More on technology leapfrogging: using LEDs to light up the developing world

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The MightyLight is waterproof, portable, and solar-powered.

Just after writing my previous post on the Indian wind turbine manufacturer Suzlon, I noticed that the Economist also recently ran a series of articles on the topic of technology leapfrogging (subscription required) that touch on the consumption, rather than the production, side of the energy equation.

Leapfrogging describes the sudden progress of a developing country that skips over several generations of a technology to jump straight to the bleeding edge. Some examples of leapfrogging are unsurprising. Office workers in India will never know the pleasures of Windows 3.1, because Windows XP is already available. Chinese consumers will never keep drawers full of film negatives, because digital photography has already won out.

But some examples of leapfrogging have deeper implications, particularly for the environment. According to the Economist, about 1.6 billion people lack regular access to electricity and instead use fuels such as kerosene to generate light. Not only are such fuels expensive and inefficient, they generate huge amounts of indoor air pollution and of course copious amounts of greenhouse gases.

There is a better way. Light emitting diodes (LEDs) of the type that have become popular in camping flashlights are so efficient that they can easily be powered by batteries that could, for example, be recharged by solar panels in areas that lack access to the electrical grid. Widespread use of such technology would not only offer huge improvements to quality of life in the form of better lighting and air quality, it could also spare as much as 190 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year. (If you’re interested in finding out more about this topic, check out the Light Up The World Foundation.)

And there’s a deeper point here. A fundamental question of fairness underlies the debate over global warming. For much of the world that hasn’t yet reached the income standard of the West, energy consumption really does equate to quality of life. We all might nervously eye the projected increase in energy demand in China, but who are we to tell a poor farmer in Inner Mongolia that he can’t use machinery to lessen his share of backbreaking labor?

Except that global warming makes such questions seem a little academic. We have to figure out a way to thread the needle that brings about economic development and spares us the worst environmental consequences of that development. Technology leapfrogging surely has an important role to play.

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