Last Wednesday evening, I dined in a fashionable Nairobi restaurant with three recent graduates from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Big brains, these three young men have chosen to pursue a distinctly unusual set of inventive possibilities. They are seeking to design, engineer and implement new sources of energy for people in the developing world living "off the grid."
Step back a moment. For generations, the "grid" referred to the national electricity grid, the cornerstone of all power-generating activities in a given country. Throughout Africa and Asia, national grids are now straining to generate sufficient electricity to meet the growing appetites of bustling cities.
For rural dwellers in the developing world, large technological systems often bypass them completely. In Kenya, for instance, villages that are not reached by the national grid must survive for years -- if not an eternity -- before the grid reaches them. The power demands by city dwellers are simply too urgent to put rural needs very high on the electricity agenda.
Into the breach comes Distributed World Power, a Pasadena, Calif. company that wants to specialize in off-grid electricity sources. Backed by private funds, Distributed World Power sounds like the name for a political movement, not an energy startup. At dinner, John Howard, vice president of business development for the company and the oldest of the three Caltech grads, explained that Asia would probably be the best region for the company. But personally, he was drawn to Africa, Kenya in particular.
Howard and his fellow Caltech alumni had just spent the past week sleeping in remote Kenyan villages, far off the grid. The trio was assessing the potential for wind-generation. They also were looking at solar because, as Howard explained, consumption of off-the-shelf solar systems was greater in Kenya than anywhere else on the continent other than South Africa.
"They are straightforward engineering options," Howard said, that could deliver vast amounts of off-grid electricity to African villages. Yet the non-technical issues loom large in Africa -- and much larger than in usually-orderly and effecient Asian countries. So Howard questioned the wisdom of investing heavily in parts of Africa too.
"Maybe we try one country," he said.
The problem is identifying partners, which isn't easy in sub-Saharan Africa, where "good" partners often fetch a high price. The Cal Tech grads can't roll out systems on their own; rather they prefer to do the less-costly and more creative part of the job, namely conceiving and designing systems.
"The distances in Africa are enormous," Howard said, confessing this after a full day of traveling from a rural area to Nairobi. Indeed, densely-packed Asia, linked by all manner of transport, is quite a contrast from sub-Saharan Africa, where despite high birth rates the landscape at times seems almost lunar, bereft of people.
In such a region, can bright young Americans make a difference. John Howard thinks he and his Caltech alums can but he admits, "these are early days."