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Leapfrog Technology: Cleaner Tech in Developing Nations

Why the developing world is home to the most innovative clean-energy solutions.

In parts of the world not yet reached by the benefits—and ills—of the traditional, centralized, industrial power grid, there’s great potential for clean-energy solutions to “leapfrog” polluting, fossil-fuel-based energy. The San Francisco-based writer and ethical futurist Jamais Cascio once described leapfrogging thusly: “Areas which have poorly-developed technology or economic bases can move themselves forward rapidly through the adoption of modern systems without going through intermediary steps.” Clean energy is ripe for leapfrogging and, as you see from these snapshots below, the leap is well under way.

Micro-wind in Kenya

In Kenya, two local men have formed Craftskills Enterprises to build low-cost, small-scale wind turbines out of waste materials like wood, fiberglass, and scrap metal. Each turbine fuels a battery-pack “generator” that can power 10 homes.

Solar water purification in the Maldives

Brackish water is a huge obstacle to public health in many of the Maldives’s 200 inhabited islands. Or it was, before the introduction of a new solar-powered, off-grid, water-pumping-and-purification system. Each unit can produce about 132 gallons of water every day from a single 100-watt photovoltaic solar panel.

Micro-hydro in the Philippines

There are more than 10,000 villages in the Philippines that aren’t reached by the country’s national grid. Micro-hydro power plants—ranging from 7.5 to 35 kilowatts in capacity—don’t require massive dams, can be owned and operated by the local community, and make perfect sense in a region where most villages straddle a small river.

Native wind in the United States

You don’t need to travel across the planet to find communities leapfrogging the fossil-fueled grid. On our own gusty Great Plains, eight Native American tribes in North and South Dakota have united to bring 80 megawatts of wind-energy capacity to power homes, health clinics, schools, and, yes, a casino.

Leapfrog city in China

Rizhao, China, might be considered the world’s first “leapfrog city.” Since 2001, the city’s administration has worked to mainstream clean energy. Solar water heaters have been installed on the rooftops of 99 percent of all buildings, thousands of families use solar cookers in their kitchens, more than 15,000 homes are fitted with systems to generate marsh gas from agricultural waste water (the gas replaces coal), and a massive 560,000-square-meter solar array pumps 348 million kilowatt-hours of clean electricity into the city every year.

Rice Power in India

The rice husk— the byproduct of rice milling—is everywhere in rural India. One company, Husk Power Systems, has developed a gasification process that turns these husks—about 500 tons of which are produced by the typical village every season—into electricity. Each of their “meso power plants” (not mega, not micro) can power about 400 households per year, replacing 11,095 gallons of kerosene and 4,755 gallons of diesel

Illustration by Mitch Blunt

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