Episode length: 17:57 | September 7, 2019
The World to Come - Episode 4: The Power to Renew Energy
TESS VIGELAND: Scientists say that energy accounts for about 60-percent of greenhouse gas emissions. But imagine a world of clean, reliable power -- available to everyone. Innovators are working right now on groundbreaking ways to help make that happen.
JOHN MANKINS: I think Space Solar Power in particular has the potential to be one of those new sources that can help fill in the gap when the seasons or the weather don't cooperate with delivering the energy that we need to run society.
TESS VIGELAND: Coming up -- we’ll hear about this dream of harnessing solar power from space, and then go to entrepreneurs working on efforts to expand current technologies here on earth.
TESS VIGELAND: This is The World To Come, a podcast brought to you by Bank of America -- exploring life in the future, starting with the visionaries of today. Featuring clients and partners affiliated with Bank of America.
I’m Tess Vigeland.
TESS VIGELAND: In this fourth episode, the power to renew energy.
PINAKI DAS: The biggest issue in energy obviously, is the reliance on fossil fuels across the value chains. Whether you look at electricity, or transport, or heating you know a vast majority of that energy use is fossil fuel.
TESS VIGELAND: Bank of America Global Research analyst Pinaki Das is based in London and has been tracking the global energy picture for a long time.
PINAKI DAS: I've been with the bank for about 10 years now and I've been mainly involved in the utilities, energy, and renewable sector.
TESS VIGELAND: So again, there are two big goals when it comes to energy: to counter global warming, and to get energy to everyone in the world, especially electricity. The International Energy Agency estimates that nearly a billion people are without it.
And Pinaki, you have a pretty optimistic view about where the world is headed with energy. How come?
PINAKI: There's been incredible progress and me as a renewable analyst even I'm amazed, and I was already very, very bullish that things will become better in terms of solution. Even I’m surprised by how quickly the costs for some of the different technologies like wind and solar have fallen.
PINAKI DAS: I think wind costs have fallen by about 70 percent in the last six, seven years and solar has fallen like 80 percent.
TESS VIGELAND: That is extraordinary.
PINAKI DAS: 2018-2019 are probably the first year of across the world when we see that wind and solar are cheaper or at par with fossil fuel. Now this is quite important because till now the solution was not available or it was not cost effective. Now when you look at it, it's cost effective, it makes financial sense to actually shift to wind and solar.
TESS VIGELAND: He says solar and wind power technologies will continue to be part of the future because, despite their limitations, they work.
There are also huge efforts underway to generate OTHER non-carbon energy sources.
This would be a good place to bring back the voice we heard at the very beginning.
JOHN MANKINS: My name is John C. Mankins. I am one of the world's leading experts in the field of space solar power. I worked for twenty five years at NASA, ten years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and 15 years at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C.
TESS VIGELAND: John thinks it’s possible to reach those two big goals by harnessing energy from space for a very simple reason: the sun is always shining there.
JOHN MANKINS: Rooftop solar and wind are intermittent, they're occasional not continuous and you cannot run a civilization, you can't run schools and hospitals and factories and the Internet and so on, if you go for a month at a time with no sunlight, with no power. So there has to be some mix of ground-based sustainable energy that we know now, like wind and solar, and new sources.
TESS VIGELAND: So let’s break down how space-based solar would work. A satellite would be launched into space. It would then have to self-assemble in space with the use of advanced robotics. When it was all set-up, there would be these huge mirrors reflecting the sun’s radiation onto solar panels. Then that energy would be turned into a microwave signal beamed back down to earth.
JOHN MANKINS: So if you think conceptually about when you when you go and you turn on the wireless router in your home, electricity is coming in from the wall and it's going into the wireless router and the wireless router is putting out a microwave signal which then goes in all directions, and it permeates your house and you connect to your computer to that wireless microwave signal without really thinking about it. Well in the case of the solar power satellite -- in comes the sunlight, the energy of the sunlight is converted into electricity. The electricity is processed in onboard electronics, in space and is turned into a microwave signal and sent out through antennas in a wave, like a beam from a spotlight, to a receiver on the ground and where that energy is converted back into electricity and is then delivered to whatever is the local market to the local market either city or factory or what have you.
TESS VIGELAND: This idea actually goes back to work NASA was doing in the 1970s but John says the technology wasn’t where it needed to be.
JOHN MANKINS: If you think about the technologies of that era, you know 8 bit computers and robots that had to be controlled by you know people with their hands on joysticks, no autonomy, the efficiency of a solar cell was like 10 percent, the cost of getting into space was enormous. At that time, the space shuttle had not even flown yet.
TESS VIGELAND: John says that today, a platform in space that could deliver enough electricity for about two million homes would cost around 10 to 15-billion dollars. It’s a lot of money but he says it’s in line with other massive infrastructure projects that initially seemed daunting… from the Big Dig and the Channel Tunnel, to the Golden Gate Bridge.
JOHN MANKINS: Back when San Francisco built the Golden Gate Bridge they were able to access, and as I recall with substantial financial leadership from Bank of America, they were able to finance through public debt and bonds and so on the building of the Golden Gate Bridge when it was an unthinkably huge project of the day and in that in that moment BofA transformed California.
TESS VIGELAND: John says he can imagine a future where a game-changing energy source would complement a world in which solar panels on homes were the norm, wherever you went.
We’re going to hear from someone now who’s working on that idea in a place where you wouldn’t expect: rainy, cloudy… London. That’s where Agamemnon Otero is working to both lower C02 emissions and help people keep their lights on.
AGAMEMNON OTERO: If you can use access to clean energy and allow people to buy into it and have a financial return from that, then they can address those needs of communities with their own two hands.
TESS VIGELAND: A few years back, he learned that people in a low-income housing community near him were having trouble paying for their electricity. He had an idea.
AGAMEMNON OTERO: Well let's generate our own energy. We could literally do that on all the buildings with solar.
TESS VIGELAND: This was the very beginning of what would become his nonprofit energy cooperative, Repowering London. He figured if the housing community could make its own energy, financed in part by the residents, they wouldn’t have to pay for electricity from the grid.
So he and some volunteers started going door-to-door with their plan.
AGAMEMNON OTERO: We just literally rolled up and we're like ‘Hi. I live right around the corner and I was thinkin’ what do you reckon we put solar panels on your rooftop?’ And I can honestly tell you that most people shut the door.
They say, ‘I'm choosing between heating my home and eating food.’
TESS VIGELAND: And yet -- this idea could help with that untenable choice. Residents wouldn’t just get energy from the panels to use themselves. They could also make money by selling excess energy to London’s main electrical grid. So, he and his team modified their pitch:
AGAMEMNON OTERO: And we said ‘Hi. I know that you might think I'm from the local government or a private company but I'm not. I live around here and I want to see us come together. What are the problems that you're facing?’ And then wait and they’d be like ‘I’m busy.’ And they're like well though ‘the roof is leaking and then there's the door. The cold wind comes in through these doors and I don't have childcare.’ And we’re like, ‘Oh okay. Well what if we said that we were trying to build a co-operative that would give you money to address those three things and they would go ‘it would never happen.’ And then you’d say, ‘Look if we build the co-op and put solar panels on the rooftop that we could have a co-op.’
TESS VIGELAND: Within months, more than 100 residents had chipped in. It’s an investment model so people buy the amount of shares they can afford.
The solar panels went live in March of 2012. To date, Repowering London has worked with five government-subsidized housing complexes and two schools -- giving more than 27-hundred people access to solar power.
LEILA FORTUNATO: My name is Leila Fortunato. I'm a volunteer director for Bannister House Solar which is in Hackney, east London.
When the people saw the panels being put up it was quite a shock I think for some people because a lot of my neighbors were like wow we’ve actually done something. Something’s actually happened on this estate. Because even though it was being talked about, I don’t think anyone really, a lot of people didn’t believe that it would actually happen.
TESS VIGELAND: Leila is a history and geography teacher and a single mom. By the time Agamemnon and Repowering London came to her building with their pitch, the organization had grown. They had started to offer paid internships and she was excited for that opportunity for her kids. But her first motivator was the environment.
LEILA FORTUNATO: I think initially when I found out about it was to do with climate change so something that I was really worried about also being a geography teacher, you're more aware of it I suppose. And then when I found out that the project was also something that would help build communities and be something that my older two children could be involved in so it's paid internship. That also became a massive motivator. So it was something that for me was nice that young people could be involved in a project like this and be off the streets do something meaningful be engaging with local communities because I think a lot of the children feel that they don't have a voice. And also for the community themselves a lot of people are from low income backgrounds and again feel that they're not listened to.
TESS VIGELAND: And the heart of this idea - bringing renewable energy sources to people who need them is something I talked about with Bank of America Global Research Analyst Pinaki Das. He says that can have huge implications around the world -- especially in areas where people lack modern electricity.
PINAKI DAS: What is interesting is that you know in places like Africa, some of these renewable technologies are much better placed to provide a solution. So, you don't have to actually go the traditional way of building these huge grids and centralized power plants. What you can do is you can go and build distributed solar and that becomes a much more sustainable and lower-cost solution.
TESS VIGELAND: Off-grid technology is now booming in Africa -- some experts say a distributed solar revolution is underway there. And we’re going to turn now to one of the guys leading it:
JESSE MOORE: My name is Jesse Moore and I'm the CEO and co-founder of M- Kopa, a renewable energy platform company based in Nairobi, Kenya with operations around East Africa.
TESS VIGELAND: Jesse’s company, M-Kopa, started eight years ago. At that point, Jesse had already spent years working on emerging tech in East Africa. He had been in plenty of homes without electricity -- where people have to rely on kerosene.
JESSE MOORE: You don't want to really be close to that for too long because the fumes start to mess with your breathing and they start to mess with your eyesight. It makes people's eyes very itchy and red. there's a lot of smoke and that smoke ends up literally making the walls black and gray.
TESS VIGELAND: Many Kenyans living in rural areas only earn about two dollars a day. And it can sometimes cost up to 50 cents a day to get enough kerosene to light a home.
Jesse saw a way to give people a better option for the same price, or less.
JESSE MOORE: There are great technology advances that have happened over the last 10, 20 years where solar panels and lithium ion batteries and correctly designed appliances like lighting and tv's and fans and fridges can all run off the grid on a on a solar system. The problem is if I'm going to buy that solar system for cash it's going to cost me a couple hundred dollars, if not more. And so just like in the West if I'm trying to buy an apartment, if I'm trying to buy a house, that's a really big one time expense that I'm probably not going to be able to save up for. However, if I can get a mortgage and if I can put down a deposit and get hold of that property and move in I'm going to save rent every month and instead of paying rent I'll pay a mortgage that eventually helps me buy the property.
TESS VIGELAND: Jesse took this concept and applied it to solar systems. His customers put down a deposit, take their system home, and it works right away. They make mobile phone payments every day to keep the system running and they will own it outright after a year or two. The mobile payment platform is connected to a SIM card that M-Kopa embeds into each solar system.
TESS VIGELAND: This pay-as-you-go set-up has been transformative for Joyce Mwende.
When we met her, she was standing outside -- near her home in Machakos, Kenya. An interpreter was with her.
SWAHILI INTERPRETER: She says that she used to take her phone to the shopping center to charge and she used to use a lot of kerosene.
TESS VIGELAND: Now she makes the small daily payments to keep her M-Kopa solar system operating. A single 60-watt solar panel on her roof can power her phone charger, a radio, her first television, and two lights.
SWAHILI INTERPRETER: Her life has changed because her kid can now read at night. The kid performs better in school than previously when they didn’t own the device and the village generally has more lighting.
TESS VIGELAND: By the end of 2018, M-Kopa had installed solar systems in more than 700-thousand homes throughout East Africa. Jesse thinks they’ll hit a million soon.
JESSE MOORE: Where we get up every morning is, the M-Kopa team, is trying to bring leapfrogging innovation and technology to the lives of those who have been neglected as customers but are very much great customers with whom we can build a true business with.
TESS VIGELAND: In other words, working towards more universal access to energy. This is actually one of the UN’s Sustainability Goals -- to ensure full access and substantially increase the share of renewable energy by 2030. I wanted to know whether Jesse thought this was possible...
JESSE MOORE: Absolutely. Like absolutely it's possible we know we have the technology. I think the real question is whether the full force of global budgets of, you know, the investment capital that are required will be put in the right direction. There's no reason why you know the technologies that M-Kopa offers and others offer can't be in hundreds of millions of homes in a decade.
TESS VIGELAND: Agamemnon Otero says our future lies in new ways of thinking.
AGAMEMNON OTERO: It's all about having these moving, open, transparent structures that allow people to open and close the relationship between their energy and as soon as that happens we come up with new solutions it might be fuel cells it might be battery storage it might be energy efficiency but what we have to have the flexibility to move or we've just become the paradigm that we're moving away from.
TESS VIGELAND: Bank of America’s Pinaki Das says he can ALSO imagine rapid advancements for energy storage, along with electric cars, and beyond.
PINAKI DAS: So for example you know in nuclear you could have a major discovery or you could have micro small nuclear reactors or fission or you could have some breakthrough there.
TESS VIGELAND: He says shifts in human behavior are just as important -- he says we need to consider our own carbon footprints. As we’ve been hearing throughout this series, there isn’t just one answer. And that’s keeping scientist John Mankins optimistic too.
JOHN C. MANKINS: Oh, I'm hopeful because I think that the problems, although they are enormous, I think they can be solved. But only if we actually work to solve them.
TESS VIGELAND: What would you like the power to do?
On the next episode of The World to Come…
TESS VIGELAND: Would you rather take on a superbug with current treatments?
STEPHANIE STRATHDEE: hopefully his immune system will be able to kick in and fight it - you know, it's the best option we have.
TESS VIGELAND: Or take a chance on virus injections?
PATRICK WOOD: phage therapy is the use of viruses that attack bacteria, hostile bacteria to you, and so, they’re viruses that are on your side. Friendly viruses, if you like.
TESS VIGELAND: That’s the World to Come. I’m Tess Vigeland. Thanks for listening.
Merrill Lynch Global Research is research produced by BofA Securities, Inc. (“BofAS”) and/or one or more of its non-U.S. affiliates. BofAS is a registered broker-dealer, Member SIPC, and wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of America Corporation. Any opinions or other information correspond to the date of this recording and are subject to change. This information discusses general market activity, industry or sector trends, or other broad-based economic, market or political conditions and should not be construed as research or investment advice.Hide Transcript
In this episode, we’ll meet visionaries who are striving to bring clean, reliable energy to people around the world, from space solar power to new technologies here on earth.
Is it possible to provide clean, reliable energy to people around the world? Repowering London’s Founder, Agamemnon Otero, believes that clean energy is about more than access—it’s about improving entire communities: “If you can use access to clean energy and allow people to buy into it and have a financial return from that, then they can address needs of communities with their own two hands.” We’ll hear from him and other guests in this episode who are finding innovative ways to improve access to clean energy. From a scientist who thinks we should harness solar power from space to entrepreneurs who are working to expand technologies here on earth to power underserved communities.
A well-known voice for millions of American radio listeners, Tess spent 11 years as an anchor for public radio’s Marketplace. Over her career, she has received numerous national awards, including most recently a 2019 Gracie Award as Best Host/Anchor, and a 2019 National Murrow Award for Continuing Coverage.
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