"We are all one," a slight, sixteen-year-old with a quiet, present smile began. She is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl whose advocacy for girl's education in her transcendent if traditional-bound Swat Valley led the Taliban to gun her down on a school bus -- and the Skoll Foundation to give her it's third-only Global Treasure Award here at the Skoll World Forum.
Malala is not yet safe -- girls in Pakistan are still not being schooled -- but at least one of the sources of the vicious intolerance that almost cost her life is being undermined right here as we meet.
Three years ago when I first came here, the solar panels, LED lights and power electronics to solve the problem of energy poverty in places like Swat existed. Even then it was cheaper than the kerosene and diesel it thirsted to replace. Entrepreneurs were beginning to chip away at the block of granite defending traditional, centralized fossil fuel power -- to uncover the business models, distribution systems and above all credit and finance mechanisms that could free the world's poorest people, people like Malala's community, currently chained to the world's most expensive lumens of light -- kerosene lanterns.
But three years ago it was all potential. Except for Grameen Shakti in Bangladesh, no country had deployed roof-top solar, waste biomass or micro-hydro at scale to light the countryside. No off-grid company was yet ready to absorb serious working capital; no set of customers was big enough to attract serious investment funds.
Even six months ago I could have written "we're still waiting." But somewhere around Christmas the tipping point was crossed. In the last six months, the Asian Development Bank, Venture Funder DFJ, the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Solar City, Khosla Ventures, Solar Mosaic, the Dutch and British Aid agencies, have all placed bets on off-grid renewables as a major growth sector. Customer counts that used to climb by hundreds a month now scale by the thousands and the tens of thousands. More than a million solar lanterns were sold last year in Africa by a single company. Households in India who ostensibly have grid power are emerging as the strongest customer base for higher end home solar systems, with the kilowatts to power not just lights and cell charging, but fans, laptops, TV's and refrigerators -- because solar is more reliable than the grid. The mobile-phone revolution is coming to energy.
The darkness will end.
It could end as soon as 2023, in less than a decade. Or it could linger shamefully, a blot on our century and our vision for another decade or more. Another generation of the poor could be condemned to risk being borne in darkness, educated by candlelight, and trapped by energy poverty. Because energy access still faces two major challenges.
Challenge One: A sector taking off, like off grid renewables, is initially a massive set of experiments. What is the best technology to supply remote Pakistani villages and urban slums with roof-top power? How can India use solar water pumping to slash its waste of water and power and liberate crop yields? What are the most scalable marketing tools now that poor in Nigeria have energy choices? Will existing trusted brands and institutions become the new power purveyors in Tanzania, or will renewable companies join the ranks of Coke, SafariCom and Shell Oil as familiar faces across the African landscape?
No one knows -- or can know -- so finding out fast is vital.
The distributed revolution needs to learn from itself -- but so far the sector lacks the transparency and connectivity that enable such rapid learning. Here again the mobile phone companies, who have built institutions and mechanisms to share learning -- are a model worth copying.
Challenge Two: Clean, cheap distributed energy has enemies. Some are obvious -- local kerosene mafias, corrupt power company officials and politicians using energy poverty to extract bribes and votes from the poor. But others come cloaked in righteousness. Conservatives in the US House, at the behest of their fossil fuel donor base, blocked Obama Administration efforts to prioritize clean energy loans for US development agencies, like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).
Now American multinationals, like GE, are trying to permanently divert OPIC funds from helping the poor get rooftop solar to subsidizing GE's sale of natural gas power plants. Such a diversion will not increase energy supply or access -- the turbines are easy to finance. Most countries simply lack adequate, affordable supplies of natural gas, or pipelines to get it to power plant locations. And the poor won't benefit even in places new gas supplies can provide grid power -- those electrons will flow to Africa's mines, industries and elites -- because only they have hook-ups.
Malala's Pakistan is, perhaps, the soberest warning of the cruelty and folly of a company like General Electric putting its own order book ahead of the poor in Africa. Twenty years ago Pakistan bet its energy future on natural gas -- only to run out two years ago when the geopolitics of gas made it too expensive. Twenty-hour black-outs in the big cities were the single most powerful issue in last year's Pakistani elections. Half of the nation's textile worker were laid off when their factories could no longer run their machines. This urban economic disruption -- combined with the grip that energy poverty has laid upon rural areas -- fuels the violence and extremism empowering Malala's attempted assassins.
But Washington lobbyists are more worried about whether Mitsubishi or GE lands the next turbine contract -- profit margins, not energy access, not even U.S. security, is their priority. It's so sad. The amount of money needed to fire the renewable revolution is truly, truly miniscule. GE would hardly notice. And OPIC was the only U.S. agency really capable of helping the energy poor -- will it remain so?
If "we are all one", as Malala is brave enough to say, the message has not yet been heard on K Street and Capitol Hill.
A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."
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