Tuesday, May 10, 2016

SOLAR PANELS: A Force for Peace in Africa?

Will the people in Africa who are starved for electricity get it via solar panels supplied from China? What impact might this have on violent conflict?

Sustainable Development Goal 9:
Industry, Innovation, Infrastructure
The UN International Day for Peace 2016 has been tied to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. I was interested to see that an event titled World Economic Forum Africa 2016 is happening in Rwanda in the next several days. It made me curious to see what the Davos people might have to say about development (and, by extension, about peace) in Africa.

There's a big emphasis on digital and education at WEF Africa 2016. More information, more communication, more opportunity -- it's hard to argue with that as a good in general, and an essential lever in eliminating conflict in particular. Notably, WEF Africa 2016 is sponsored by a the Gates Foundation, numerous tech giants (Google, Microsoft, CISCO, Huawei, SAP), as well as the assortment of banks, consulting companies, and other corporate giants you would expect.

I'm a little curious, however, about where the power is going to come from to bring about the digital revolution in Africa.  A report on the WEF Africa 2016 website ("Africa’s digital revolution: a look at the technologies, trends and people driving it") provides this graphic:

AFRICA: Share of population without access to electricity
(Image: International Energy Agency)

Forget about electricity to power digital devices. How is it possible to talk seriously about a stable society and reversing the forces that bring about civil conflict when over 75% of a population has no access to electricity? According to the graphic, that means 60 million people in Congo, and 70 million people in Ethiopia.  In Nigeria, where somewhere between 25% and 50% of the people have access to electricity, there are still 93 million people without it.

There is a session on infrastructure at WEF Africa 2016, and I intend to watch it. I hope that it will not feature suggestions that nuclear energy is what Africa needs. (Stay tuned.)

What WEF Africa 2016 should be advocating is a massive solar energy program for Africa.

SolarGIS solar irradiation map, showing areas of highest exposure in Africa.

Trade, aid, lending, and investment between Africa and China have been growing rapidly. China is a massive supplier of solar panels. A project called Akon Lighting Africa (ALA) initiative aims to bring solar power to 600 million people in Africa -- with the help, it should be noted, of a $1 billion credit line from a Chinese solar system provider.

To get deeper into some of the underlying issues, check out this 2009 study on "China in the African Solar Energy Sector" based on the experience in Kenya.

Of course, solar power in Africa would have winners and losers. The winners would include companies in China supplying solar panels. Of course, Chinese companies could be counted on to start producing solar panels in Africa before long, so Africans would also be winners. Of course, thousands -- perhaps millions -- of local people in Africa would find employment installing and maintaining solar systems. And everyone in Africa would win from the absence of pollution.

Of course, there would be losers, too. Giant corporations like GE-Hitachi -- did I mention GE and Hitachi are sponsors of WEF Africa 2016? -- and Western engineering companies and banks will lose out if they do not get contracts to build nuclear plants in Africa.

I wonder if, when Peace Day 2016 rolls around in September, we'll be celebrating the continued progress of peaceful solar in Africa, or worrying about the creep of nuclear power across Africa?

Related posts

It will benefit us antiwar activists in the US to attend to and reflect upon the importance of these Sustainable Development Goals to achieving the goal of ending war.

(See PEACE DAY 2016: What comes first? Demilitarization? or Development?)

There's no question in my mind that Climate Action (Sustainable Development Goals #13) goes hand in hand with antiwar activity.

(See Peace Day 2016: 3 Ways Climate Action is Vital)

The U.S. could take a lesson from the "command economy" in China about government setting a bold new direction in using alternative energy.

(See #chinaEARTHusa -- Solar Panels at the Crux)

The enormous irony is that now one country -- India -- is responding to its past subjugation by the Western imperial program with this hugely self-damaging program, and another country that has struggled with its relationship to the Western imperial program -- Japan -- is doing everything it can to aid and abet.

(See INDIA: Lured into playing the "Great Power" Nuclear Game)

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