Newsletter: Ikea assembles the pieces for global off-grid solar push

An unlikely duo just pledged $1 billion to help those people get solar-powered minigrids.

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Those of us in California and Texas have to worry about an unstable grid in moments of extreme weather. Elsewhere in the world, some 800 million people never have electricity, and 2.8 billion receive unreliable grid power.

An unlikely duo just pledged $1 billion to help those people get solar-powered minigrids: the philanthropic affiliate of Swedish DIY furniture store Ikea, and the Rockefeller Foundation, which was endowed by an extremely effective oil monopolist.

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Their pledge mentions a lot of billions:

  • $1 billion committed between those two groups.
  • 1 billion people provided with electricity if this effort inspires follow-on investments.
  • 1 billion metric tons of carbon reductions over the next decade if the plan works out.

I tend to be skeptical of claims that real-world impacts will fall into neatly packaged round numbers. In recent years, off-grid solar development has had trouble using dollars already committed to it; that’s because executing in the field is often challenging and never cookie-cutter.

That said, corporate investment in off-grid energy access totaled $2.1 billion over the past decade, according to Wood Mackenzie. A total of $1 billion committed this year by the two philanthropies is massive compared to that.

The carbon impact is significant because electrification could otherwise mean new fossil-fuel plant construction or reliance on diesel generators. A carbon-free push offers a different pathway if it successfully reaches customers and meets their needs.

Solar sailing, revisited

On Sunday, the first day of summer, I gained some experiential context for my earlier reporting on Energy Observer, the French ship sailing around the world on entirely renewable energy.

That is to say, a friend found a sailboat on Craigslist and took me up the coast to Malibu and back. With gentle winds and calm waters, we got up to 5 knots. That’s just shy of Energy Observer’s average speed of 6 knots. 

I can confirm that is a leisurely pace, well suited to a Sunday afternoon with some classical Spanish guitar playing over the ship’s radio. Crossing the open ocean like that would certainly take a while. It’s hard to imagine doing so if you had any kind of deadline to hit.

But what’s special about Energy Observer is that it uses hydrogen storage to run electric propulsion, so it can keep going even when there is no wind. And if it combines energy storage with strong winds, it can go well above that average speed. That’s a big advantage over being entirely at the mercy of the breeze.

Perhaps the technology is more naturally suited for the hobbyist boating market than commercial shipping. But sailing for fun is already mostly carbon-free.

Which is nice, because the sensation of gliding across the water without emitting or inhaling noxious fumes is delightful. Who wants to make the dolphins cough?

(Image: Ikea)

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.