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Solar and distributed energy to power the world, not coal, says former US utility boss


The former chief executive of America’s biggest electricity utility, Duke Energy, has called on governments to focus on distributed energy technologies such as solar and storage to bring electricity to hundreds of millions in Africa, India and other countries. And he says this should also be the model for established grids in Europe and north America.


In a new book called Lighting the World, Jim Rogers, who headed up Duke for 25 years, points to a energy future that focuses on local production, small-scale connections and distributed renewable energy sources, like solar.

The coal industry, and Australia’s Abbott government, insists that coal is the only way to deliver electricity to the energy poor, but Rogers says the opposite is true.

“We can’t bring electricity to the rural areas of the world using an old-fashioned industrial grid based on building more coal plants and running copper lines from timber pole to timber pole across Sub-Saharan Africa, or running cables underwater to connect the archipelago of Indonesia,” Rogers writes in the book.

“The environment and financial impediments make that impossible. Instead, we’ll do it with modern technology: solar and other clean energy sources, new kinds of batteries, LED lights, efficient cook stoves and TVs, and plenty of innovations that now are surfacing.”

This is exactly what Australian social enterprise start-up Pollinate Energy has been doing for years, now, in India – the group this week marking the 10,000th household it has switched from kerosene lamps to solar powered lights.


The groups innovative ‘Pollinator’ model, enables India’s urban poor to access solar energy, through an affordable weekly payment plan. After approximately 5 weeks of payments households own a solar lamp outright, guaranteed for 5 years.

The 10,000th light was purchased by two brothers living in one of the slum communities serviced by Pollinate Energy in east Bangalore, who bought it for their parents (using savings made using their own solar lights), who live in a village near in north Karnataka.

“Having a light has helped make our homes much better, it means we can do so much more. Our kids can read, our wives can cook, and we can move around the community safely at night. Our parents have access to electricity, but it rarely works, and when it doesn’t they are in complete darkness. We want them to be safe and have a better life too,” one of the brothers said.

And there is an environmental benefit, too, through a reduction in the use of carbon intensive kerosene – a task the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has described as one of the most pressing priorities for addressing climate change.

Since launching, Pollinate says their scheme has saved over 2 million kilograms of carbon dioxide and 800,000 litres of kerosene.

For his part, Rogers is the co-founder of the Global BrightLight Foundation, an NGO that has distributed more than 60,000 combination solar lanterns and phone chargers in eight countries including Rwanda, Uganda, Haiti and Guatemala.

But efforts like his and those of Pollinate – which have won them a UN award – are just not enough, he says.

What’s needed is for developing nation governments to designate locally owned and operated franchises with exclusive rights to sell solar systems and other energy services within specified areas, a move he says would enable private companies to attract the capital necessary to bring electricity to the people.

And Rogers says this might prove to be the template for electricity grids in developed countries, despite the sunk costs of decades of investment.

“It’s very clear to me that the system of electric power we have in North America and Europe, which is now being instituted in much of China and India and elsewhere, is not sustainable for the future of the planet,” he said in an interview with USA Today. So we’re going to have to figure out something else, and soon.”



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