Power Surge

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the proverbial genie clapped his hands and put an Internet-capable mobile phone in the hands of every adult on the planet? Of course, over a billion of them would be fervently hoping the genie had another wish to grant, because they would have about a day to use their new device until the power ran out, and there was nowhere to plug it in. 1.2 billion people still lack access to electricity, and no fewer than 20 countries fail to deliver stable power to over a quarter of their primary schools or health clinics. As the benefits of digital technologies accrue, the importance of this issue increases. When farmers, teachers, health workers, and entrepreneurs lack electricity, they are denied access to a lot of useful information and services. So, market pressure is building for clean, low-cost power sources, and several announcements in the past weeks suggest that the world’s best minds are on the case. Elon Musk intimated he may soon unveil a new battery technology that can power an entire home. Stanford professors created a cheap, aluminum-based battery that can re-charge in minutes, does not over-heat, and contains fewer hazardous materials than lithium-ion batteries. Not to be outdone, Columbia University scientists created a camera that can take images using ambient light for power. And the NGO Liter of Light has improved the “Mozer Lamp” (a rooftop soda bottle lamp for houses with no electricity) to include LED lights and a small solar charger, extending the lamp’s utility into the night.

The challenge for all of these new technologies is to achieve mass adoption and scale. Many good ideas and nifty gadgets have fizzled at the start-up stage, and not necessarily for lack of demand. More typical obstacles are a flawed business model, weak institutional support, or the heavy inertia of a world market dominated by standard batteries, oil companies, and internal combustion engines. Things are changing, however. “Grid parity,” or the point at which renewable energy costs the same or less per kilowatt-hour than coal and natural gas, is rapidly approaching thanks to technological advances in the solar and wind power industries. And governments – concerned about little things like shorelines and breathable air – are incentivizing research, innovation, and investment in clean energy.

Opportunity seekers will find that emerging markets are fertile ground for new power solutions. The combination of price sensitivity and limited connectivity has born inventiveness and a bootstrapping spirit that are smothered by easy access in developed countries. Wander into any home from Cambodia to the Dominican Republic and you are likely to see car batteries that power houselights, charge phones, and store extra power. But scaling the Musk house battery, or the Stanford aluminum 9-volt, or the Columbia camera will require a creative, well-conceived business plan that fits 21st-century business models: crowd-funded, social media-marketed, e-commerce distributed, partnership-enhanced, interoperable, and maybe even paid for with mMoney.

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