I arrived in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, five weeks ago. In the days prior, I had read up on this southwestern African country and its tourist sites, learned about the wildlife conservation successes it has achieved since independence in 1990, and was even reminded that this was where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie chose to give birth to their first child. But on my first night here, I was confronted with a different side of Namibia that isn’t making as many headlines.

A typical arid landscape in the Erongo region of Namibia.

Jet-lagged and disoriented, I stumbled out of my room at 2 a.m. and ran into Johannes Gabriel, the night guard at the guesthouse where I’m staying for three months. Gabriel, an Ovambo man from the village of Okapa, told me of the drought that is gripping the nation, the worst in three decades. “Many cattle and people are dying, schools are closing because children aren’t interested in education, people are waiting on long lines for food.” While much of the world may know Namibia for tourism, wildlife conservation, and famous babies, the drought has received relatively little media exposure. Greater international attention and support will be needed if these conditions are indicative of climate challenges to come.

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Africa, Climate Change, drought, ecotourism, Namibia

Kerosene lamps, such as this one, are used widely for illumination in eastern Africa, but contribute to numerous health and economic problems (Source: Firesika).

The United Nations recently declared the beginning of the Decade of Sustainable Energy for All, continuing the focus on energy access that it began in 2012 with the Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Energy access is widely recognized as a key component of achieving the Millennium Development Goals set out by the United Nations, with impacts on the improvement of health, education, and economic development.

This international focus on energy access stems from the fact that, in many developing areas of the world, energy use is still mostly limited to traditional biomass use (i.e. burning wood for cook fires) and kerosene for lighting, with extremely limited or zero access to modern energy services. In Ethiopia, only 2 percent of the population in rural areas has access to electricity. In Kenya, the inhabitants of remote areas are only slightly better off, with 4 percent electrification rate for the rural population.

However, the use of kerosene for illumination brings with it numerous health, environmental, economic and social problems.  Indoor use of the fuel use significantly deteriorates air quality in homes, leading directly to respiratory illnesses and fatalities. And, as if chronic illnesses are not enough, the risk of fire from overturned kerosene lamps is extremely high. In an interview with an in-country energy expert in Kenya, Worldwatch learned that estimates ranged between 6,000 and 12,000 deaths per year from kerosene fires in Kenya alone, with many of them being children. Overturned kerosene lamps are known to ignite homes quickly and the impacts disproportionately affect women and children, who spend much more of their time within the house.

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Africa, developing countries, development, distributed generation, electricity, Energy Access, Ethiopia, Kenya, kerosene, rural electrification, sub-Saharan Africa

There is ample reason to praise President Obama’s engagement with a diverse collection of world leaders; in particular, the administration’s “pivot to Asia” indicates recognition of an evolving geopolitical landscape, a recognition that will hopefully continue in his second term. But one region in particular has been noticeably absent from the administration’s agenda: sub-Saharan Africa. And this oversight could have long-term implications for the energy future of the sub-Saharan African region, and even the economic future of the United States.

No region suffers from energy poverty more than sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly seven out of ten people lack access to reliable and affordable electricity.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region full of contradictions. On the one hand, it is home to six of the ten fastest growing economies between 2001 and 2010; on the other, 14 of the 20 states Foreign Policy’s Failed State Index deems “critical” are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout the region, one of the largest obstacles towards widespread and equitable economic development is the crippling degree of energy poverty. The most recent data suggests that a lack of access to reliable and affordable electricity leaves nearly 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africans in the dark every day.

With the re-election of President Obama, the time is ripe for the administration to realize that, for all of the region’s struggles, reaching out to sub-Saharan Africa is within the United States’ self-interest. Prioritizing the alleviation of energy poverty is one way to strengthen efforts to improve the quality of education, reduce illness and disease, boost incomes across the region, and also to lay the groundwork for budding economic partnerships. 

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Africa, Brazil, China, renewable energy, renewable energy investment, sustainable development, United States

By Philip Newell

In the least electrified parts of rural Africa, over 90 percent of people do not have access to electricity. To address this problem, Solar Nexus International (SNI) has designed a contained system of solar power generation that can be installed relatively quickly and easily.

Solar Nexus connects all the distinct components of an off-the-grid electricity system. (Image credit: Solar Nexus International)

The heart of this operation is the SolarNexus, a small device that links wires, transformers, converters, inverters, and batteries required in an off-grid electricity system. Through this device, Solar Nexus hopes to fulfill its mission for “solar empowerment through market-based development of local solar energy resources worldwide.”

Typically, it takes a fair amount of knowledge and training to set up an electricity generating system. Whether solar, hydropower, or wind, transforming captured energy into useful electricity requires a variety of different hardware, not always available in rural communities in developing countries. If any of this hardware is improperly installed, or if wires are not the proper size, the efficiency of the system suffers severely. When these systems are installed in developing countries, high-grade wires are usually not used because they are too expensive or not available, and as a result less electricity is available for use. In order to overcome this problem, Solar Nexus International custom-designs a system for each client, and then ships out a container that includes all the wires and materials needed for a U.S. code-compliant system. Once the shipment is received, the provided instructions allow local electricians to install the system. As a result of high quality and correctly sized wiring and components, communities will be able to generate more electricity from the unit, sacrificing much less to poor wiring.

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Africa, Innovation, renewable energy, solar power, sustainable development, technology series

On October 13th and 14th, I represented the Worldwatch Institute at the 4th Annual International Conference on Energy, Logistics and the Environment.  The conference was held in Denver, Colorado, and it was well attended by stakeholders, government officials, natural gas industry experts, innovators and entrepreneurs, academics and other interested parties.  The conference was organized by the Global Commerce Forum and was given the theme, A Sustainable Energy Future for Emerging Economies: Focus on Africa.  Discussion focused on the imperatives for clean energy development in emerging economies.  Traditionally, industrialized nations developed via fossil-fuel energy.  Industrialization fostered economic growth and prosperity in the developed world.  Many industrialized nations have prospered largely because heavily subsidized fossil-fuels have provided for affordable and reliable energy.  However, environmental concerns are driving industrialized nations to seek new energy sources and infrastructure to develop clean environments.

With its focus on Africa, the conference sought to answer one of the contentious questions in international discourse on energy development: ‘should emerging and developing nations develop their energy infrastructure from these same traditional energy sources, or are there now other, better options available to them?’  In his opening remarks, Don McClure, Vice President of Government & Stakeholder Relations & Legal of EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc, indicated that Africa is in a unique position to invest in critical thinking that produces a “leap frog” in innovation.  He also indicated that Africa is in an enviable position to avoid the pitfalls associated with fossil fuel development through lessons learned from developed countries.  In a keynote address presented by former Governor of Colorado and Director of the Center for the New Energy Economy, Colorado State University, Bill Ritter, the intersection between access to energy services and education was highlighted. Governor Ritter also indicated that access to modern energy services is important in that it facilitates educational opportunities for children in developing countries. He stressed the need for an economy powered by clean fuels and public health in Africa.  He concluded by stating that there can be ‘no economic development without reliable power.’

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Africa, energy, Innovation, natural gas, renewable energy, sustainability

Newly Released White Paper on Chinese ODA

Chinese foreign aid has long been accused of being nontransparent and of having multiple strings attached. Analysts worldwide have attributed the rapid growth in China’s official development assistance (ODA) since 1997 to the rising global power’s hunger for energy and natural resources. Although China has traditionally remained silent in addressing such allegations, a newly released government White Paper reveals that the country is finally opening its ODA vault.

The White Paper, for the first time, lifts the veil on China’s aid modalities, distribution, and funding over the past few decades. This unveiling may not be particularly transparent by western standards, but it does at least offer a concrete view of what the country has been up to. According to the White Paper, by the end of 2009, China had launched 2025 development projects in total, about 5% of which is for oil and mining industries. More than half of the projects are devoted to the development of local economic infrastructure and public facilities.

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Africa, biogas, China, Climate Change, foreign aid, ODA, Overseas Development Aid, small hydropower