Thursday 14 April 2016

Bill Gates & Africa's Energy Poverty: Good Intentions; Dangerous Interpretations

This is one blog post where I really seek feedback. 
Whether contrary points of view (preferably), or corrections, or any kind of contribution on this critical topic affecting our continent. So please feel free to share your thoughts at the end....

Bill Gates To Help The Poor Get Energy

"These days, I don’t take energy for granted. I know what a difference it can make in the lives of the poorest [people], and I’m committed to helping them get it."                                       - Bill Gates

The above quote came from Bill Gates' blog post entitled "Powering The Fight Against Poverty" and I couldn't be happier with him for it. ♥

I find myself sharing opinions with the legendary computer scientist and entrepreneur on many other thoughts from his blog; like Africa being the least to blame for climate change and yet the most likely to suffer the greatest causalities to its effects

I also loved Mr Gates' kind advocacy for Africa where he says,
"Instead of putting constraints on poor countries that will hold back their ability to fight poverty, we should be investing dramatically more money in R&D to make fossil fuels cleaner and make clean energy cheaper than any fossil fuel."

That one came from another 2014 blog post by Mr Gates.  
In fact here is a scrumptious video bonus for you here ► Bill Gates speaking at TED.

Bill Gates' "Faulty" Argument?

Nevertheless, I am going to very respectfully disagree with Mr Gates on one particular point. And emphatically as well because of the gravity of what is at stake:

"We should not try to solve the problem on the backs of the poor. For one thing, poor countries represent a small part of the carbon-emissions problem. And they desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them to wait for the technology to get cheaper." 

This is indeed very nice and thoughtful from the philanthropist, but I warn against very likely misconceptions that such a statement could very easily generate and has very possibly already generated.

Not all of today's clean energy solutions are too expensive for Africa (And I am referring to sub-Saharan Africa). Solar energy is MOST certainly NOT too expensive for us! 
The rate at which costs of renewable energy solutions is falling is too dramatic to make such dismissive statements at this point in time.

I am very confident that solar will actually be cheaper for us, not just in the long term (beyond 2030), but even in the mid term (from 2020 to 2030) as well. So why wait? Why not begin building capacity right now? 

Feeling The Full Blast Of Africa's Energy Poverty

But before someone gets irked by that claim, and accuses me of being an insensitive son of an ex-military ruler that spends most of his days living lavishly in the UK, let me quickly add that I fit perfectly into the category of those people who Bill Gates says are in desperate need of electricity right now!

I do not currently earn enough to power my home any much more than the average Nigerian does. Despite that, I am certain that I have, by far, more need of electricity than any human being I ever met, by reason of the amount of time I spend everyday on the Web - improving my knowledge and skill on Semantic Web technologies, Big Data, digital marketing and Google Analytics. I also obsessively do research on electric vehicles, battery technologies, micro-grid distribution, and most of all, renewable energy generation - including solar, geothermal, biomass, solar thermal, and emerging sustainable energy trends.

Yes, you could argue that all of this boils down to simply powering a laptop, and yet recently when both my laptop battery and my UPS backup system both went bad, I suddenly realized how desperate such a situation was, and how terrible it must feel to live like this all year round.

Add to that the fact that I have to deal with teaching a small (but growing) group of young people to help them acquire digital skills and learn code, yet who live in much harder circumstances than even I ever imagined (and cannot even afford their own laptops).

Side note:
 I didn't start obsessing over renewable energy because I was an environmentalist that wants to save the world (even though I have NOW indeed began to care).
I do it because my commonsense tells me that Africa has to key-into the knowledge economy at some point in our existence, and we can not go back to begin at the stage of the industrial revolution.
I realize that we simply have to START FROM THE FUTURE! And renewable energy, for me, is clearly that future. So as strange as it sounds, our present wretched state of electricity supply is an opportunity for us....

So I can safely say that I am many times more awake to the electricity horror than any other Nigerian right now, and YET, here I am, INSISTING that solar energy should be our NUMBER ONE priority!!! (without necessarily abandoning our natural gas projects of course).

So how could Bill Gates' statement generate misconceptions? 

"... They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them wait for the technology to get cheaper."

First recognize that I actually found Bill Gates' article during a spirited debate with a fellow Nigerian who had completely bought Mr Gates' argument. Which at the time, wasn't really Mr Gates' argument. But he (Bill Gates) had actually given some sort of endorsement to a certain Bjorn Lomborg. Find that here. 

During the course of our argument, I kept referring him to data from energy related sources (like the US EIA, World Economic Forum and US.DOE). He on the other hand kept referring to statements made by Bill Gates. 

You see, the dynamic at work here is that when the richest man in the world appears to say that Africa should leave clean energy to the developed world, the danger is that many Nigerians would probably not bother with any kind of confirmatory or contradictory research on the matter any longer. Many would just simply fall in line

They could very likely dismiss the idea of renewables altogether; in fact some of the elite already are dismissing it.
And knowing my society the way I do, I can guess that even if solar became a hundred times cheaper than fossil fuels, Nigerian policy makers would then still probably need to be struck by lightning first, in order to revisit the argument again. 

Here are two tweets from Nigerian billionaire, Tony Elumelu during the World Economic Forum at Davos 2016:

Again, this kind of talk will leave many not-so-informed people with the idea that renewable energy is a kind of luxury that will never be able to replace fossil fuel sources. 

Similar comments have come from Jim Ovia and Aliko Dangote (Nigeria and Africa's richest man) who appears to have been getting very friendly with Bill Gates since the latter brought his admirable fight against polio to Nigeria in 2011. 

Now, compare Koffi Annan's comment:

I should point out that Alhaji Dangote is among the many billionaires who joined Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy Coalition that was announced at the Climate Change Conference (COP21) .

Would it be a surprise me to see Dangote team up with Bill Gates sometime in the near future, trying to sell his TerraPower travelling wave nuclear reactor to Nigeria? 
Not likely.

Follow The Truth; Follow What Is Abundantly Clear

The truth is, I have nothing against people who "follow" Bill Gates (I don't mean on Twitter). I just think these issues are much bigger than one man. Regardless of how smart, or how rich, or how generous that man is. 

Africans need to have their own thinkers.
Other parts of the world are fast becoming knowledge economies. Innovation always trumps maintaining the status-quo.

So why must we be different?

Figuring out how to convert all of the free knowledge available to us into location-biased technology, and that technology into location-biased solutions is our only challenge. 

We can overcome this challenge through the use of clear focused government policy that makes solar power generation and solar technology research very attractive in sub-Saharan Africa, and more importantly, attractive to young Africans. If we do not incentivize it, it will never get a fighting chance against the traditional sources (like oil, gas and coal).

I cannot say that I am 100% certain that Bill Gates is wrong, but I personally prefer Elon Musk's "sleeves rolled-up", value-chain thinking approach to the CO2 problem. Musk and several other "hands-on" entrepreneurs are tackling the issue from many angles, eventhough they are not all multi-billionaires like Bill Gates and Alhaji Dangote. 
In my opinion, their drive to defeat global warming will soon catch up with our hunger for energy. 

It only makes logical sense that a technology that requires a raw material that is absolutely and abundantly free ( the sun, heat and the winds) will surely become cheaper than the alternatives that need to be extracted and processed before being used to generate power.

So whether it is for Climate Change, or for reducing Energy Poverty, these people's (Elon Musk and co) continuous ACTION will keep doing exactly what the world needs: persist in driving down the cost of solar panels, other renewables and energy storage. 

So Nigerians must quickly realize that we must choose to prioritize on sustainability. And start putting in the necessary action now!
Coal is not sustainable, and I doubt that gas is either. 
America and Europe may have gotten their opportunity with coal during the famous industrial revolution, but things are different now....

Solar is the "new coal". It is also the "new oil". 
We must see this as a revolution for us as well, not just a means of generating electricity. 
We must not utterly fail this lesson!
Sooner, rather than later, we must understand that this is an excellent opportunity for us to aggressively gain a bit of lost ground on that exponentially increasing technological gap between us and the Asians (not to mention Europe and the US). 


What I am saying is not meant to take anything away from Africa's traditional power generating projects, like our natural gas projects in Nigeria.
I strongly suggest that we continue to grow our generating capacity with gas, rather than flaring it. 
But why should this slow down any solar aspirations we might have?  

Again, I repeat that the main reason why I am strongly advocating for solar energy is not because I am trying to save the planet but actually because I am convinced that it will not be any more expensive than the traditional sources that Africa is used to.

Let us consider the Grand Inga Dam Project which African leaders came up with. Consider that $80 billion is to be spent on this project that should bring 40,000 MW of power between 2020 and 2025. This number (40GW) is no doubt very good news for Africa, and even more so that that price includes the cost of transmission lines as well. But Africa has only one Inga falls. 

Now, obviously there is no way that any solar project can dream of that 40 GW output number. The largest solar project currently, is in the Mojave Desert in California and it's output is presently less than 400MW. 
Now, It cost $2.2 billion, but there are reports of bigger projects coming up around the world that would be proportionately bigger and cheaper. 

But my real argument is that if we quickly add very large solar projects to this Grand Inga Dam thing, it will start us off on a path that would definitely bring down the cost of future renewable projects in sub-Saharan Africa and in each respective individual country. 
Concentrated Solar Thermal Plant in Mojave Desert, California
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is a concentrated solar thermal plant in the California Mojave Desert. It has a gross capacity of 392 megawatts.

Let us take a look at the relentless drives being made by developed nations, confederations and agencies (like the IEA and IRENA), and realize that we must also gear up for the future. The world is certainly not playing around with renewable energy, and neither should we. They are not only worried about global warming, they are ALSO aggressively trying to break their shackles from oil exporting nations. (Nigeria, does that mean anything to you?)

We must understand the potential implications of the strides achieved by the State of California, and more recent ambitious goals by China, Oman, Morocco and the City of Vancouver.
Back in 2012, the Barack Obama of the US made a deal with auto manufacturers to reduce fuel consumption to 50 miles per gallon. This is part of a long term goal to reduce fossil fuel consumption of US vehicles by 80% before 2050.

It is sad that at such a time when (reliable) information is free on the Web, many Africans seem to be intellectually lazy. But we must encourage our children to read extensively for their sake, and their children's. 

It is really upsetting every time I read about possible plans to build more HVDC transmission lines that would potentially carry power generated in African deserts to Europe. It doesn't upset me because I think Europeans are greedy - after all, the existing lines have been bringing power from Europe to North Africa anyways. What upsets me is the fact that Europeans have seen the huge potential of Africa's sunny deserts for ages, while we refuse to open our eyes.

I am not an engineer but I have done a lot of research into this power crisis for a few years now. And I have made my conclusions that decentralized distribution is one of the biggest solutions that sub-Saharan Africa will need to truly overcome our energy poverty.

Part 2 of this post will continue with my ideas on decentralized Micro-grids, battery storage, and how sub-Saharan African governments (like our North African counterparts) can attract the best solar energy deals to the continent, and also build local skill and capacity in the process. It is now ready. Find it here.

Now it's time to hear from you.
Do you have any contrary points of view (preferably), or corrections, or any kind of contribution on this critical topic affecting our continent? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments....