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Leon Kaye headshot

Renewables Can Narrow the Global Digital Divide

By Leon Kaye

According to many global organizations, including the World Economic Forum, approximately 4 billion people lack internet access. Their inability to venture online is compounded by the fact many of these same citizens are not connected to the grid. So even if cellular networks are readily available, the inability to recharge a phone at home means connectivity is often a luxury.

Much of the problem lies in the oft-discussed “last mile.” Many citizens may see those power lines or cell phone towers easily from their homes or businesses, but cannot afford, or even attain, reliable access to either.

As explained in a joint report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) and Facebook, the double whammy of lacking reliable internet access and power creates countless challenges: time lost by walking up to 10 miles a week just to recharge phones; the costs incurred by spending money charging up at local kiosks; and more pollution as many cell phone towers in emerging economies use diesel to keep the networks humming.

And therein lies many opportunities for both multinationals and innovative startups to reap new business opportunities while improving the lives of billions worldwide. Furthermore, new developments in telecommunications infrastructure and early-stage venture capital can help more people keep the lights on and stay connected. Incomes can be boosted, more doors to education and skills training can open and the local environment can even benefit.

The two keys that can make this happen are investments in battery storage and solar power. The report cites data stating solar power’s cost has plunged 82 percent since 2010; lithium ion battery packs have decreased 76 percent in price since that year.

Hurdles, however, include funding, training and developing such an infrastructure in the first place. The BNEF-Facebook report touts one solution that could provide a stepping stone: hybrid power systems that meld solar installations, diesel generators and batteries. The report’s authors concluded that these setups could save cell phone tower operators as much as 54 percent as they keep their off-grid towers in operation.

If multinationals wish to not just align, but succeed, in solving those pesky United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they should consider partnerships with local companies in regions where incomes are increasing, but the infrastructure is not catching up. The tackling of SDG 7 (sustainable energy for all) and SDG 9 (inclusive infrastructure worldwide) offers companies a chance to show that they are responsible, sustainable and inclusive. Moreover, such projects also promise new revenue streams - and a path to communicate to a global audience how they are breaking new ground when it comes to corporate responsibility.

Image credit: Nayuki/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye