Breath of life brings hope to millions

In November, I travelled to Kenya to visit unelectrified communities.

The landscapes are stunning and varied, moving quickly from verdant tropical coast to sweeping savannah to hardscrabble semi-desert. Yet amid such natural wealth exists heartbreaking poverty.

It’s all the more heartbreaking because we can fight it without leaving the comfort zone of our own industry. We know how transformative energy can be. Electricity is key to supporting education, the best path out of poverty for all children. It improves health — lighting clinics and powering lifesaving technology. It boosts agriculture, allowing better food storage and mitigating drought. Yet in most off-grid areas a great resource remains unharnessed. I am referring, of course, to the wind.

Soon, unelectrified and under-electrified communities — first in Kenya, then throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America — can begin receiving turbines through an initiative called Wind for Prosperity, which brings to the energy sector a new model of multifaceted investment. This is not charity — and deliberately so, since corporate philanthropy has sometimes done more to make givers feel better about themselves than it has to improve recipients’ lives. Rather, Wind for Prosperity will be a new line of business using hybrid wind systems, designed to pay multiple dividends — as much financial and environmental as deeply, powerfully human.

Wind for Prosperity’s global group of investors and development partners, including the Abu Dhabi renewables company Masdar, Frontier Investment Management and Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room, understand the huge potential of doing well by doing good. We have seen the strength of a smart technological solution with a compassionate, green heart. Vestas, which is seeding this effort with know-how and turbines, is a minority shareholder.

Just as Wind for Prosperity exploits an “invisible” resource, the initiative re-imagines the technological resources that we have at hand. The refurbished turbines destined for these communities have been workhorses in our stable. More than 10,000 V27s have entered service since 1989, while some 5,000 of the more powerful V47s have been installed since 1993.

We chose the V27 and V47 carefully. They have proven reliability and are easy to operate. They are not our largest turbines, but their weight and size are optimal for transport to distant locales. They are not our most powerful, but when combined with portable diesel generators, they provide electricity at one third the cost and immeasurably more cleanly than the diesel generators alone. They are not our most complex turbines, so the scheme can create operational jobs open even to someone without much technical skill.

The poverty we fight is also one of knowledge, and Wind for Prosperity represents new creative thinking about how to share the immense data we have. Vestas has the world’s foremost database about wind; we know where it blows and we can identify where it can be harnessed. Also available is data about where need is greatest. More than 1.3 billion people live in energy poverty, a fifth of them in places where wind energy can be easily captured. Now we will start doing it, which will be potentially transformative not only for them but hopefully also for our industry.

As we write this new chapter in the wind-power story, it occurs to me that we have long neglected to trumpet the full potential of our technologies. We miss something significant if we view our field as purely technical and profit-generating. We must do a better job of crafting transformative vehicles like Wind for Prosperity and make wind synonymous with combating poverty, kick-starting new beginnings and saving lives. By doing so, we will build emotional alliances with consumers and citizens.

During a meeting in Nairobi, the principal secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Energy told me: “A lot of white men have entered this office. Few have come here sincerely, with the ambition of doing something good for Kenyans.” This has been our collective failure — and we hope that Wind for Prosperity can be the beginning not just of remedy but also of joint success.

Never before has the world had such a wealth of technological expertise and potentially useful knowledge. It is our great responsibility — or rather, our great opportunity — to deploy it in the service of the less fortunate.

Win-wins are indeed possible. Through Wind for Prosperity, we are making quantifiable, visible investments, confident that they will pay notable and diverse dividends. We can help others while also helping ourselves. We can truly say we’re all in this together.

Morten Albæk is group senior vice-president and chief marketing officer at Vestas

This piece was published as part of the Thought Leaders series. Recharge’s Thought Leaders Club brings together leading thinkers and participants from the renewable-energy sector to examine the key challenges facing our industry