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Bill Gates Calls For 'Energy Miracle' In 15 Years. Do Experts Agree?

A world in light and dark: This satellite view shows where electric lights are in high usage.
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A world in light and dark: This satellite view shows where electric lights are in high usage.

The annual letter from the Gates Foundation calls for an "energy miracle" — the creation of a cheap and clean source of energy to get power to the 1.2 billion people on the planet without electricity.

"We need to try lots of crazy-seeming ideas so we can find a few that help us solve the world's energy challenge," Bill Gates writes in the letter, urging today's high school students to take on this task.

We asked people who work on energy issues in the developing world: In your mind, what would an energy miracle be? Are there any downsides?

First of all, it's important to remember that for many millions of people around the world, electricity really would be a miracle. Esther Ngumbi, born in Kenya and now a postdoctoral researcher in the department of entomology and plant pathology at Auburn University, told us, "My family in Kenya just recently received an energy miracle. For the first time since I was born, we were able to flip the switch. Having access to electricity has allowed us to pump water from the well and use it to irrigate our crops, power our computers and phones, have reading lights for students attending our school. We are already thinking of buying our parents a refrigerator so that they can store food. This would be another miracle. This means that time spent cooking food three times a day will be put into other activities. Imagine if such a transformation happens to the people who lack access to energy! We clearly would be able to eradicate poverty and hunger in our lifetime!"

Those are some of the reasons that our energy mavens agree with Gates: Energy for all is a priority. But they put a lot of emphasis on using the environmentally friendly technologies we already have in smarter ways. Here are their comments, edited for clarity and length. Note: We asked these contributors if they'd received grants from the Gates Foundation and the answer was almost uniformly no (the Center for Global Development gets some Gates funding but not for its energy work). As our readers may know, Gates is a funder of NPR and this blog.

Cleanliness is next to godliness

Evans Wadongo, a Kenyan engineer and a clean energy entrepreneur

I am glad that Bill Gates realizes that we need to have not only cheap energy but clean also. I was against his earlier notion, which indicated that poor countries just need cheap energy for now even if it's not necessarily clean.

Many rural areas in developing countries are off grid. If the cost of solar and wind and storage of generated power can significantly come down, then such areas can afford to have clean energy — both from small systems at a household level and from large systems at a community level.

Jobs first

Carl Manlan, executive secretary at Africa Against Ebola Solidarity Trust

What would an energy miracle be? When Africa's industrialization is a catalyst for job creation. [These] decent-paying jobs will allow more citizens to afford alternative sources of energy. The miracle that Africa requires is to have more decent-paying jobs that allow more citizens to afford alternative sources of energy. Making energy a priority is a critical part of the "Africa rising" narrative. It focuses the conversation on what Africa needs to be able to transform itself.

Energy on our terms

Julia Corvalan, international development leader at Fundacion Paraguaya

For the developing world, a more important miracle will be for us to be actively involved in the development of clean energies on our own terms and to realize the opportunities that are there for us to take.

For that to happen, we need to harness our capacity for frugality, ingenuity and entrepreneurship that we have seen in other areas of our development, like affordable microloans or mobile money, and put them to use to solve our energy needs.

We must be practical

Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa, lawyer and managing partner, Hoja Law Group

A more practical possibility is affordable access to power for at least eight hours a day in rural and urban areas. For areas that the grid can't reach, there would be off-grid solutions.

Business models like M-Kopa Solar, where people can pay for energy by mobile phone, will be replicated and made more efficient. For individuals purchasing solar panels, there will be quality assurance on the goods to ensure the best quality products are imported. Also, people locally would be trained to maintain the solar panels rather than discarding them after a malfunction.

For countries to rise to the middle income and further reduce poverty, manufacturing is key. Manufacturing can't happen with high costs and erratic power.

We can't do it without better leaders

Utibe Effiong, research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, primary care physician

What is really needed is good governance — and at this time it looks like we'll need many miracles for that to happen! As long as African governments remain corrupt and lack accountability, our vast clean energy resources will either lie untapped, be underutilized or become the cause of new armed conflicts.

It's the only way to join the club

Todd Moss, chief operating officer and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development

I think Bill Gates is on to a really important issue. Energy is the foundation of modern life: the way we work, live, travel, communicate all requires huge amounts of energy. And energy is critical to job growth and wealth creation. People can't work in a factory if it's 100 degrees. If we don't want countries to burn a lot more fossil fuels in the future, we're going to need better technology to create the volume of modern energy that people in aspiring economies require. And wealthy, educated, healthy societies consume large amounts of energy. There are no rich countries that consume a little bit of energy.

There's nothing wrong with starting small

Esther Ngumbi, food security fellow for The Aspen Institute's New Voices

I do not think there is a downside to making energy a priority. In fact, I think the other case scenario would be the worst. But the energy miracle does not have to be a BIG miracle. It can start small. It should be affordable. The 1 billion people who lack energy also happen to live on a budget of less than a dollar a day. Therefore, innovators and governments who are working behind the scene to create the energy miracles should ensure that the people who need the miracle the most can afford it. I do not think there is a downside to making energy a priority. In fact, I think the other case scenario would be the worst.

Do no harm

Sasanka Thilakasiri, senior policy adviser for energy and climate, Oxfam America

There are some types of technology that are being made in the name of energy access that don't actually benefit poor people, like large, centralized plants that in theory, provide domestic energy and revenue, but don't actually get to the people who need it.

The project must take into account all environmental safeguards to ensure it doesn't affect water or air, infringe on land rights, and that it accommodates gender and women's issues.

Beware of negative consequences

Julie Greene, executive director of Solar Cookers International

Innovation can introduce unwanted consequences. In Punjab in 1995, well-meaning experts sold tractors to rural farmers so they could transition to modern farming. The farmers borrowed money to buy the tractors. When they couldn't pay their debt, the village suicide rate began to climb — a real human tragedy. there are agricultural consequences, too. Tractors compact the soil, creating a need for soil amendments and fossil fuel fertilizes.

The trick is to honestly assess the negative consequences we might introduce along with energy innovation and avoid them. Cheap, clean solar energy offers the fewest negative consequences. It's highly efficient and available every place sun shines, making it the world's most democratic, accessible form of energy.

We'd love to hear from our readers to keep the discussion going: What would an energy miracle be for the developing world? Tell us in a comment below or tweet it to @NPRGoatsandSodawith the hashtag #EnergyMiracle.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.
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