Power from the People: The developing world generates innovative strategies for renewable energy

article image
image by Tom Reilly / TED

At a time when phrases like “climate crisis” and “global warming” are bandied about to the point of fatigue and sustainable energy is becoming a necessity rather than a talking point, perhaps it’s time we took a cue from the developing world, where solutions to dire energy shortages are readily emerging.

Over the past four years, for instance, residents of the Indian village of Kinchlingi (population 75) have used a boxy, bicycle-like apparatus that generates enough energy to supply their village with water for drinking and washing. According to Alternatives Journal (Jan.-Feb. 2009), just three hours of pedaling produces enough biodiesel for a month’s worth of water. The human-powered pedals act as a stirring mechanism that converts seed oil into biodiesel to fuel the water supply pumps. Villagers are also exploring ways to use the fuel for farm machinery and electric lighting.

Bike parts found their way into a very different energy project in Malawi, as part of a hodgepodge windmill built by an innovative teenager. At 14, William Kamkwamba was inspired by a fifth-grade-level U.S. textbook, Using Energy, that he found in the library. He taught himself how to build a windmill that generated enough power for his family’s house, which was previously lit by toxic paraffin candles. Positive Living (Autumn 2008) reports that friends and neighbors expressed little faith in his project, but Kamkwamba believed that “if it was written in the book, then it was true and possible.”

He had to improvise a bit to assemble the parts–gathering broken pipes, old shoes, his father’s bicycle, an oil barrel, and a car’s fan belt, among other things–but the effort paid off. His family switched to lightbulbs, and additional windmills produced enough electricity to power a television. William has since been named a fellow at TEDGlobal and hopes to build a large windmill to power his entire village.

On the other side of the continent, West African leaders recently gathered in Ghana to consider proposals capitalizing on the area’s “solar riches,” according to Reuters (Sept. 24, 2008). It seems obvious that the sunniest land on the planet–a swath of the Sahara Desert–should use its natural renewable source, which is why one project calls for the construction of a solar-thermal energy plant in northern Niger. The pollution-free power generator would use a combination of mirrors, boiling water, and turbines to harness sunlight, and would transmit that power to the coasts to provide electricity for residents. While initial expenses are high, the plant would help combat the strains of rising fuel costs. Similar technology has already been proven to work in Spain and the United States.

Off the West African coast on the Cape Verde Islands, reports the IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) news service (Jan. 9, 2009), the Serra Malagueta community of Santiago Island is pioneering a technique called “fog harvesting,” which uses giant double-sided netting to collect fog and filter it into the water supply. The area boasts three times as much rain as the country’s annual average, making it an ideal location for the 15 nets. One local water engineer estimates that on a day with ample wind and fog the 200 square meters of netting can capture some 4,000 liters of water–invaluable for a country that’s faced mass emigration and death due to drought conditions.

Beyond targeting specific renewable resources to mine, one community has focused on a model for managing them. Lucia Ortiz writes for New Internationalist (Jan.-Feb. 2009) that some 6,000 people in southern Brazil resisted the region’s mid-1990s shift toward energy privatization and have successfully managed their own energy cooperative for more than a decade. The group holds open assemblies to discuss key decisions, generates its own electricity–mostly from two small hydro dams–and uses sugar­cane to produce ethanol fuel. To determine their bills, community members track their own energy use and report it via an honor system–which eliminates the cost of monthly meter readings (staff members read meters annually for verification).

The group’s move toward independence has inspired other co-ops in the area to localize their energy economies. In Porto Alegre, Ortiz and other residents have formed a movement called “How to live in the city in times of climate crisis and peak oil.” The group’s monthly gatherings cultivate an exchange of ideas about urban and rural living. “Everybody is learning more,” Ortiz writes, “and rethinking the way that we can be organized to be less energy demanding.”

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.