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Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the take up of off-grid technologies, says the Wall Street Journal Asia, could be their rapid success. Rising demand is leading to serious shortages of equipment. “It’s rare that you can get photovoltaic cells off the shelf, and on wind turbines you’re sometimes looking at a year’s wait,” says USAID’s Gordon Weynand. �We have to get in the queue like everyone else.”

Planners and policy makers have long pondered how best to supply light and power to remote areas of developing countries, where some 1.6 billion people — about a quarter of the world’s population — still live without electricity. The usual solution is to build out centralized power systems, or extend the grid. But such capital-intensive projects present huge challenges for poorer nations, even when foreign aid is involved.

Staying ‘Off-Grid’

New approaches gaining favor are inexpensive, safe and don’t rely on big utilities or their grids. Aid agencies, nonprofits, environmentalists and start-ups are involved in initiatives to promote power generation using renewable resources and other environmentally friendly technology.

The United Nations Development Program, for one, is implementing 153 renewable-energy projects around the world with funding totaling some $556 million. The program has awarded $18 million in small grants of up to $50,000 to communities operating about 820 small-scale renewable energy projects. These include solar-powered water desalination in Mauritius; wind energy for water pumping in Egypt; and micro-hydroelectric plants, harnessing the energy of nearby rivers, to electrify homes and schools in the Dominican Republic.

Elsewhere, Western environmental groups are helping to create off-grid homes, often with electricity generated by solar panels or wind turbines.

Private companies, meanwhile, are interested in the Third World as a potential market for inexpensive, energy-efficient appliances such as solar-powered lights and hand-crank radios. Some are teaming up with nonprofits and government agencies to get their products in the hands of consumers. Cosmos Ignite, for example, charges $40 for its solar-powered MightyLights, which is more cash than most poor Indians usually have on hand. A several-month supply of kerosene would cost about the same, though, and Cosmos Ignite says its lights last for years. That’s why nonprofit microlenders and Indian government agencies are stepping in to help with such purchases.

While LED products still cost more to produce than conventional lighting, they last longer, produce more light and use very little energy. Long used in automobile rear-window, brake lights, and in the infrared beams of television remote controls, LEDs now are so powerful they can now be used to create ambient lighting for a whole room
In addition to running on solar power, LEDs can be recharged using hand cranks or pedal power. Freeplay Energy PLC, a London-based company, pioneered a radio operated with a hand crank that has sold well throughout Africa, and it is now applying the same technology to a range of LED lights for the poor.

Emergence BioEnergy Inc., a Lexington, Massachusetts-based start-up, has partnered with Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, a large non-governmental organization, to supply electricity to poor areas in a program that also involves microlending. At the heart of its effort: a small external combustion engine that can accept a variety of fuel sources, including methane harnessed from cow manure — a resource widely available throughout the rural areas of Bangladesh and other poor countries.

“We are addressing a widespread, but unmet, need with an underutilized, widespread resource,” says the company’s founder, Iqbal Quadir, who heads the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The combustion engines generate not only electricity to power lights and televisions, but heat as a byproduct. Villagers in a tropical country like Bangladesh don’t need to warm their homes but they can use the heat to dehydrate vegetables and fruit. The effort is being field tested in 12 villages. Mr. Quadir, who helped bring cellphones to Bangladesh by launching GrameenPhone Ltd. in 1997 with Norway’s Telenor ASA and microcredit pioneer Grameen Bank, aims to expand the power-generation program to poor countries throughout South Asia and Africa.

Light and Power

In the Philippines, the U.S. Agency for International Development has spearheaded a drive since 2001 to use solar cells and micro-hydro power to electrify hundreds of remote rural communities on the conflict-wracked island of Mindanao. So far, the Alliance for Mindanao Off-grid Renewable Energy, or AMORE, has electrified 413 villages, 320 community centers, 145 schools, and installed 319 streetlights. USAID says the group plans to light up 520 villages by 2009.

Fighting between Philippine forces and Muslim militant groups, including the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, for years stymied government efforts to expand the island’s electric grid to large areas. At the same time, the widespread darkness gave the militants more room in which to maneuver.

“Kerosene was hard to get, so the villages weren’t lighted at night,” says Calista Downey, the officer of USAID’s Philippine desk. “Abu Sayyaf and other rebel groups moved about in the darkness. Lighted areas were always safer.”

Electricity also has given the local economy a big shot in the arm. Fishermen now have a few more hours of light in which to mend their nets. Markets stay open longer. Children have more light to do their homework. And security has improved. “Perhaps more important than having light, when the villages see their life improving, they’re less likely to give refuge to insurgents,” Ms. Downey says.

AMORE, which comprises USAID, the Philippine government, the Atlanta-based power company Mirant Corp., and local authorities, trains locals to operate the power-generating systems. The locals decide who gets to use the power.

Initiatives such as AMORE are getting a boost from the big advances now under way in the production of solar-, wind- and hydro-power technology.

There are many small, high-tech start-ups working on the technology, says Russell Sturm, leader of the Sustainable Energy Team at International Finance Corp., the World Bank’s private-sector lending arm. “Refugees from the dot-com bust,” he calls them.

Some of the biggest names in the lighting business are getting interested in this market, too, such as Philips Electronics NV of the Netherlands. In 2005, Philips launched a pilot project in India aimed at bringing affordable, energy-efficient lighting to the poor, using rechargeable, portable lanterns and hand-cranked LED flashlights. Company spokeswoman Santa van der Laarse adds that Philips expects the falling cost of producing LEDs to make such products increasingly affordable for Third World customers over the next few years.

The IFC is increasingly interested in this market as well. It sees its mission as helping to disseminate such products in the developing world by educating consumers and helping the companies stitch together supply chains. Last year it unveiled its Lighting Africa initiative, a plan to help provide inexpensive, safe and clean lighting to 250 million people in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030. As part of that initiative, it launched a competition to design low-cost, environmentally friendly lighting products tailored to the local market: Some 500 lighting companies, suppliers and distributors have expressed an interest, Mr. Sturm says, including big names like Philips, and smaller operators like Cosmos Ignite, too.

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