“Until just a few years ago, the only option was ‘big and slow.’ It was the grid or nothing. But this kind of massive infrastructure is overkill in many poor communities. Small-scale is more reliable and affordable, and provides a more appropriate level of access.”
Aaron Leopold of the UK-based NGO Practical Action, one of the founding partners of Affordable Energy For Humanity
Despite all the talk and good intentions in recent years — and the UN’s goal-setting on universal access to affordable, sustainable energy by 2030 — real progress has happened at a glacial pace.
That’s why the University of Waterloo-based global partnership known as Affordable Energy for Humanity (AE4H) is connecting scientists, technology developers, philanthropists and others around the world in a shared quest to drive a revolution in energy access.
“Energy is one of these nexus issues at the heart of a number of different development challenges and opportunities,” says Aaron Leopold, Global Energy Representative for the UK-based Practical Action, one of the founding partners of AE4H.
“When you’re dealing with enabling services like energy access, I like to say you hit two birds with one dollar — because you’re bringing potential clean water to people, increasing incomes, bringing medicine, education and future opportunities to people. There should be a real sense of optimism around this bottom line that energy access delivers on.”
The typical services in very poor communities — a small general store, an internet hub, hair care, a repair shop —are the places that support the economic engine of a community. And when entire communities have access to electrified services, it benefits thousands of people, not just individuals.
Leopold talks about leveling the planning field. He is committed to the notion of teaching planners — traditional thinkers who still believe that bigger and centralized is better — that there are much better ways to deliver electricity in developing communities.
“Until just a few years ago, the only option was ‘big and slow,’ ” he says. “There was only one way to plan — and that kind of planning was to [designed to accommodate] the big power plants powering the big industry players. It was the grid or nothing. . . .
“This kind of massive infrastructure is overkill in many poor communities. Small-scale is more reliable and affordable and provides a more appropriate level of access for what poor communities need right now.”
In essence, what’s needed is workable, decentralized energy options, of which Leopold says there are many that are already working well. He believes it’s critical to educate the decision-makers on these small-scale options.
“They’re not toys,” he says. “They’re actually delivering what people need faster, better and more reliably than utilities can.
“What’s encouraging about the Affordable Energy for Humanity partnership is that the work we’ve been doing for 40 years in the decentralized energy space is finally coming to fruition in terms of its viability as a sector.
“We have a number of really determined, strong partners on board. We have an unprecedented amount of international intention that is political and financial — even entrepreneurial attention, frankly, because it is an emerging space for the private sector and there are opportunities for mushrooming progress that weren’t there five years ago because the technologies and business model had not matured.
“We don’t have to go through governments or rely on big utilities. This is an entrepreneurial space.”
What is AE4H?
What is Affordable Energy For Humanity (AE4H), and how will it help?
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