Life Before Electricity and the 1.2 Billion Who Still Live It
So why the hell am I in Cambodia right now? And how have I managed to drag in a software engineer into whatever mess we’re about to get in? To get the answer we have to go back in time, somewhere to the mid-1700s or maybe even early 1800s, blame my university education for giving me shit research skills. But it’s around this time that Benjamin Franklin (yes the same Benjamin Franklin that’s on the U.S dollar bills), Volta, Hales and Galvani discovered that there was some type of magic that could do marvellous things, like attract certain objects, while repelling others, heat things up and even cause magical sparks – this piece of magic came to be known as electricity.
Since then, the industrial revolution took place, new lifestyles unheard of just a generation back were built on the back of electricity fuelled power. Civilisations that were handpicking cotton, travelling on horseback and living in almost utter darkness at night (save the kerosene lit lamps) began manufacturing steel, making intricate dresses with sewing machines, driving around in cars affordable for common people and reading books late into the night in their illuminated rooms, which could be returned to darkness at the flick of a switch.
Fast forward to your morning, this morning. We have our alarm clock that continues to buzz till we’re up, our electric toothbrush that keeps our gums from decaying, our kettle that keeps our coffee warm, our refrigerated milk that cools it down enough for us to sip it without burning ourselves, our charger that keeps our portable computer alive for 6 hours, our internet connection that gives us an endless supply of information and entertainment. We’ve got maps that follow us around with a little blue dot – it sits on a screen on our phone that fits in our pocket and also has enough processing power to control the first rocket that successfully landed humanity on the moon. We can wake up in the morning, on one side of the world, speak to someone on the other while showing them exactly what we are doing. And if we really want, we can even make our way to their side of the world by the evening.
All of these things have been made possible by that little bit of magic called electricity – asides from breathing, and asides from drinking water and eating food, we are more dependent on electricity than anything else in the world.
Why then, even though it’s been more than 200 years since we’ve discovered electricity, 100 years since most western populations were grid connected, 50 years since we’ve landed on the moon, that almost a fifth of the world’s population are still not connected to a reliable source of electricity? That’s right, 1.2 billion people. That means there’s 1.2 billion people who either have to use kerosene to light up lamps like they did 200 years ago, or they have to travel long distances (sometimes 10s of kilometres, by foot or bicycle) to charge up car batteries with expensive diesel fuel so they can power the most basic of appliances such as lights and a radio at home, and once they run out, they have to go and do it all over again.
I needed to understand this world – a world which for me starts in Cambodia, extends up through Bangladesh, Nepal, India through parts of the Middle East and all the way across Africa. Where for the 1.2 billion, charging your phone is a luxury, where the common woman (and man) who earns less than $100 a month has to spend more than 10 times the price we pay for electricity in Australia. When I started reading, my first thoughts were, well that fucking sucks. But scratching my head a little more vigorously, some profound questions started to arise, I wanted to know, what did connecting all these houses to electricity mean for the world? How much would it cost? What would be the best way of doing it?
Global Warming Sidenote: Even though this won’t be the case, because the developing world will have less energy intensive needs than us, and purchase more energy efficient appliances than us, let’s for a moment imagine that the average individual around the world did consume the same amount of energy as the average Australian. Let’s also assume the average person used the same fuel mix that generates the electricity through our power lines in Australia. What would this mean for the world? This would more than quadruple global annual human caused CO2 emissions, meaning global warming would (at least) double, due to the greenhouse gas effect. As of now, according to a CSIRO forecast, if we continue emitting CO2 at the rate we are today without any curbing we’re expected to increase global average temperatures by almost 4 deg C by 2100. To put this into understandable context, a 7 deg C rise would put New York City under 150m of water. The world cannot afford the 1.2 billion non connected to consume electricity like the average Australian does.
This means connecting the 1.2 billion isn’t as cheap as it has been in the past. It will take approximately $860 billion USD of investment to connect 75% of the non-connected houses globally by 2030. This forecast from the World Bank assumes it will cost on average $920 to connect each of these houses to the grid, and if the remaining 25% were to be connected, it would cost even more, more than $1,500 per house to connect each of them to the grid. These costs are high, and with there being a massive shortfall between what’s planned and the $860 billion required, the future for grid connection looks bleak.
So what are our options then? Funnily enough I spent the better part of 5 years of my undergraduate degree studying what is potentially the most suitable option – solar power. Most of the off-grid households lie in pretty sunny places of the world (near the equator), and solar power is both modular and decentralised. That means you can power a single house in the middle of nowhere without connecting them to the grid, and when the time comes right, more solar panels can be added to increase the amount of power the houses generate.
To compare how much it would cost for a solar home system vs. connecting to the grid (on average $920) I’ve put together the following graphic:
So the first conclusion of this blog post is, yes there is an alternative to the grid. Connect houses in remote areas to solar power. This solves the immediate problem of electrifying households who are in hard to reach areas. Whether or not it’s the right decision in the long term is debatable, because what if these houses want to use bigger appliances? What if they want power for a washing machine, an automatic garage, an air conditioner, a heater? Well the way I look at it is, 1. If they don’t get solar power now, they’ll be left with the bleak alternatives (ie Kerosene and super expensive Diesel which is on average 5 – 10 times the cost of solar until they are grid connected). 2. Solar is modular, more solar panels and batteries can be installed as needs increase (and panels and battery prices are going down, the cost of power lines and fossil fuel generated energy is not).
Cool, so that explains why solar is a good option, it also explains why there’s a race all around the world between companies big and small like Mobisol, Off-Grid Electric, Grameen, NRG-Solutions (the list goes on) who are helping distribute solar home systems to off-grid customers and making a shit tonne of money off of it – because it’s the best alternative to what’s currently out there. But what’s not explained is, why then, if there’s so much potential for solar, are there STILL 1.2 billion people without electrification?!
The answer actually lies in the immediate affordability of these systems. Remember the average woman (and man) in these countries make less than $100 USD a month. The less you have, the harder it is to save. The bottom line is, the few hundred dollars required to install a solar home system is just not affordable for the vast majority of non-grid connected remote households. And for various reasons, it’s just as hard for these guys to get access to a loan from a bank. The number of dependants they have may ring an alarm bell, they might have seasonal income which depends on crop yields and the weather or they might just not have enough credit history to satisfy a bank’s risk appetite. It sucks, but the vast majority of off-grid households just simply can’t afford to purchase solar.
The other side of the coin is, that for households who can afford solar, they usually generate more power than they can use, and as a result some of that power is wasted. This is because power is a point in time thing. If what you generate is not either consumed or stored immediately, it is transferred to the ground and can no longer be used – it’s as good as gone. Because solar home systems are typically designed for the months of the year with the least amount of sunlight (to make sure there’s enough electricity to power all appliances during these months), during the rest of the year and also during days where appliances aren’t used that much or if there’s a streak of sunny days in a row, the panels generate more power than can be consumed and eventually the battery gets full and power gets wasted. Speaking to a few solar companies around the world, the data backs this up. Basically every solar home system has some kind of wastage, and according to our calculations we estimate it to be around 30% of total power generation.
This is a pretty crucial part of the post, so I’ll reiterate the key points:
- Most non grid connected remote households can’t afford solar power, even though it’s way cheaper than the alternatives.
- Households that can afford solar power usually have perfectly good excess generation that’s wasted and doesn’t help anyone.
How’s this for a thought? What if we connect the houses that have solar panels to the houses that don’t?
Then we let the houses that have more power than they can consume share their excess power with their neighbours.
Households who have excess solar can sell it at a profit to their neighbours. Households who can’t afford a solar panel can buy solar power from their neighbours for less than they’d have to pay for super expensive diesel fuelled power generation.
I think it’s a win-win. And that’s why myself and my software engineer partner in crime are in Cambodia right now. We’re working on testing this concept out in the field (www.okrasolar.com).
Thanks ☺ And any questions, please comment or feel free to hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org.