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Rose Mutiso: How to End Energy Poverty in Africa

Good Clean Energy is a podcast about how to build a world with abundant, affordable, carbon-free electricity. TAE’s Jim McNiel hosts in-depth conversations with scientists, innovators and energy experts about the challenges our electricity systems face and the race for game-changing, clean ways to power our lives.

In this episode, Jim is joined by Rose Mutiso, research director for the D.C.-based nonprofit organization Energy for Growth Hub, to discuss her work and the path forward for “energy poor” countries on the continent of Africa.

Covered in this episode

  • The connection between access to electricity and poverty
  • The reality of living in an energy poor country
  • Why modeling is important for energy policy making
  • How the path to accessible energy in Africa will unwind
  • Why energy infrastructure is crucial to Africa’s future

Rose Mutiso knows first-hand what it means to be energy poor. Mutiso, now the Research Director for the Energy for Growth Hub, a nonprofit think tank focused on promoting energy policies that align with countries’ development goals, grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and often experienced load-shedding and power rationing. 

“We lived in a household in which if you had a light bulb on for half a second longer than you were in a certain room, my mom would kill you, because it was just the most expensive thing,” Mutiso said. “So I felt it every day.”

Mutiso said the connection between access to affordable electricity and poverty is massive. “In rich countries, or ‘mature markets’ as we call them, people really do take for granted the electricity that underpins everything.”

In some ways, countries in Africa face the same challenges as every other nation on Earth, Mutiso said. Every single country is grappling with the same question around how do we expand energy production sustainably, reduce costs, integrate clean renewable sources, and promote equity. But the narrative that Africa will magically leapfrog the problem rich countries faced in their own development is false, she said.

“Our dream is not for Africans to be consumptive or wasteful or to recreate the inefficiencies that places like the U.S. have, but it’s just for everyone to live a life of dignity, to realize their potential and power, electricity, energy is central to that,” Mutiso said.

And the way to achieve that is infrastructure. The importance of infrastructure when it comes to access to affordable energy cannot be overstated. But access to electricity doesn’t end at the household level, Mutiso said. In most countries, she said, electricity consumption at the household-level accounts for roughly one-quarter to one-third of a country’s total electricity usage. That’s why the Energy for Growth Hub is focused on growing access to energy at the industry-level.

“The big message is that there’s a real physicality to energy infrastructure, to digital infrastructure, and that takes hard work that takes investment,” Mutiso said. “Creating opportunity for these billions of young people in Africa today and in the future will require us making those investments today.”

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Jim McNiel: Ten years ago, Hurricane Sandy hit Long Island; that’s where I live. We lost all power for about three-weeks time. And within a day, the lanterns we have that are battery operated, stopped working because they were rechargeable and you can’t charge them. All the food in the fridge just went to waste. And I couldn’t get the furnace working. So we were lighting fires in the fireplace. It was November and guess what it snowed.

There was no phone service. It was a royal pain in the ass. Three and a half billion people around this planet live like this every day. They don’t have reliable electricity. In Sub-Saharan Africa, there’s 750 million people that have zero electricity at all. Think about that. No refrigeration, no lights after dark, you know, no consistent source for heat. We live exceptional lives in the West. We take it for granted that every time we flip a switch we get light, heat works, our phones charged, our TVs work. Everything works.

Today, I talked to Rose Mutiso, who is the research director for the Energy for Growth Hub, and she knows quite a bit about what the requirements for energy are in Africa. And she’s got some big ideas about how to make it happen. Not just “how do you get light bulbs hanging and lighting in the village hut?” But really, how do you power industry? How do you change the equation? Because there’s a very direct correlation between access to energy and poverty. I’m Jim McNiel, and welcome to Good Clean Energy.

Rose, welcome to Good Clean Energy. It’s wonderful to see you.

Rose Mutiso: Thanks for having me, Jim.

McNiel: You’re involved in so many interesting things. How does a nanotechnology polymer expert get involved in equitable, clean energy for Africa? What does that journey look like?

Mutiso: Oh, goodness, great question. I’ll try and keep it concise, because it’s been quite a random walk in some ways. In other ways, actually, the connection between nanotechnology and polymer science is really direct to clean energy, because these materials that I was working on underpin energy technology. So if you think about batteries, you need fancy membranes. There are all sorts of scientists working on next generation materials first, you know, solar cells, wind turbines, making the energy conversion rates better, more efficient, easier to process. And so there’s an entire scientific community that’s working on energy issues. And I was part of that, and I loved it. But I’m originally from Nairobi, in Kenya, so I’m from Africa. And I think issues of equity and access have always been close to my heart. And while I was deep in the lab doing all of this high-tech, high-end physics work, I always wondered, how does this tie back to home? Like, how do I make the connection? I think this is how I ended up in the space very slowly and kind of in a meandering way. But I think the work that I do now is really at the intersection of how these technologies can be deployed in developing countries in ways that kind of promote development and long-term sustainability. I would say the bridge that connected these two worlds for me is while I was finishing my PhD, I got an opportunity to do a postdoc in Congress. So I actually worked for Senator Chris Coons, which was one of the craziest, funnest things I’ve ever done. And there’s actually a program that puts scientists in Congress and in government to precisely do this, to help you link your science to policy and to real world problems.

McNiel: So you got a glimpse behind the legislative regulatory curtain, if you will, working in Congress.

Mutiso: Oh goodness, yes I did. Which I enjoyed, but I will have to say that I’m glad I’m not in that world anymore. It’s quite intense, as you can tell, by the recent fun and games.

McNiel: So let’s talk about Energy for Growth Hub. What is the mission of this organization?

Mutiso: The mission of the Energy for Growth Hub, which is a D.C.-based think tank, is to ensure that all countries — and in particular countries that are energy poor, countries with energy poverty — can transition to what we call a high-energy future, where electricity — and we focus a lot on our power sector — so where access to power and electricity is not a constraint to economic growth. And so we link evidence to policy to help make those connections that ensure poor countries can make the right investments alongside development partners on energy infrastructure in ways that solve energy poverty, build climate resilience, and just power industries to create jobs and support well being in these countries.

The connection between access to electricity and poverty 

McNiel: So what is the connection between access to affordable electricity and poverty?

Mutiso: Massive. It’s just at a basic level, in rich countries, or kind of mature markets, as we call them, people really do take for granted the electricity that underpins everything. And so often when people talk about power and development, that discourse is very much at the level of a light bulb. OK, you need a light bulb in your house so that you can read a book, do your homework, that’s all important. But at the Energy for Growth Hub, we try to focus the attention on productive sectors of the economy: your factories, your commercial centers, your office buildings, your transportation, so electric trains, your agriculture, irrigation. All of these kinds of value addition and productive centers of the economy are very much driven by power. And so the connection is quite clear when you think about it that way. And this is what we see in African countries and other energy poor contexts. So entire productive sectors of the economy are completely absent, because industries cannot be competitive. And all sorts of other kinds of commercial enterprises, small and big industries, are just unable to operate. And so then you take off the table those jobs, those opportunities, those inputs into the GDP of the country. And so in that sense, the connection is quite clear.

About several 100 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity. So this means that they live in a home in which you just don’t have any power, you don’t have electricity, you can’t turn on a switch and electricity and light your home. You may be familiar with the sustainable development goals, and SDG seven, which is supporting universal access to electricity in homes. This is what has been the focus of discourse. And that is a population that is really, for the most part, the focus of that goal, and hugely important, especially from a kind of socio-economic, social well-being perspective.

Beyond that, at the energy for Growth Hub, we like to think about access to reliable, affordable power outside of the home. So in most countries, electricity consumption in the household is about maybe one-quarter to one-third of total electricity consumption. And so most of your power is not consumed in the home, it’s consumed in your industries and your other productive sectors. In Africa, most of the power consumption, which is not that much, is actually just at the household level, because we just don’t have the industries. And so I think that’s the other side of the access to electricity equation. How we count access is how many homes are connected. But going beyond that is, even if you connect all the homes, you have not solved energy poverty, because that’s not where most of the consumption should be, It should be in the productive sectors of the economy.

McNiel: You grew up in Nairobi, and I imagine you had electricity in your home?

Mutiso: Oh, I did. So this was Kenya in the 90s. We did have electricity, but we had extremely unreliable electricity, very expensive electricity. And so load shedding and power rationing were extremely common. We lived in a household in which if you had a light bulb on for half a second longer than you were in a certain room, my mom would kill you, because it was just the most expensive thing. And so I would say I grew up in what I would consider, and what I think the Energy for Growth Hub defines as, energy poverty. So I felt it every day.

McNiel: Well, also, I mean, talk about equity. It’s one thing to be able to have a light bulb so you can study after dark. But it’s another thing to be able to have a refrigerator. Were you able to have a refrigerator in Nairobi?

Mutiso: This is such a great question, because I did not have a refrigerator till I was maybe, I would say, 12 years old. This was a big deal. It was a very small refrigerator, something that many Kenyans, the vast majority of Kenyans still don’t have till today. And so a refrigerator came into my life quite late. And even so it was very much a luxury.

“Even if you connect all the homes, you have not solved energy poverty, because that’s not where most of the consumption should be. It should be in the productive sectors of the economy.”

McNiel: So the UN defines access to electricity as something like 50 kilowatts a year. Is that correct?

Mutiso: Yeah, so again, this goes back to our earlier point on how you count. So I think right now, the metrics are framed around basic access, so about 50 to 150 kilowatt hours per person per year, which is nothing. So a typical American refrigerator will use about 200 kilowatt hours a year.

McNiel: My math was more like 650 kilowatts

Mutiso: Yeah, so this is a small average. So I will say American refrigerators can go quite big.

McNiel: Yeah, they can be the size of an SUV.

Mutiso: Exactly. And I mean, I live in the U.K., which for the purposes of this conversation is pretty much in Europe, even if some British people are trying to deny that. I make this point because refrigerators in Europe are quite small. So maybe I would say that European refrigerators are around the 200 kilowatt hours.

McNiel: Yeah, that would make sense. And also, I mean, the fact is that the United States average home consumes about 12 kilowatts a day, and Europe is in the six kilowatt range. And I think Nigeria is like 0.58.

Mutiso: I mean, it’s mind boggling. I mean, there are all sorts of like perverse comparisons that you can make. Like I think Golden, Colorado, which is known for the Coors Brewery, uses more power than the entire country of Liberia. Or Californians use more power on video gaming than Senegal. So it gets quite perverse when you think about it.

“Poverty is poverty, and poverty is harsh”

McNiel: Well, what do you say to the average American or European tourist who goes to Kenya, and travels out on safari into the Maasai Mara and sits around the fire with a warrior in chats about life in the savanna, and says, “Oh, they look really happy. They don’t need electricity.”

Mutiso: Jim, I’m kind of chuckling because, are you asking for a friend? You painted such a vivid picture; was that you in the Maasai Mara romanticizing the poverty?

McNiel: Well, when you say romanticizing the poverty, maybe that’s the right way to look at it. Because I think that there is a mythology that they’re happy. What’s the reality on the ground?

Mutiso: Yeah, I mean, definitely, poverty is poverty and poverty is harsh. What people have in rich countries, you have power, you have air conditioning when it’s hot, and you have heating when it’s cold. Your day to day is comfortable. So what I would say to tourists and other people who kind of romanticize poverty is living in it day in, day out, it’s not a novelty. It’s really, really difficult to live under those conditions. It’s a life that lacks dignity in many ways.

And I think what we would like to see at the Hub is just every single person irrespective of where they’re from, and where they live, to be able to access opportunity, and utilize their potential. And so if you go to Kenya, for example, if you’re a tourist, probably the person serving you in the cafe could even have a degree. This is really common. So even menial jobs are so competitive, because there’s such few jobs. One of the stats we’d like to point out, as you know, over a billion people will be entering the job market, a billion young people in Africa by 2050. And it’s just a dearth of opportunity, and to the point that graduates are doing really menial jobs and are competing, fighting for it. And so for us, this is what we mean by kind of complete squandering of potential.

And so our dream is not for Africans to be consumptive or wasteful, or to recreate the inefficiencies that places like the U.S. have of the West, but it’s just for everyone to live a life of dignity, to realize their potential — and power, electricity, energy is central to that.

And I think one of the narratives that has really taken hold when people think about Africa, is these leapfrogging narratives, which is yes, there are all these challenges, the young population, growing population, but Africa will have this magical technological transformation and completely leapfrog all of the mistakes of the world. I think aspirationally in many ways, obviously, this is the goal, as I said, not to rehash the mistakes and inefficiencies of rich countries. But on the other hand, I think the danger is a failure to appreciate the importance of infrastructure, like the physicality of the world. So even the internet. The internet is incredibly physical, not only do you have the power infrastructure that powers the whole thing, you have data centers, and fiber optic cables and all of these things. And so they’re all of these leapfrogging narratives that engage in some kind of wishful thinking that we will create this kind of bright, shiny future in Africa and will completely bypass all of the hard work, and everything will be on an app. And so I think the big message is that there’s a real physicality to energy infrastructure, to digital infrastructure, and that takes hard work, that takes investment. And creating opportunity for these billions of young people in Africa today and in the future will require us making those investments today.

Modeling energy needs for African countries

McNiel: So I agree with you that we don’t need to stretch copper across the continent of Africa to provide telephony. We don’t need to use huge centralized power plants the way we did in the United States. We could do distributed energy. What’s the plan? And I think you talk a lot about understanding what the current situation is and what the future should look like and modeling energy. Why don’t you talk about modeling a little bit and why that’s important.

Mutiso: Yeah, what will it cost? So this ties back to my point on kind of this, there’s a little bit of a greenfield-ness to Africa that captures the imagination of the leapfroggers. That, in many ways, this is a setting in which it’s quite pristine from an energy and infrastructure perspective. So there’s such a low baseline, and so there is an opportunity to build things in cool and interesting and new ways. And that’s completely true.

Energy modeling is important in general, because we’re trying to kind of run experiments about what the future energy system could look like. And this is true in every geography. So what are the trade-offs? What are the different options? What will it cost? What is possible, what is not? What are the constraints? And so modeling helps us kind of conduct these experiments. Modeling doesn’t prescribe, it just guides. And this is why modeling exercises have to be iterative, you have to do them regularly. It’s just like a way of informing our thinking and sharpening our thinking about where we’re trying to go.

A big issue in Africa is we don’t have the legions of data scientists and researchers and other people working on this. We’re building it slowly. We’re not quite there. We don’t have the data. So it’s really, really hard to do good modeling. And so there are all sorts of challenges. And it’s something that is really overlooked that we are trying to draw attention to, to inform decision making around the energy transition around the future of energy and Africa, hugely critical for development and for long-term sustainability. You need this evidence-based, you need to run these models, you need to do this analysis, and we can’t do it without the people, and we can’t do it without the data.

McNiel: Well, you can’t do it without the political will either, can you?

Mutiso: Exactly, and all of these models, I think one danger — and this is true in every geography — is the kind of nerdy modeling people often don’t interconnect really well with decision-making. And so this is something else that is really crucial for the kind of the models and the technical communities to interface with a policy and political communities.

How the path to accessible energy will unwind in African countries

McNiel: What is the sequence of events? I mean, if access to energy supports industry, industry supports jobs, access to energy allows education to work a little bit more efficiently, maybe there’s connectivity? What is the path forward? And how do you see it unwinding?

Mutiso: The path forward is not that different from the path forward in any other country. And so sometimes is this temptation to overexceptionalize the African context. So right now, every single country is grappling with the same question around, how do we expand our energy production sustainably, reduce costs, integrate clean renewable sources, promote equity — there are equity problems even in the U.S. among the different communities. And so I think the sequence of events is continuing to invest in infrastructure, and a lot of this is done with development partners. And so energy infrastructure traditionally, in African countries, in many poor countries, heavily bankrolled by DFIs, the Royal Bank, you name it. And so this work is ongoing. And we just need more and more focus on that for countries to continue to work with development partners to roll out the infrastructure. We need to strengthen our utilities, which are really, really struggling right now. They’re kind of the connective tissue, the node around the power sector in particular. Each country needs to assess their resource endowment and make investments around that. And so leveraging renewable technologies, or geothermal or whatever makes sense. And so the sequence of events is — I wish I could give you some kind of magical answer that will blow your mind, but it’s just what everyone needs to do.

McNiel: Well, you did say something that blew my mind, and I feel really stupid because it blew my mind. Which is the fact that the development of Africa is not much different than the development of the U.S., right? How we went about it and how you’re going to go about it are probably not going to be too dissimilar. But if you think about what you say about working with development partners, can Africa work with development partners without mortgaging their future? I mean, don’t you have foreign states coming in to help you with infrastructure and then creating a debt-load that you’re unable to service and then you end up losing control of your own resources?

Mutiso: So yes, the debt implications for African infrastructural development are massive. And right now in Kenya, when I’m from, there’s this massive big debate around over the past kind of decade or so, our debt-ratio has gone out of control. We have went on a massive spending spree on infrastructure bankrolled by the Chinese and these debts are coming due. And it’s a big, big problem.

That being said, we have mechanisms within the kind of international system to support very low-income countries. So we have, you know, IDA-eligible countries who are eligible to concessional loans or low-interest concessional terms. So this exists. The bottom line is, infrastructure development requires investment, whatever the source is, whether it’s fully private, concessional, or a mix, right. And so this is where it is also up to African countries to work on governance issues, to manage their budgets, to clean up corruption, to do all of these things. So that you can have an ecosystem that can attract private capital. And we already see this. So in the power sector, there are generation projects, like big wind farms and the like, that are already attracting private capital. And so we need to continue to push on that end, having segments of our energy sector that are maturing and ready for private capital. But there will always be a role for public finance. And this is not just true in African countries. In many countries, there’s a kind of a public role in harder segments of the energy sector. If you think about the U.S., the entire grid was rolled out with a lot of public investment way back when.

McNiel: Over the course of a century.

Mutiso: Exactly, there is a role for public investment. But the point is, it takes a lot of fiscal management, good governance, at every level in these energy sectors to get to the point where you have manageable debt profiles, and we’re definitely not quite there yet. So this is a concern, but it’s something that we know how to get right. It’s just a matter of political will.

McNiel: Yeah, the catalyst for the greatest infrastructure push in U.S. history was the depression. You know, the catalyst was unemployment. The catalyst was poverty. It was a federal push to create programs for jobs. And so our interstate highway system, our electrical grid, our telephony — a lot of that stuff came out of the New Deal, as you said, with FDR.

“We can’t just have a system that’s all edges and no center”

Mutiso: Africa is massively resource-endowed, not just with the resources of the old fossil economy, but increasingly and more importantly, the resources of the new clean energy economy, the critical minerals, you name it. And I think the big takeaway is that the old resource extraction model has not been a pathway for development. And so just putting bags of dirt on a boat and sending them to China or rich Europe to be refined and for all the value addition to happen outside of the continent has not led to opportunity. And so I think looking forward, it’s hugely important that we get more local production and value addition on the continent. So I would love to see in the area of say, rare earths and other critical minerals, I would love to see more mid- and downstream processing and refinement happening on the continent, consumption and use on the continent. We’re also building industries around the resources that we have, we have more local productions, and this is obviously a long-term pathway, it’s not going to happen overnight. In the short term, we need more resource governance, transparency, and all these other things. But in the long term, we cannot continue on the extractive pathway we need to create opportunities on the ground and that happens by using our resources locally.

McNiel: Right. Well obviously it would be great to have a giga factory next to a mine where you have local talent involved in not just the mining of it, but the processing and the creating of the batteries, that would be incredible. And then local consumption of that of that resource. Right. That’d be awesome.

Let’s get back to energy for a minute. I mean, I think you said in your TED talk, you know that off-grid solar and wind are a boon for rural Africa, and for obvious reasons. Just even getting from complete darkness to a working light bulb or a fan or maybe a laptop computer is a huge game changer. But it’s just not enough. What do you think is the right path forward to electrify Africa?

Mutiso: We need energy infrastructure development at scale. I think that’s what’s needed. We can’t just have tiny solar panels. And I’m trying to, you know, this is a podcast so the listener can’t see, I’m literally trying to illustrate how tiny — like a dollar bill size on a hut, you know, this is not scale, this is not going to scale up. And so, obviously, in rich countries, there is an off-grid revolution that is very exciting in many ways. But I think what’s notable about it is the scale differential is massive. So you know, these tiny solar cells that are solar systems that are in use in rural Africa, are, you know, maybe sub 100 Watts can maybe light a light bulb, a couple light bulbs, nothing much. And obviously, I don’t want to diminish the fact that it’s better than nothing. But this is like bottom-level aspiration. We can’t just have a system that’s all edges and no center. We need to build a functional grid that is a grid of the future.

McNiel: You don’t want the grid we built 100 years ago, you want the grid we’re going to build tomorrow.

Mutiso: Exactly. But the point is, there still needs to be this interconnection, and the grid plays that role. And on top of that, you need generation at scale, because this is how you bring prices down. So massive solar farms, massive on- and offshore wind, geothermal, you name it. We need power production at scale, and we need this robust grid that sends this power where it’s needed that facilitates trade. And then on top of that, then you can start to layer on the kind of interesting frontier, more off-grid applications, but you need that backup on which to build the kind of newer, fresher stuff.

McNiel: Right. But you also need baseload power. You talk about wind and solar; without storage, those are not baseload solutions.

Mutiso: Yeah. You know, the thing is, this problem is felt very differently in different parts of Africa, and indeed, very different parts of the world. So if you’re in, say, Kenya, or Iceland, where there’s tons of geothermal, you’re in a good place. Or countries that have massive hydro-potential, you’re in a good place, because you have really good clean, firm power, really good backup. But then in Nigeria, Senegal, countries that are really, really wanting to exploit their solar potential, we can’t get around the fact that there will be a role for gas to balance out these grids. And this is exactly what rich countries are doing. And in the long-term, we need to figure out storage in a big way.

“The world is not in trouble because of what African countries are doing. The world is in trouble because of what the U.S. and Europe and China and others are doing.“

McNiel: Yeah, and Nigeria, which is like a No. 11 in oil production in the world, is not going to hesitate to burn oil to produce electricity. I mean, nor should they. Should they? I mean, is Africa’s path forward only carbon free? I mean, is that fair to Africa?

Mutiso: No, no, no, I just chuckled a little bit, because I think burning oil is, certainly in the power sector, not efficient. So I try to draw the line around natural gas, where there are efficiencies in the short term. But your question on equity: 100%. So I like to think about it as a transition. So ultimately, the whole world needs to get to a zero-carbon future. And we have a sense of what’s going to get us there, right? Which technologies are going to be at play and there’s some surprise technologies on the horizon, maybe we’ll figure out fusion and then life is good. But the thing is, the whole world needs to get to a zero-carbon future. African countries and poorer countries have contributed the least to the climate problem. And so one stat we like to focus our attention on is that over 1 billion people in Sub-Saharan Africa are responsible for less than half of a percent of total emissions, which is just basically nothing. And so in the short to mid term, these countries completely have a right to the carbon budget, whatever is left of it, and not only that, their consumption will have no impact in the short to midterm on global emissions. So when people get really anxious about, like, “Oh, with African countries, we’re going to create another China. And if African countries can develop then the world is in trouble.” The world is not in trouble because of what African countries are doing. The world is in trouble because of what the U.S. and Europe and China and others are doing.

“These are not hypothetical issues. It’s happening now.”

McNiel: Well, if we don’t address the climate issue here, if you read “Nomad Century,” a good portion of Africa is going to be on the move because it’s going to be too hot to live there and grow food and be sustained.

Mutiso: And it’s quite scary. And actually not just Africa. If you look at developing Asia, where we’re really pushing the edge of heat stress, so India, Pakistan, and even in the United States, in Europe — just this summer in London, where I live. I think the whole world is starting to really feel some of these impacts and heat stress in particular, and you know, storms and other disasters. But I think what is notable is, rich countries have the energy and resources to adapt. And I think, for us, when we think about climate change and poor countries, it’s about resilience. It’s about adaptation. And energy is crucial to that.

McNiel: None of these energy calculations we’re talking about — we talked about refrigerators, we haven’t talked about air conditioning. And you’re in the U.K., which air conditioning is, you know, not the norm over there, either.

Mutiso: Yeah, my baby was three months old this summer, and we had to book a hotel for two nights during the worst of the historical heatwave. Because the homes are not built here to cope with it. And it was scary and overwhelming. And we could afford to do that. But at the time, actually, an op-ed that I had just written with colleagues right before I went on parental leave, was released on this very topic of heat stress and vulnerability and air conditioning. And you know, I remember getting a notification that it had gone live, this piece, as I was scrambling to figure out where we were going to put our baby during a heatwave. And so I mean, I think these are not hypothetical issues. It’s happening now. And we really need to be prepared. But I think things are about to get quite challenging.

When it comes to air conditioning, though, right now — this was the subject of the piece that my colleagues and I put out. Right now there is a lot of anxiety over the energy demand from air conditioners, especially in developing Asia and other developing countries, as the middle class grows, and there’s more demand for cooling and the climate change changes. And I think some of this anxiety is not completely unjustified, and around the world we need massive energy investments to support this energy demand.

All manner of other applications, EVs, you name it if we’re going to electrify everything. But I think the point we’re trying to make is we can’t get around the fact that we will need to adapt . When people are facing extreme temperatures, they will need air conditioning. And so the imperative is on us to innovate, to make cooling more efficient, to create new technologies, because the solution is not to bemoan the energy consumption of air conditioning and how we will just emit more trying to cool. You laugh, but this is where the discourse is! We were responding to literally tons and tons of pieces that go out in mainstream publications, like the New York Times, just kind of predicting this doomsday when everyone in Asia will have an air conditioner.

McNiel: Oh, boohoo.

Mutiso: I think this is a real dynamic that’s ongoing. And so I think for us, at the Hub and other peer organizations, we just want to get over this. I think we just need to solve problems, we need to stop pretending like poor people are made differently and are more accustomed to suffering and that’s fine. We just need to create energy systems and energy technologies that help us enable people to be resilient, secure opportunity and jobs and just live lives of dignity and opportunity.

McNiel: I agree. I think one of the problems is the global mindset around energy and electricity is one of conservation. It’s one of, this is a rare resource, it’s expensive, it comes at great cost. And so use it as little as possible.

Mutiso: I’m somewhere on the spectrum between a minimalist and a maximalist view of what is possible and how much we can consume. I’m a techno-optimist, ao I do believe that technology innovation is going to help us solve many problems, just as it has historically and moving forward. I think that sometimes there is a lack of imagination in terms of what is possible. We can continue to do things better, faster, unlock new technologies, solve new problems, and we have so many bright minds thinking about this. And if we just make the right investments, I am really, really optimistic.

On the other hand, I do think that we can’t have it all in terms of how much we extract from the earth and trade offs have to be made. But then, what is really frustrating to me is that the trade offs are really assumed to be borne by the poor. The idea is that the rich countries continue to have their cake and eat it and then we are the ones who have to be stuck in poverty. I think that really drives me crazy.

“We need to stop pretending like poor people are made differently and are more accustomed to suffering and that’s fine.”

McNiel: Yeah, well, we could go on and talk about equity all day long, about how it’s not fair that the U.S. and the Western developed world exploited oil and put all the carbon in the atmosphere and caused all these problems. But we have a lot of really fat and happy people over here. And they don’t want their SUV to be taken away from them. And if you talk to them in the sense of what would happen if Africa grew GDP tenfold in the next 20 years, right? I mean, that would be an amazing thing. I mean, the pie is getting bigger, it means the mean income in Africa goes up, it means we have more to share. When you talk about electricity, I think for the growth period that we’re talking about for Africa, something like fusion energy is a completely viable solution for Africa in the second half of this century without question.

Mutiso: Oh gosh, yeah, I’m constantly just praying to the clean energy gods that we can figure out fusion ASAP. It’s coming, and that’s what I mean when I say that I’m a techno optimist, that we are just scratching the surface of what is possible with technology.

Mutiso: In Kenya already, we have a really vibrant, growing, thriving geothermal sector. So we’re one of the biggest geothermal producers in the world, we have massive geothermal potential, like we haven’t even scratched the surface of that. And yet our power is quite expensive. And hat is a mix of many, many things. We have a dysfunctional utility, we have mismanagement, the global financial system in disarray. All of these factors impact our power sector.

And so it’s not just a question of what the cut-and-dry LCOE is. It’s what is the ecosystem that is around the energy technologies. And this is some of the work that Hub does, is what is the unsexy back-end of these exciting technologies that people often overlook or don’t get excited about. What is needed to really realize the potential? And a lot of it is slow, frustrating, just annoying bureaucratic governance, which really annoys people who just want to get things done and go in and unleash their technology and not deal with nonsense. The governance issue, and the political will issue is massive. This is true everywhere. I think in the U.S. and Europe, governments are consistently making decisions that are complete cross purposes, where the long term imperative is the big picture. And so right now, we’re doing everything in Europe and in the U.S. to just get our infrastructure gas-ready. And you know, responding to short-term pressures makes sense from a short-term approach, but then what is the long-term picture? Somebody has to pay the price for carbon, for pollution, and we need to somehow embed that in our decision making. I think there needs to be some kind of market signal that forces us to be disciplined.

McNiel: Yeah, we have a divided government right now. We don’t have the political will, to put a carbon tax. It’s going to take some sort of, I’m sorry, cataclysmic, exogenous event, before the American people wake up to the fact that a carbon tax is actually in the best interest of the entire planet.

“Responding to short-term pressures makes sense from a short-term approach, but then what is the long-term picture?“

Mutiso: So the end of the world?

McNiel: Maybe!

Mutiso: And then we’ll wake up, and start designing our carbon tax.

McNiel: Or the entire state of Texas gets flooded or something like that. That’s what wakes people up. You’ve had an amazing journey. We talked about at the beginning of the podcast. My question to you is, how difficult is it for the average Kenyan to get from Nairobi, or any part of Kenya, to Dartmouth and to where you are today? What’s the path?

Mutiso: Gosh, I think for me, in particular, there was just a lot of luck. My family financially, we were not well off at all. My dad was a professor, but at that point, you’re just a civil servant. So you work for the Kenyan government, you don’t make a lot of money. But then he was an educated person. My mom was educated. I was exposed to different parts of the world. And I was made aware of different opportunities. And I went to a good state high school, and through that was selected for some exchange program, and I went to New England for it. And anyway, there’s a whole sequence of events. This is not true for most Kenyan people. And sometimes I do this exercise where I think about the sequence of events that have led me here. And if just one tiny piece of that chain was broken, you would not be speaking to me today, Jim. I would be having a completely different life and who knows where I’d be. And so sometimes I find that quite actually terrifying. Obviously, this is true of many people that your life can take many paths, but I think it would have been for me the difference between abject poverty and where I am now. I have cousins, first cousins who are still in the village without electricity. That could have been me very easily. And so I think I’m really aware of the knife edge.

McNiel: Look, here’s the thing for me. If anyone listening to this has an opportunity to go to Kenya or Tanzania or Botswana, or any part of Africa for that matter, and experience what life is like with the locals, I think you’ll be fully invested in making sure that Africa has a bright future.

Mutiso: Oh, that’s wonderful, and I don’t know if this is the first time that there’s a travel recommendation segment to your podcast, but go to Kenya and just an hour or two outside of Nairobi, there’s a national park called Hell’s Gate National Park. And within it, which is quite interesting, is our biggest geothermal complex; it’s called Olkaria. It’s gorgeous, and it’s quite amazing to see the plant to learn about geothermal energy. There’s a kind of hot springs, pool, spa place that you could also go to — Iceland style. They claim that there are no predators. So there are no lions, but there are a lot of food for lions, a lot of zebras and you know, you name it, but no lions. So you can ride your bike, you can hike, and it’s a gorgeous place. And so I really encourage people, if you’re interested in energy, and you like beautiful places, go to Nairobi, check out our geothermal complex. It’s pretty, pretty amazing.

McNiel: I will put that on my list. Rose, thank you so much for your time, your drive and your passion.

Mutiso: Oh, thank you, Jim. And thanks for this platform and for all the great work you’re doing. Let’s check back in, I don’t know, 20 years or so when fusion is up and running and life is good.

McNiel: What I learned from this call with Rose is that my little romantic vision of Africa — which I’ve been to a number of times, mostly is a tourist view of the world, on safari, in beautiful places with beautiful people and beautiful animals — is completely wrong. It’s not how the average African lives, and I’m thankful that she set me straight.

Thank you for listening to Good Clean Energy.

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