By the end of the recent GSBI in-residence program, I was feeling energized, appreciative, and – on one question – flummoxed. It was a fleeting, rhetorical question: Was my focus solving poverty or solving climate change? I’m a new apostle of simplified messaging, but on this point, ‘both’ still seems the right answer.
“The poor cannot afford poor solutions,” says social entrepreneur Runa Khan. In an era of climate change, none of us can afford poor energy solutions. Happily, clean energy is now nearly universally the most cost-effective way to generate electricity. We do not need to choose between cheap, high-quality and clean. They are the same.
I work in Haiti, building electricity systems in towns that have never before had grid power. I’m often surprised when people separate energy poverty from climate change. I get a good laugh out of my US clean energy friends when I gently tease, “It’s easier to build a ‘town-sized, solar-powered smart grid in rural Haiti than it is in [Washington, DC / Santa Clara / Insert any major grid-connected city name here].” They know it’s true. Of course, I face different challenges, but building something from scratch is always easier than disrupting the status quo. There is no incumbent infrastructure or utility business model in the towns where I work, so I get to collaborate with local and international partners to think through what the best system could be. Building self-contained off-grid utility systems, we get to face many of the ‘big grid’ challenges on a micro scale. Is 100% clean energy possible? Yes. Is storage essential? For solar microgrids, yes. Are clean energy microgrids exciting elements of resilient power systems of the future? Definitely.
First and foremost, building energy access is about solving poverty. Electricity is not sufficient for prosperity, but it is essential. In rural Haiti, families without electricity are spending 10% of their income on kerosene and candles for lighting. (In the US we generally spend less than 0.5% of our income on lighting.) Around the world, over a billion people have no electricity, with tragic consequences. Without electricity, there is very little opportunity.
Solving energy poverty can also help solve climate change. The two issues are linked. “Sustainable energy is opportunity – it transforms lives, economies and the planet,” reads Sustainable Development Goal 7. That Goal is summarized as “affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”
Clean energy microgrids can directly reduce CO2 and black carbon emissions by replacing kerosene lamps and diesel generators. If electric cooking pilots are successful, they can also replace charcoal. Though wick-based kerosene lamps emit only modest CO2, they are significant emitters of atmospheric ‘black carbon’, a strong climate warmer.
EarthSpark takes a ‘ feminist electrification’ approach to energy access, intentionally leveraging the arrival of electricity to benefit women. Here, Rosane Jean-Jacques, a grid ambassador, sells electricity credits from a tablet.
Clean energy microgrids can also chart the course for grid decarbonization. Ironically, important grid innovation may come from remote villages that have not yet seen electricity. Where there is no incumbent infrastructure, there is an opportunity to build energy systems with today’s best technologies and business models. These models that leverage clean energy, storage, smart grid, and customer participation can be adapted to inform the evolving utility business models in established markets. For example, both Homer Energy’s microgrid software tool and SparkMeter’s low-cost smart meters were both initially developed for stand-alone microgrids and are now seeing applications in central grids.
Of course, solving energy poverty will not alone solve the climate change crisis. There are many levers we should be pulling simultaneously, only some of which are addressed by solving energy poverty. Indeed, Project Drawdown‘s list of 100 climate solutions rank “microgrids” a lowly #78. But an integrated electrification approach involves not only microgrids but also rooftop solar (#10), clean cookstoves (#21), LED lighting (#33), and empowering women and girls (#6). Economic development enabled by the arrival of electricity can also influence agriculture, forestry, and many other key solutions.
To be sure, if tackling energy poverty did not also address climate change, it would still be worth doing. Regions with high energy poverty, in general, have had almost no role in causing the current climate crisis. Poor countries should not be saddled with solving global emissions problems, but, because distributed clean energy systems are now cheaper and faster to build than the alternatives, poor countries have the opportunity to leapfrog straight into smart, clean, efficient systems. It just doesn’t make sense to build 20th century power systems in 2018.
Though more and more are getting built, microgrids are not easy yet. From California to Puerto Rico to India, Africa, and Haiti, proponents of microgrids are struggling with technical, participant, and policy challenges. That, to me, is precisely why energy access microgrids are so exciting. Clean energy microgrids are early-stage, but they hold enormous potential. When we solve these challenges and start to mainstream microgrids, we will have made meaningful progress towards solving both energy poverty and climate change.