In the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting inequalities as it disproportionately affects people of color and low-income communities. Across the globe, healthcare systems are being pushed to their limits, and energy systems are stretched thin as people stay shuttered inside their homes. While every country is facing an unprecedented health and economic crisis, some are harder hit than others. Innovative solar technologies could help take on some of these problems.
A new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that electricity use worldwide is down, but a study of residential use in Austin, Texas, found that residential use was up about 20 percent as people are working and schooling from home. Electricity powers healthcare facilities, wastewater treatment and clean water distribution, and it enables all of our communications and internet services. But in parts of the world, reliable electricity was not a given before the pandemic, and much less now.
In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, only 28 percent of healthcare facilities can rely on regular electricity service. Only 43 percent of the population is electrified. Further, less than a quarter of schools in sub-Saharan Africa are electrified, widening the technical gap between the haves and have-nots. Distance learning is just a distant dream for most students.
The majority of countries in this region face economic contraction during the pandemic, but for oil-exporting nations like Nigeria and Angola, the hardship is compounded by falling oil prices. African utilities, already under financial strain, may find providing basic services especially difficult. So, some companies are looking to help by developing a resource that has been growing for the past few years in the region: solar energy.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, with oil and gas providing about 10 percent of its gross domestic product. Like Texas in the U.S., government officials, who have long relied on oil for wealth and power, have a history of resisting full-scale solar deployment. But as with Texas, Nigerian energy developers see an opportunity to build the industry and help the vulnerable during the pandemic.
Late last year, the World Bank awarded Lumos, a Netherlands-based solar developer with projects already underway in Nigeria, part of a $75 million grant to electrify Nigerian homes. When the pandemic hit, the company received a share of an emergency grant from the off-grid energy impact investing company All-On, set up by Shell. With emergency funding, Lumos will provide reliable solar power to healthcare organizations fighting COVID-19 to power health centers and rapid response teams. The company is also participating in the new ‘Work from Home’ initiative, which will provide Nigerian businesses with domestic portable solar systems to enable their employees to work from home.
“COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis, putting millions of lives at risk. Reliable, affordable and clean electricity is vital to running life-saving equipment in hospitals and training essential workers," said Adepeju Adebajo, CEO of Lumos Nigeria. "The All-On fund is enabling us to react exceptionally quickly. Lumos has the products and the trained staff on the ground to install solar systems, which will allow key workers to test and treat patients with the virus and save lives.”
Solar developers have long seen the opportunity in sub-Saharan Africa to provide a better quality of life through more reliable, clean energy. Shifting to more solar will also ease some pressure on stressed water systems, as solar photovoltaic (PV) installations use little to no water, as opposed to traditional sources of energy.
The incredible ingenuity and entrepreneurship in many countries in the region, already often reliant on decentralized systems run through cell phone networks, could be enhanced with the increased deployment of solar to power essential services and a shifting employment model. The region has been primed to leapfrog a lot of the technologies that other countries have muddled through and go straight to a decentralized, off-the-grid system to empower distributed healthcare services, education, and employment opportunities.
The way we do business in the world will likely change when the peak of the pandemic has passed — and countries like Nigeria could be at the forefront of ensuring that shift is toward a greener, cleaner future, if done right.
Image credit: Lumos Nigeria/Facebook
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.