Africa south of the Sahara is one of the places where energy poverty is greatest. Seventy percent of all households in the vast region lack modern energy technologies, whether electricity or fuels other than wood and dung for cooking fires. Even in the region's richest country—South Africa—roughly 30 percent of households lack access to electricity.
To help extend electricity and other energy services as well as cut down on greenhouse gas emissions from existing electricity producers, Zuma's government launched a renewable energy initiative during the recent climate change conference in Durban. With the help of the U.N. and other international donors, South Africa will develop more wind and solar power. Given South Africa's abundant coal and heavy reliance on the most polluting fossil fuel for modern energy services, the idea is to harness equally abundant sunshine and wind to diversify energy supplies enough to meet the country's commitment under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord to reduce emissions 34 percent by the end of this decade.
In that, South Africa hopes to mimic other African nations that started down this road to renewables earlier, such as Kenya. With the help of the UNDP and U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP), that East African nation—where only 18 percent of households have access to electricity today—is developing its renewable resources, such as geothermal power in the geologically active Rift Valley, wind farms and solar-powered battery systems in remote villages. "Kenya is on track with investments brought in to produce all its electricity from renewable sources by 2020," Orr says.
But the simple truth is: if the most affluent country in sub-Saharan Africa cannot boost its use of renewables while also extending modern energy access to those who still lack it, what hope do much poorer countries have? "The intervention announced today will ease energy poverty," Zuma said of the U.N.-backed clean energy program, which also saw 500 homes outfitted with solar hot water heaters and 200 homes given LED home lighting systems powered by solar photovoltaics. "Let us change, instead of burning, making more smoke."
That, of course, is easier said than done, particularly when it comes to cooking.
The power to cook
Netherlands-based Philips's smokelessn cookstove looks like it is fashioned from a metal pail that gleams atop a black plastic saucer, albeit a pail with a roaring fire inside it. Tongues of flame lick the top of the combustion chamber where twigs are added or a pot rests—but no smoke wafts out. Wood, dung—the stove can burn "pretty much any biomass," as a suited Philips executive stoking it in KwaDukuza notes during my visit the city formerly known as Stanger. The key to the new cookstoves is gasification—the stove gasifies the biomass of whatever type with heat before burning it. Traditional cookstoves burn the biomass in the pail—and emit clouds of sickening soot in the process. Even worse, most households simply employ an open fire.
But with this new cookstove, any ash settles to the bottom rather than wafting out as smoke. The saucer beneath conceals the stove's secret weapon: a battery-powered electric fan.