Forget Extending The Power Grid, The U.S. Should Act More Like A Developing Nation

In places around the world where the grid hasn't been extended, they're still figuring out ways to power their gadgets. We could learn a thing or two.

Globally, there are 5.3 billion mobile phone subscribers—but according to Green Power For Mobile by The GSMA Development Fund, nearly 500 million people worldwide do not have a means of charging a mobile phone at home. While these statistics are staggering, they are an example of how the traditional infrastructure of the past has not kept up with the technology of the future. Upgrading the energy infrastructure to meet these new needs is one of the greatest wealth-generating opportunities of our lifetime.

When looking at the simple yet growing problem of mobile phone and electronics lacking a place to plug in, we see that there are entrepreneurs trying to find solutions and new business opportunities. For example, in just the past few years, we have seen the evolution of new solar-powered cell phones for impoverished places in Central America, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific—and there is no grid or plug involved. And last year, Vodafone introduced a solar-powered mobile handset for India, where a third of the population does not have access to the power grid.

Still, when we think about charging a mobile phone, BlackBerry, iPhone, or anything else in the developed world (especially the U.S.), do most of us picture anything but a plug? The answer is obviously "no." Yet as in the move from landlines to mobile phones, the cost of extending the grid to all of the citizens of emerging markets will never be cost effective. So extending the traditional "landline" infrastructure has to be rethought as consumers continue to discover the electricity-consuming tools of the 21st century.

Most people will go home tonight and charge their cell phone. Many will charge more than one mobile phone, a computer, and an iPad (or some other kind of tablet). This gadget lust has contributed to our insatiable hunger for power sources. But, the "haves," in this case, could learn from the "have-nots." To service the 500 million cell phone users with no access to electricity, we are finding answers on a distributed scale.

Small-scale solutions like solar phones, solar chargers, wind-up chargers, base station charging, and village charging stations are all real and viable—in fact, they are cheaper than both the grid and the diesel power that feeds it.

In the developed world, we like to think big. But we might be better off to think small and ask these questions: Can we find solutions to charge one phone with no grid? Can we provide electricity to a new home subdivision without extending the existing grid? Can we tap electricity stored in electric vehicles and server battery backup units to help light a city? The answer to every one of these questions is "yes."

Why? Because, the technology is here. We just need a new business model to unleash the answers we already have.

Jigar Shah is CEO of the Carbon War Room, a nonprofit that harnesses the power of entrepreneurs to implement market-driven solutions to climate change and create a post-carbon economy.

[Image: Flickr user Håkan Dahlström]

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  • taz delaney

    our government never does its even most basic homework... in 2009, 3 months before the insipid, too-little-too-much 'stimulus' package that gave not one cent to SBA for new startups... i read in MIT's techreview emergingtech update that the swiss research institute, renowned pros on all things nuclear, had concluded a massive 4-volume study showing that uranium was rapidly dwindling and would be gone for all practical purposes by 2030 or sooner. yes, it is all around but in quantities far too small for cost effective mining. yes it could be sea-mined but at huge cost there, too. goodbye fukushima's, and good riddance! so naturally, the 'stimulus' gave $18.5bln to tax-free GE to build more such plants! brilliant. i repeatedly called & emailed my con-men congressmen to no avail; deaf, it seems.

    then in january of this year, API reported that peak oil, 'that's all, folks,' will be here no later than 2041. however, in february, the saudi oil ministry announced what many had long suspected... their oil reserves are actually just 25% as previously stated! so now API says no later than 2030! and, of course, the final oil wars start well in advance of that date...

    meanwhile, there are zero plans in place and no officials even talking about the fact that in 2030, without immediate, emergency-level action... we'll be back to candles and firewood! brilliant. almost as brilliant as a species that goes through a billion years of oil in 150 years of industrial revolution!

  • Steven Dubin

    Our grid is fragile. One well placed terrorist attack on our grid and goodly number of us go back to living in the stone age.Most cities in America have secondary and even tertiary backups for communications and water. The United States has only one power grid. It is a matter of national security that the United States seeks alternatives and it should be on the scale of a Manhattan Project. The key is not another grid. In many places it simply is not possible. Land is expensive and eminent domain be damned, hard to find.What we need is a means so that every dwelling can power itself, independently off the grid. Weather it's powerful batteries the size of a soda can, mini neighborhood nuclear reactors or lasers heating lead to produce steam. All of these means, in any combination, need to be explored to reduce the impact of a threat to our grid, improve our security and maintain our economy and lives in good times and in bad.