Clinton Global Initiative commits to bringing funds, training and jobs to solar

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At the seventh annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City last week, former U.S. President Bill Clinton – now dubbed the "Do-Gooder-in-Chief" by attendees – announced a total of 194 commitments in 2011, valued at $6.2 billion, from heads of state, business leaders, philanthropists and academics to implement programs that will fight poverty, create a cleaner environment, and increase access to health care and education in more than 180 nations.

Three of this year’s environmental programs promise to:

  • Bring solar-generated light to eight countries in Africa and Asia;
  • Turn the lights back on and create jobs in Thailand, where previously deployed solar platforms are badly in need of maintenance; and
  • Train workers in North America for employment in the solar and wind industries.

To date, generating light off-grid has been very expensive, as well as a health hazard and a significant source of carbon emissions. The World Bank estimates that 780 million women and children breathe the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes each day as a result of fumes from kerosene lamps. In addition, in India alone, 2.5 million people – 350,000 of them, children – suffer severe burns annually, when they accidentally overturn kerosene lamps.

Solar deployment

Now, through a $3.5 million commitment by Switzerland-based Business Creation Investments AG (BCI), one million solar lamps are set to be deployed in eight developing countries throughout Africa and Asia – Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia – within the next five years.

"Most solar lights currently available are either too expensive or too inefficient, which makes them unsuitable to reach the majority of people in need of affordable, reliable solar-cell based light," according to BCI.

BCI has said it will distribute the newly developed "WakaWaka" lamp – meaning "shine bright" in Swahili. The low-cost, portable light fixture comprises an LED lamp, a photovoltaic panel and a rechargeable battery. It is designed to fit on the top of any standard glass or plastic beverage bottle. On one charge, the WakaWaka provides:

  • eight hours of bright light;
  • 16 hours of reading light; or
  • 80 hours of bed-time night light.

BCI’s partners in the WakaWaka project are environmental and solar technology experts, including two Amsterdam-based companies, Do-Inc, which is skilled in environmental project development, and Intivation, which has broad experience integrating solar power solutions into portable consumer electronic devices, and has a successful African marketing and distribution system. The lamp uses a patented Intivation solar charger, which offers up to twice as efficient charging in sub-optimal lighting conditions.

According to BCI, "Rapid market entry, early adoption, and mass distribution are anticipated, as they will be facilitated by the logistical system of beverage companies." Because the WakaWaka is specifically designed to fit the top of a bottle, BCI is hoping to create a unique promotional opportunity for beverage distributors. Paired with a WakaWaka, their bottles will occupy a central position in off-grid family households, thus stimulating brand recognition, awareness, and brand loyalty.

In addition to collaborating with beverage companies, the WakaWaka lamp will reportedly be distributed through dedicated and location specific sales teams that will be managed by WakaWaka country managers and which is expected to result in local job creation.

Lack of maintenance

Meanwhile, in Thailand, where solar power systems were deployed years ago to many off-grid settlements, the lights are sputtering and going out, for lack of maintenance.

In 2004, the Thai government invested $250 million to install 300,000 photovoltaic home systems for the off-grid population – each system capable of powering two 10-watt fluorescent bulbs for six hours, as well as a 14-inch television for two hours, every night.

The home systems installed under the 2004 program comprise a photovoltaic module, a controller and a battery. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 80 percent of these systems have stopped working, due to the use of low quality materials and the failure of the government to develop a long-term maintenance plan.

To start turning those lights back on again, the Border Green Energy Team (BGET), which operates near the national boundaries of Thailand and Burma, has made a $90,000 commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative to "restore and expand solar energy access to 100 homes in rural Thailand."

Because renewable energy options are often cost-prohibitive in this region, BGET has said it will employ a new model that will provide affordable, micro-loans for those seeking access to warranted, high-quality solar systems. In addition, this commitment will reportedly create three local jobs through the training and hiring of local franchisees to provide installation, repair and ongoing maintenance services of these solar systems.

High unemployment

Finally, in the United States, where the unemployment rate rose again last month – up to 13.4 percent in Nevada, the hardest-hit state, and stalled at around 10 percent nationwide – the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation has made an $11.1 million, two-year commitment to scale up a manufacturing program for the wind industry and to start a pilot manufacturing program for the solar industry.

Through these efforts, which are scheduled to begin this fall, the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation intends to develop domestic supply chain capabilities in these sectors, helping build a robust clean energy sector in the United States.

Overseas manufacturing

Currently, a significant percentage of industry components for the wind and solar energy are manufactured overseas. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) estimates that some 50 percent of turbine components, by value, are manufactured overseas. While large components such as towers and blades are being made in this country, the vast majority of the 8,000 components in a turbine are being imported.

The Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) does not provide similar data, but discussions with industry executives indicate that they are importing a significant portion of parts and components.

U.S. manufacturers face a number of competitive challenges from overseas companies. Firms in these emerging sectors still need to develop the technical expertise, skilled workforce, and relationships with turbine manufacturers that the Europeans, in particular, have cultivated over the past decade. The BlueGreen Alliance works to help create the clean energy manufacturing infrastructure and the capability of domestic companies to produce parts and components for these industries.

"Without this infrastructure," the Foundation states, "the United States will not have the ability to build a robust clean energy sector and its accompanying high skilled workforce."

The BlueGreen Alliance is a nationwide, strategic partnership between labor unions and environmental organizations dedicated to expanding the number and quality of jobs in the U.S. green economy. It unites more than 14 million members and supporters in pursuit of good jobs, a clean environment and a green economy.

Both the wind and solar programs to which the Foundation has committed will be based on a successful test in the wind industry that the group completed recently. Specifically, the Foundation has said it will scale a 2010 pilot program that developed new suppliers for the wind industry in five states: Illinois, Indiana, Montana, Virginia, and West Virginia.

More than 200 companies have participated in the program to date, either though small workshops or by being provided individual assistance to revamp their manufacturing operations.

Redoubling of efforts

Among the many other environmental commitments made at the Clinton Global Initiative was a redoubling of efforts promised by Toronto-based Dundee Realty Corporation. In 2007, Dundee committed to invest $300 million in a combination of wind, solar and hydropower projects to generate 150 megawatts of power for the Ontario grid and reduce the region’s dependence on carbon fuels. At the meeting, Dundee doubled its commitment to $600 million; the goal is to have the full $600 million funded by 2016.

As President Clinton commented at the CGI annual meeting, "Now more than ever, it is essential that governments, businesses, civil society, and the media work together to take action to generate more sustainable and equitable growth while preserving our global sustainability. For seven years, CGI members have done just that. Their work has improved the lives of more than 300 million people around the world in substantive, measurable ways, and has reversed the cycles of environmental degradation and economic downturn."