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By Janet Shulist

Post-Sandy Energy Blues: An Everyday Reality for Off-Grid Mobile Users in Emerging Markets

Mobile phone charging in New York City after Sandy (left) and in Ghana (right).

Although no longer a hurricane when it reached the northeast coast of the United States late last October, Superstorm Sandy still packed a huge wallop—causing flooding and evacuation of many New York and New Jersey neighbourhoods. CNN reported New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg saying Sandy had caused an extraordinary amount of water in lower Manhattan, as well as downed trees and widespread power outages across the city.

In a post published just as Sandy made landfall along the southern US coast, our Disaster Response team outlined the preparations that US mobile operators were making to help mitigate the impact on networks, including portable generators for back-up power supply  and installing high capacity batteries. Despite these efforts, power outages and flooding disrupted some telecom services in the Northeastern states, affecting coverage for cellphones, television, home telephones and internet services.

For those who still had mobile coverage, the power outages meant mobile phone data plans became  important lifelines to stay informed about Sandy, with many relying on Twitter for announcements and updates in their area. This contrast of using mobile data during the power outages posed an interesting exchange at the time on Twitter, with the below tweet from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

This prompted Richenda Van Leeuwen, the Executive Director for the UN Foundation’s Energy and Climate, Energy Access Initiative, to respond with the below tweet:

As power outages continued in the days post-Sandy, a challenge grew for those using their devices to stay connected when battery levels died. This meant many people were left searching for creative ways to charge their devices around New York City. One Manhattan-based clean tech writer got lucky with her Nokero SunRay Pro Power solar panel, allowing her to charge her phone and later explaining that, “…only one of them would generate enough charge through my window on an overcast day to charge my phone, and that device was the Nokero Pro Power Panel. Nokero had graciously sent me the power panel the year before as a product sample, and I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t happened to have this nifty little gadget in my house.”

Nokero, along with other off-grid product companies such as Barefoot Power Ltd., Fenix International and Azuri Technologies, manufactures and distributes affordable, sustainable and safe solar-based technology including lights and battery chargers. These companies provide solar-powered light and charging products for those highlighted by Van Leeuwen in her tweet, the other 1.3 billion people in emerging markets without access to the electricity grid. With the majority living in Sub-Saharan Africa and underdeveloped parts of Asia, this lack of electricity is an everyday reality. As mobile has outpaced the grid, those with mobiles have the added challenge of finding a charging source, which often means walking for miles to the nearest charging kiosk and paying for the service. For example, the CPM team was recently in Mozambique, where 97% of rural households do not have grid power and where in some towns, kiosks and barbers make good business at about US$0.30 per phone charge. As well as staying connected to family and friends, fully-charged devices allow people to access and use valuable life-enhancing services, such as mobile money, health and agricultural information.

As the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All draws to a close, perhaps the post-Sandy experiences of those in the Northeastern states who were trying to use their mobile phones without grid power will help to shine a light on the 1.3 billion people currently living without access to electricity, many with mobile phones themselves.

Photo: Top left, from  DNAinfo.com New York

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