Energy leapfrogging is a long way off

At Green Inc., while leapfrogging to mobile phones has been a dramatic success in Africa, the appealing idea of energy leapfrogging (to decentralized renewable energy like solar panels) faces big obstacles in practice:
On the ground, however, prospects for leapfrogging are dimmer. “I just don’t see it happening,” said Darren Legge, a United States Peace Corps volunteer working in rural Togo on natural resource management. “The technology is out of reach to all but the richest.”

Electrifying an entire town by solar energy is already very expensive — and with high government customs taxes, “it seems like an insurmountable cost barrier,” said Mr. Legge.

These obstacles haven’t stopped Claude Amouzou-Togo, who has spent the last three years hawking solar energy systems in Kpalime, Togo. “There’s a lot of business to be done,” he said, because “the government doesn’t do anything to provide electricity to much of the population.” Despite the large potential market, Mr. Amouzou-Togo attracts just one customer per month on average, a low number he puts down to high initial capital costs and non-existent governmental support for renewable energies.
It's not surprising that if solar power isn't at grid parity in rich countries like the U.S., the standalone economics will be quite challenging in countries with 1/10th to 1/100th the GDP per capita.
Businessmen like Mr. Amouzou-Togo are trying to put rural Africa on the path toward low-carbon development. But despite success in certain markets, “we’re nowhere in sight of a tipping point when it becomes profitable without external aid,” according to Mr. Legge. Nonetheless, Mr. Amouzou-Togo remains optimistic, especially as microcredit organizations get involved, providing loans to cover the large initial investment. “It is possible,” he insisted, “and the hope is to give light to everyone with solar energy.”
It is a beautiful vision, but hard to get excited about until someone can actually demonstrate proven results.

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