"The numbers are not going to impress anyone," says Francois d'Adesky, UNIDO's interim representative in South Africa. But the project may be extended to all of KwaZulu–Natal, then all of South Africa, if it proves successful here, because it might then garner World Bank funding. But there is not enough money currently to extend the program to the hundreds of millions more in the rest of Africa and Asia who also lack access to electricity and such lighting—a problem the U.N. declaration of a push for sustainable energy for all aims to solve.
At the same time, there is the problem of cleaning existing electricity sources for those who do enjoy a grid connection. Although Durban's metropolitan electric utility has a wind turbine spinning briskly in the sea breeze blowing over its roof, grid power in South Africa means coal power (as does much of the diesel fuel for trucks and jet fuel for planes)—the dirtiest fossil fuel—and all too often used for things like electrified security fences around homes. Such power is not precluded as part of the new U.N. initiative, although the goal is to ensure that such energy is used for economic development and that environmental consequences, including climate change, "can be managed as best we can," Orr says. "We're not trying to create utopia in 20 years. We will work with the existing [energy] mix and try to move it in a positive direction."
Zuma's rally provides an example: a tall smiling puppet woman with a witch's shoes, striped stockings and a red-brimmed hat with smoke coming out from the top known as Mrs. Coal calls on her equally tall friend—a floppy, green, walking wind-turbine puppet known as Mr. Wind—for help. And for those not lucky enough to be connected to the grid that Mrs. Coal and Mr. Wind can combine to power, the LEDs and the photovoltaic panels that turn sunlight into electricity to power them keep getting cheaper.
Health and education
There is another use for solar power of course—heat. Hence the 19 clinics and two schools getting solar hot water heaters courtesy of UNIDO in iLembe District. The most basic reason to want modern energy services for all—as the U.N. proclaims—is human health.
More than a million children in Africa and Asia die from diarrheal diseases each year, according to the World Health Organization, including hundreds even in relatively prosperous South Africa. The problem is a lack of hygiene.
Something as simple as hot water allows much better hygiene as well as offering hot meals for the poorest students, notes UNIDO's Nokwazi Moyo. "Soft hands, soft hands," the beaming children of Aldinville Senior Primary School in the iLembe District shout out as I tour the grounds. My hands are clean, too, thanks to access to soap and hot water, and that's something the sun can now provide to these children as well, cutting the risk of spreading infection for them and for workers at the 19 local health clinics similarly outfitted. "Kids now have chance to wash hands before lunch, which is hygienic," says Mikhail Evstafyev, a UNIDO spokesman. "It's the same for the clinic."
The generic hot water heaters the project uses are assembled in South Africa from parts made in China, according to Moyo, but so far have not seen wide uptake in the sunny country. Wealthier South Africans' homes are more likely to sport satellite dishes than photovoltaic panels or solar hot water heaters, although the government has established incentives as part of its new renewable energy initiatives.