Bill Gates has said the world needs energy that’s widely available, reliable, affordable and does not produce carbon, and he’s invested billions of his fortune in research to find it.
This includes projects like Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company which is capturing carbon from the air and turning it into pellets which can either be used as fuel or stored underground.
Yet the billionaire philanthropist is sceptical of one technology that’s often held up by the West as the solution to Africa’s energy problems: small-scale ‘off-grid’ solar power.
Supporters say that off-grid solar allows people to get electricity while ‘leapfrogging’ over the need for connection to national power grids. And because it’s low-carbon, Western environmentalists are keen to promote it.
But Gates says that while ‘this approach can provide individuals with some electricity for basic purposes […] it’s not going to be the solution for the continent as a whole.’
Environment economist Bjorn Lomborg has put it more forcefully: ‘while billions are lacking food, health, water and education, spending billions on solar panels first is simply immoral.’
Lomborg argues that the Western development agencies pushing this technology are fundamentally misguided. Despite the expense, very little carbon is cut since solar is usually provided to communities who don’t have electricity in the first place.
And as we showed with the story of Dharnai, an Indian village that an NGO provided with off-grid solar, this form of power is often less popular than grid electricity.
This is because most people need more than just the ability to power a lightbulb for a few hours a day. What people need is reliable, 24/7 electricity for hospitals, schools, streetlights and businesses, so they can grow their economy, provide for their families and offer their children the best possible chance in life.