used to be.
The result of this solar irrigation: families boost their incomes while cutting food costs and improving their diets.
Ali explains to me that financing and installing the 3-D printed solar irrigation pumps was not easy. The villagers couldn't come up with the thousands of dollars that were needed to get the system running. But, working with an organization in Kigali, they were able to finance the purchase. Several villagers were trained to manage and service the pumps. Then, after a long wait for the equipment to be printed, they started the farm. Now the families who cultivate crops dedicate a small percentage of their market earnings to a cooperative fund that repays the original loan and maintains enough money to cover the cost of repairs, pay the people who service the pumps, and contribute to a savings account to pay for more equipment so more families can participate. Their goal, over the next five years, is to have a plot of irrigated land for every family in the village that wants one.
We park the car at a battery charging station at the edge of the village, a few hundred yards past the boundary of the farm. I'm completely amazed by this, because we're in the middle of nowhere. I don't think even Elon Musk saw this coming when he invented the Tesla. Our driver buys a prepaid charging card. He plugs the car in, types the card's code into the charger. Ali and I go off to wander the village while our vehicle is topped off. Our driver stays with the car, of course. It's his baby.
The main street of this village is crackling with life, with lots of people on foot, and young and old alike gliding past on bicycles and motorbikes. The road is lined with brick storefronts that open to the street with goods piled in front under the overhanging roofs. There is a bed store with mattresses on display in front, a hardware store, and a phone and mobile banking kiosk. A couple of little groceries sell candles and scarves, headphones, and LED lightbulbs in addition to more usual fare. In the old days, there would be racks of phones that people had left for charging, but now, it seems, that business model has been phased out. A 3-D print shop powered by a powerful solar-wind hybrid makes useful objects and parts next door.
Nyabarongo was founded 30 years earlier by Congolese refugees fleeing "the armed men" who made life impossible. The refugees were given land here, and some metal for their roofs. They dug clay and dirt and cooked their own bricks to make the village houses. They dug wells and built up small businesses out of thin air, but life was still difficult, and it seemed there was little hope of relief, let alone prosperity. And then one of the village families managed to buy a simple LED lamp that could be charged with a little solar panel. That lamp allowed the kids to study, and let the mother earn a little extra money in the evenings by weaving baskets in the traditional style. Soon, the father invested in a more powerful solar system that allowed him to charge phones, for a fee. Within a year, it became clear to the rest of the village that the sun allowed this family to raise their standard of living by an extraordinary measure, and others got interested.
All of this interest fit well with the Rwandan government's plans to bring electricity to the entire country, and the village's obvious self-motivation drew the attention of a few agencies that were directing equipment and expertise to the countryside. A for-profit company founded in the United States had picked Rwanda as its first market in which to introduce solar home systems and microgrids, in a partnership with the Rwandan government. The residents formed a committee and named several people to study to become solar engineers. They installed simple lighting and charging systems in many homes in the village.
As the years went by, the US company's local representatives convinced the villagers to invest in a hybrid microgrid, based on wind and solar. The costs were very high and the villagers weren't sure they could afford it, even though they'd seen the standard of living rise across the board in the village.
In the end, the villagers and their Rwandan partners formed a local utility that purchased, installed, and maintained the equipment. Payment is made via mobile phone. All the data about usage, demand, generation, and distribution is gathered into computers and processed with algorithms designed to keep everything running efficiently. I'm pleased to see that the microgrid is working, that it is sustainable, and that it is supported and funded by villagers. They have a large stake in its success, and its success is due to their interest.
As we walk through the village I am struck by how neat and tidy most of the homes are, with living fences made of thorny green plants surrounding most front yards, and flowers planted around the entry porches. Some of the homes still have solar panels on their roofs, reminders of the original home solar systems, and, in truth, a good backup in case the three microgrids, each powering 75 families, fail.
A woman named Uwimana and her husband, Théophile, invite us into their home where they are raising three kids. A streaming radio tuned to the local community station advertises goods to swap — a chair for a pitcher, someone has a cow for sale — the kinds of things I remember from the radio swap meet when I was growing up in Kentucky. And then I hear someone offering to swap a digital game player for a solar flashlight, and I realize that times have changed.
The interior of the home is mostly lit by daylight, but LED bulbs light any areas that need it. An iron kettle of beans simmers on an induction range in the kitchen, and I can smell something baking in the oven. The husband explains to me that this range has the highest efficiency rating of any on the market.
"I'm paying for it with the cassava bread I sell," says Uwimana.
Her husband smiles broadly.
They also have a large low-energy flat-screen television on the wall. A tablet computer sits on the table. They use it to research whatever they want. Health information. Exchange rates. The best natural pesticides for keeping beetles away from pumpkin vines. And, of course, music videos and movies. The entire village has wireless Internet access as part of a Rwandan government initiative meant to encourage villagers to figure out how to get electricity for themselves. It turned out that Internet access, along with the thought of being able to watch soccer games and dramas on TV, was one of the biggest motivators for getting people to invest in high-powered microgrids. (Whatever reason drives people to buy energy- efficient appliances is OK with me, because, as the saying goes, the cleanest and cheapest energy is that which you do not use.)
Excerpted from Lighting the World by Jim Rogers, Stephen P. Williams. Copyright © 2015 Jim Rogers. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1 A Vision of What Will Be
2 Darkness Visible
3 From The Coal Mine to the Coffee Pot
4 The Innovative Suppliers
5 Electricity in the World
6 The Dark Side of Power
7 The Future of Power
8 The Coming Microgrids
10 The Road Ahead