Scott Anderson

Weekly Roundup: Of Powerwalls and power dynamics, could a grid-less future hurt the energy poor?

Earlier this month Elon Musk, the high-flying futurist behind electric vehicle producer Tesla and home solar panel company SolarCity, revealed the Powerwall, a big ole battery designed to create something of a closed loop system. In theory, the Powerwall will store solar energy (presumably produced by SolarCity’s rooftop panels) to power a few home appliances and perhaps an electric vehicle (why not a Telsa?), all of which can take place when the sun isn’t shining. These three systems could potentially remove the consumer from the power grid – or provide a solution for those the grid doesn’t reach.

Now, you might be thinking: “Here you media types go again. A billionaire rolls out a technology that only the global 1 percent could afford, so why on Earth would this be relevant to the poor?”

A fair question. But hear me out … On second thought, don’t hear me out. Instead, you should read this excellent piece by Christine Mungai with The Mail & Guardian Africa on just how transformative Tesla’s new battery could be to the lives of the energy poor.

“Tesla CEO Elon Musk had Africa in mind when he launched the Powerwall. Just like the mobile phone found a perfect storm of factors on the African continent that led to its astonishingly rapid adoption by Africans of all income groups (today, more Africans own mobile phones than have sewerage services), a battery pack that can power a home or business is the kind of disruptive innovation that could crack the continent’s energy poverty.”

Mungai lays out some of the biggest impacts on Africa the Powerwall might usher in: illuminating millions of homes, silencing loud generators, and enabling electric vehicles as more Africans enter the middle class and demand personal transportation. Those are all incredibly promising, but there’s a downside. Instead of empowering African citizens, she says, the battery might have the opposite effect. Politicians often campaign on promises to expand electric infrastructure, including extending the energy grid to those off grid. And although promises made are not necessarily promises kept, holding politicians to account is vital for the expanse of democracy, Mungai argues.

“With the possibility of being entirely off-grid, the Tesla home battery could finalise the disconnection of African everyday life from the happenings in the political sphere. Already, studies show that the African middle-class deliberately disengages from politics as a form of protest, particularly if the government is authoritarian or a quasi-democracy.”

Keita Demming, a PhD candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), raised another interesting point worth a mention. On his blog, Demming argues that we need to be on the lookout for “social innovation washing – organizations claiming to be socially innovative when in [reality] they’re not. He compares the Powerwall to ride-sharing service Uber – which after all, is still pretty much a taxi service.

When an organization describes an innovation as being a social innovation, they are often missing the very important nuance that all human activity is inherently social. Any activity where humans work together, if it is to produce value for society or not, is also a social activity. What few people realize is that all innovations are social. For many people the word social seems to imply that if something is good for society, then we must insert the word social somewhere. Something that is socially innovative should be more than just good for the world.” He argues that social innovations should change the fabric of the social system, change the ways resources flow within it and change the power dynamics.

(Especially in the context of what we think are “social enterprises” Demming’s view might be a tad pedantic, or a distinction without a difference. But it’s worth considering anyway).

Musk is often described as a “futurist.” But as these two commentators illustrate, the future is impacted by how people use or misuse an innovation, not the innovation itself.

Speaking of futurists, Madanmohan Rao, a research director at YourStory Media, highlights several prognostications of progress in the new(ish) book “C.K. Prahalad: The Mind of the Futurist” by Benedict Paramanand. Though he’s often remembered as one of the founding fathers of the base of the pyramid concept, Prahalad also contributed many other insights that affect how we think about global business. Paramanand, the Bengaluru-based editor of Management Next magazine, not only details Prahalad’s life and times, but what he expected for India in the coming years.

“His visions for India after 75 years of independence include 500 million quality technicians, India as home for 30 of the Fortune 500 firms, a share of 10 per cent of global trade, and much less poverty and ecological damage. India could have 500 world class cities and ten Nobel Prize winners by 2022 – if it gets the vision and execution right.”

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