Tag Archives: Climate Change

Combatting the Effects of Climate Change and Global Disparities in Energy Access through Solar Electrification

 

Climate Change: Current State

Source: NASA

Climate change discussions are nothing new. Fossil fuels and alternative energy discussions have been in place since before Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth in 2006, and will continue long after this year. NASA reported that 2016 was the warmest year globally, and 2015 was the warmest before that, illustrating gradual increases in temperature. In turn, rising temperatures have contributed to increased intensity of weather related threats such as hurricanes, like the devastating Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina last year. Rising temperatures have also contributed to warmer water and air around the Antarctic, which recently resulted in a large iceberg, the size of Delaware, breaking off from Antarctica and “fundamentally changing the landscape of the Antarctic peninsula.” As the landscape around us reacts to changes in the environment, what does the future hold?

David Wallace-Wells, a journalist focusing on climate change and the environment, recently outlined his vision to this question in a New York Magazine article “The Uninhabitable Earth.”  He paints a bleak future where disease burden increases, increased violence erupts, economic instability rises, and humanity faces the consequences of the resulting turmoil. Wallace-Wells warns “parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.”

Global Disparities in Energy Access

Source: USAID

In order to feel the gravity of climate change consequences, one should first understand the disproportionality of electricity access and energy consumption. In the United States, virtually everyone has access to electricity. At the same time, the U.S. is also one of the highest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. The country produced 6.587 million metric tons of Carbon Dioxide in 2015, with 29% from electricity use.

Compare this to the 1.2 billion people (16% of the global population) who lack access to electricity. Nearly 95% of this energy-poor population resides in rural Sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, revealing one of the largest development challenges of our time. The world’s population is expected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050, with half the growth occurring in Africa. If these individuals were to gain access to electricity via natural gas or coal, given the expected population growth, it is likely that the Wallace-Wells perspective of climate change will be a quickly emerging reality.

So how are businesses tackling both the development challenge of increasing global electricity access while simultaneously understanding the importance of sustainability and limited resources?

Sustainable Developments in Solar Electrification 

Source: Matthieu Young, USAID

Enterprising companies have been creating alternate sources of renewable energy to bring electricity to individuals in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. By moving straight to clean technology and renewable energy in the form of solar and wind powered electricity initiatives, these companies are “leapfrogging” past the detrimental effects of natural gas and coal. This is right in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number seven to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”

Electrifying Sub-Saharan Africa is important – not just for those living in the region but also for the world. Increased access to affordable and reliable electricity will help poverty alleviation, as there are increased opportunities for business growth, longer hours of operation, and the ability to integrate technology into daily life. Hospitals are able to treat patients in better conditions, leading to overall health improvements. Schools are able to increase students’ access to education through different information communication technologies leading to increased teacher retention and student completion rates.

The main push, as described by Bill McKibben in the New Yorker, has been a “Race to Solar-Power Africa.” McKibben describes how both American and African led businesses are using innovative and affordable mechanisms to supply electricity though affordable off-grid solar kits in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Off-grid solar power systems do not require the same cumbersome and expensive infrastructure that currently exist in the United States. As a result, these innovative systems help cut labor and capital costs in bringing electricity to regions previously without access. These systems also help lower long-term costs as they are affordable – essentially the same cost, if not lower, as traditional kerosene – and provide clean electricity lasting up to four times longer.

Both the affordability and increased duration of electricity are partially due to the drop in prices of solar panels, coupled with technology advances enabling the creation of more efficient light bulbs.

Innovative Solar Companies

Several solar companies and entrepreneurs are entering the electrification space in Sub-Saharan Africa because it is relatively nascent and not yet monopolized. Companies are entering the market through different avenues including as a solar panel providers, solar panel installers, as utility companies, or as wholesalers or retailers of solar products.

One American company, Off-Grid Electric, sells a starter kit including “a panel, a battery, a few L.E.D. lights, a phone charger, and a radio” priced at just $8 a month for three years. After the three years have passed, the family or individual then owns the kit.

Black Star Energy, a Ghanaian company offers solar power in the guise of a utility company. Black Star installs solar micro-grids in communities needing electricity. Unlike Off-Grid Electric where individuals pay for the physical equipment, Black Star users “will always pay bills, but the charges start at only two dollars a month.” They are essentially paying for the utility of electricity, and therefore, will never own the technology themselves.

These personal home solar kits are one sustainable method by which to electrify Africa. Innovations, such as Off-Grid Electric, have gained traction due to venture capital support from Silicon Valley and USAID’s Power Africa mechanism which pledged four million dollars to solar start-ups focusing on African off-grid energy.

The benefits from electrification will help Sub-Saharan African nations close the gap in energy poverty while rising against several existing development challenges. Leadership from these nations benefitting from renewable energy initiatives will be essential in curbing global climate change threats, and can perhaps alter the way we currently think about development and growth.

 

 

 

Hurricane Sandy Reminds Us of the Shortfalls of GDP

By: Nina Brooks

 

Hurricane Sandy caused widespread destruction with 56 deaths in the United States, 4 million people without power, public transportation shutdowns, and is poised to be the second most expensive storm in America’s history. While there has been some looting and increases in crime, overall we have seen a vastly more effective national response to Sandy compared to Hurricane Katrina. In low-income countries massive devastation from natural disasters is commonplace, but those countries have few resources to cope with the damage. On the other hand, in the United States the destruction will spark our productive and creative capacity to overcome the economic devastation. But there is something awfully perverse to that logic.

 

EQECAT, a catastrophe risk modeling firm, estimates the initial economic damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in the range of $30-50 billion. But this figure will likely grow over the next few weeks as the full impact of power outages and public transportation shutdowns are accounted for. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina caused $108 billion in damage. The New York Stock Exchange shut down for two full days due to the storm, which is the first time since 1888, and forecasters are making predictions for Sandy’s effect on 4th quarter GDP. “While natural disasters take a large initial toll on the economy, they usually generate some extra activity afterward,” said Moody’s Analytics Ryan Sweet. GDP is a flow measure—thus the existing stock of wealth is not included in that measurement nor is the destruction of that wealth, but the economic activity associated with rebuilding is included. As the nation, and particularly the Northeast, comes together and rebuilds the damage from Hurricane Sandy, the economic productivity generated could in fact offset the loss caused by the damage in the first place. This is why we often hear arguments about the “silver lining” of natural disasters.

 

This potentially pernicious aspect of GDP is exacerbated by the recession, as we are constantly looking for signs of recovery and GDP growth is still our go to indicator. GDP clearly does not capture all of the things that are crucial for producing a real economic recovery and generating lasting well being.  Rather than expending the nation’s productive capacity on creating new wealth, which is still desperately needed during this recession, we will be recouping what was lost as a result of Sandy. The problem with using GDP as a proxy for well being, when in fact it is a measure of productivity, has often been discussed and debated. But why haven’t we moved past the rhetorical debate? Hurricane Katrina was a wakeup call in this regard—but then America became complacent on this issue. Before the recession hit Europe, the Beyond GDP debate, which focused on looking for indicators that take account of environmental and social aspects that serve as better proxies for well being progress, was alive and well. This debate got to the heart of the natural disaster-GDP paradox. The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy presents an opportunity to revive that debate, which is central to thinking about economic recovery and resilience.

Neither Presidential Candidate Saying Much About Climate Change

By: Hal Beresford

We saw some extreme weather during the middle months of 2012.  Strong heat waves affected millions of Americans, and the Midwest endured their most severe drought in recent memory.  In addition, a larger-than-usual number of huge wildfires scorched the western United States.  In June, one such fire – Colorado’s Waldo Canyon fire – prompted officials in Colorado Springs to evacuate 32,000 residents and ended up destroying 346 homes.

Meanwhile, more and more long-term scientific evidence is accumulating that our greenhouse gas emissions are warming earth’s climate.  The instrumental temperature record has been on a general upward trajectory since 1980 and before, and measurements indicate that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has been rising since the 19th century.  Just earlier this month, NOAA reported that September 2012 was the warmest September on record (tied with 2005) in records going back to 1880.

U.S. government agencies have noticed the large and growing scientific evidence in support of climate change, and they forecast that climate change will likely cause us big problems down the road.  The EPA’s Climate Change page lists today in one of its headlines that, “hurricanes in the Atlantic are likely to become more intense.”  In another headline, it notes that average sea levels are projected to rise up to two feet by the end of this century, eliminating 10,000 square miles of land in the United States.  (10,000 square miles is slightly less than the area of Massachusetts.)

Despite such risks, climate change has not emerged as a big issue in this year’s presidential race.  Barack Obama has only occasionally voiced support for new policies to slow climate change, and Mitt Romney has been mostly absent on the issue.  After three heavily-watched presidential debates, the candidates have remained mostly silent on climate change.

Granted, we as a nation have extremely pressing short-term issues to deal with.  Too many Americans can’t find work, our government finances are a mess, and we are still at war in Afghanistan.  These are all serious issues that most Americans currently care more about than environmental concerns, so it makes sense that Obama and Romney would focus more on them.

It also likely that Obama and Romney might not want to wade into the climate change debate because of political reasons.  Al Gore’s 2006 movie The Inconvenient Truth sparked a passionate public discussion about climate change that is still ongoing.  If Obama spoke out strongly on acting to slow climate change, the main effect might only be to motivate more right-leaning voters to go to the polls on Election Day to vote Romney.  If Romney did so, he would alienate influential climate change deniers within his party.

No matter the candidates’ reasons, climate change is the only issue that is projected to eliminate 10,000 square miles of U.S. territory and generate higher-intensity hurricanes unless we act on it.  We can’t wait forever to act because the only way to stop a strong hurricane or an increase in ocean level is to prevent it.  I hope that our presidential candidates will acknowledge that and discuss climate change as an important issue.