Google to power Botswana

Headlines I’d love to read Image

This week Google announced it was investing $100 million in a project to install and lease solar systems to homeowners in the US.

The deal with the Sun Power Corporation, which also throws $150 million into the pot, makes it easier for people to switch to renewable energy and save money. The web blurb gushes: “Using the fund we buy the solar panel systems. Then we lease them to homeowners at a cost that’s typically lower than their normal electricity bill. So by participating in this program, you don’t just help the environment—you can also save money.”

Google is a company with a heart and an embarrassingly huge wad of cash. The internet giant has already committed over $1 billion to wind and solar projects.

As it explains on its website, this is enough to power 500,000 US homes for one year. Or, a car to travel around the world 190,000 times. Or, 70 billion episodes of your favourite TV show. Or, the Sydney Opera House for 312 years.

Yes, Google. Or Botswana.

Botswana is in dire straits. The lights are going out. The nation with more sun than you could shake a stick at imports much of its energy from South Africa. And this is dirty energy from coal-fired power stations. But South Africa’s appetite for electricity has grown and now it has little to spare.

Botswana knew this day was coming but failed to prepare adequately — its single power station is beset with technical calamities. Now, the lights in the capital Gabarone have begun to go out. Homes, businesses, government offices, universities have endured regular blackouts. The management team at the Botswana Power Corporation has been axed. Irish contractor the Electricity Supply Board International is taking over to sort out the mess.

Botswana needs to become energy self sufficient. The priority for Botswana is energy access to relieve grinding poverty and allow the country to develop.Its vast coal reserves will last decades making coal the prime solution. Climate change is a low priority. This is entirely justified given the country’s paltry emission rates compared with the US. But the strategy does not entirely make sense, not least because, while coal may not run out any time soon, the sun, like Botswana’s diamonds, is forever. Besides solar is perfectly suited to low energy usage.

Many in Botswana have no power or rely on oil generators. To deliver energy for all, Botswana not only needs a reliable power supply it needs an updated national grid network. Solar power could bypass all of this. The levels of investment Google is capable of make it a game changer. But things need to happen fast or Botswana will be locked into a coal-driven future. Luckily, Google is no slouch when it comes to delivering on grand visions.

This would also tie in with one of Google’s other plans. Botswana has limited internet access and Google wants to bring broadband to the rest of the world. If Google can deliver sustainable energy to Botswana, it can at the same time build the infrastructure for reliable internet connectivity opening up a whole new market.

Google, make the next $1 billion in Africa.

And finally, the Wall Street Journal recently published this graphic communicating the power imbalance between the US and Africa. For example, Montana with a population of one million has the same power generating capacity of Nigeria – population 174 million. 

Wall Street Journal power trip

5 reasons for a UN Chief Scientific Advisor

From global pandemics and Earth-system thresholds to internet terrorism and ocean acidification, the international community faces more and more globally interconnected risks. It may seem surprising then that the UN has yet to appoint a Chief Scientific Advisor to coordinate and provide crucial advice in times of crisis. Here are five reasons why it would be a good idea (and at the end, a few reasons why it wouldn’t):

1. Leadership. A Chief Scientific Advisor answering directly to the UN Secretary General and with direct access to the most senior politicians would provide a much-needed figurehead for the scientific community.

2. A rapid and considered response in a time of crisis minimising knee-jerk reactions and maximising independent, impartial advice.

3. A strengthened and strategic science-policy interface at the international level that many think lies in tatters. Certainly it is fragmented, weak and lacks coherency. A Chief Scientific Advisor could begin building a more coherent structure internationally and develop close links with independent international scientists and with national Chief Scientific Advisors.

4. Financial and ecological crises show how globalisation has driven us into an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. Systemic risk is rising. To minimize systemic risk we need a good understanding of complex systems and how to manage them. A Chief Scientific Advisor will see the bigger picture to support policymakers in dealing with these new types of crises.

5. Long-term thinking. Politicians and policymakers in the UN and in nation states often think in terms of the one-to-four year electoral cycle, occasionally stretching to a decade or longer if they absolutely have to. But many of our actions now will be irreversible with severe consequences for future generations. A Chief Scientific Advisor can provide this long-term independent view and advice.

Some reasons not to

1. From WHO to WMO and UNEP, the UN has plenty of acronyms with plenty of experts to offer advice. (But who has the oversight and long-term view? And this encourages fragmentation.)

2. There is enough bureaucracy at the UN so don’t add to it. (Fair point.)

3. The problem is not the absence of a Chief Scientific Advisor, the problem is the lack of political will to deal with problems. (Yes. This is not a panacea, and admittedly it won’t solve the leadership deficit issue. But it wasn’t designed to.)

Could it happen?

The Rio+20 Summit in June 2012 provides a window of opportunity to create such a new position. If the idea fails this time then it could be several years or decades before such an opportunity comes up again. If such a position were created — and I have made recommendations along these lines to Ban Ki Moon’s High Level Global Sustainability Panel and to the Rio+20 process — then ideally this person would report directly to the Secretary General, head up a small secretariat, and work across the whole UN system and beyond.

Personally, I always liked the idea of creating the position of Planetary Ecologist as a senior role at the United Nations, maybe right there at the top. There is little doubt such a role is needed. But the UN would be unlikely to do something quite so radical so I guess a starting point is the creation of Chief Scientific Advisor, which will essentially amount to the same thing but less exciting title.

The UK example

When it comes to climate-change legislation you can look at the UK and ask why has this country gone further than most. One key reason was a strong Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir David King. King had a direct link to the higher echelons of UK power. He steadily ramped up pressure on a Labour government open to ideas and supportive of science. I think three factors contributed significantly to sealing the deal: the chief scientist’s undoubted charisma, his strategy and his direct links to the Prime Minister Tony Blair.