In the modern era, the energy economy has been driven by electricity that has either been created by coal, hydro, gas or nuclear. A model characterised by macro-generation and a complex long distance distribution network.
This technology is what has advanced the world economy to what it is today. While it has taken the developed world from an agrarian society to this modern world, the effect of burning fossil fuels has been harmful to our environment.
There is no question that this modern economy and society came at a cost to the global environment.
Currently, the developed world consumes a large percentage of the world’s fossil fuels but with the population growing at a rapid pace in many developing nations, the United Nations Population Fund predicts that these nations will contribute more than half of global CO2 emissions by 2050.
In the African ICT sector alone, we burn more than 3 billion litres of fossil fuel per year. This figure is expected to continue growing as we try to provide connectivity to the next 300 million subscribers, mostly in rural Africa.
The question we need to ask ourselves is how can our industry contribute to slowing down or reversing this ecological disaster.
How can the excess power that provides energy to a rural base station be used to electrify the village in which mobile network operators are present. What is the role of policy makers, regulators, investors, operators (fixed and mobile) and more importantly the communities themselves? They are all critical players in ensuring that we address these issues holistically.
The research community is working on a number of technology based solutions to energy generation such as micro-grids, poly-silicon and solar powered energy. Similarly, energy storage technologies such a lithium batteries and the use of hydrogen fuel cells (where oxygen and hydrogen is separated via a catalytic reaction) continue to receive attention.
Africa has played a small part in this process, but needs to actively contribute to the body of knowledge. Africa cannot hope to sustain a knowledge economy by using the models, which drove the industrial revolution. Further research needs to conducted on distributed and micro-power generation; a solution that will be friendlier to our environment and together with a number of other solutions could be exported to other continents.
There is a school of thought that says ” If the West was developed by the industrial revolution using coal and nuclear power, the developing world should do the same.”
While there is truth and there may be good justification for this, we are developing our economies to benefit our future generations; and that future will be a knowledge-based economy. The energy source of our knowledge economy will be powered by innovative and sustainable solutions such as micro-grids.
This is one technology we can leapfrog. We have the skills, sun, wind, the market, silicon (sand) and lithium. We need to invest in our future and that future will need energy and will invariably power the development and growth of our ICT ecosystem.
In conclusion, the approach to addressing this challenge rests with all stakeholders;
- policy makers need to focus on creating an enabling environment for distributed, independent power producers – using renewable technologies;
- investors and businesses need to consciously think about their carbon footprint and the opportunities that these create for new business opportunities; and
- the public sector (including incumbent electricity producers) should consider the opportunity to provide mechanisms for sustainable, environmentally friendly energy production and consumption