A solar powered haircut

Feature story - 25 August, 2002
What does Greenpeace want from the Earth Summit? To start with: clean, reliable, renewable energy for two billion of the world's poorest, who are today without electricity. And if anybody says renewables can't power anything practical today, we're going to give them a haircut.

The UN special envoy to the Earth Summit, Jan Pronk volunteers to conduct the first solar powered haircut of the Summit.

Greenpeace set out to prove that current renewables technology can provide practical, clean-energy powered solutions for the world. To do so we developed the Positive Energy Store, and are showing it off all this week at the Earth Summit, where delegates can get a cool drink, or shop at one of the five businesses set up in the mobile unit: without a single wire plugged into the electrical grid.

To help us launch the project, the UN special envoy to the Earth Summit, Jan Pronk volunteered to conduct the first solar powered haircut of the summit. We have a number of appliances in the stall running on renewable energy. He enjoyed a freshly created juice from an electric juicer, before logging onto the internet using a solar powered computer to sign the online petition. This petition calls for the massive uptake of renewable energy by the industrialized nations, and access to clean renewable energy for two billion of the world's poorest people.

The Positive Energy Store powers small businesses in remote rural areas with renewable energy. With solar panels, small wind turbines and micro-hydro, the store can generate positive energy for the five businesses that are inside. The concept is flexible so that the Positive Energy Store can be adapted to the needs of the area it will be placed in. The range of shops can vary, for example, from a barber, a juice bar, a communication unit with phone and computer services to a business that leases out charged batteries to power peoples' homes.

After the World Summit the Positive Energy Store will be tested in a pilot project in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. During a period of six months the store will be thoroughly monitored by five local shopkeepers. Not only will the technical part of the store be closely watched, the shopkeepers will also be provided with training on how to operate the Positive Energy Store in a sustainable and profitable way. The aim is that the entrepreneurs of the shops will earn back the initial investment.

Why do we need renewables?

As we begin the 21st century, two billion people - one third of us on the planet - have no access to electricity for basic needs such as lighting or cooking. Getting people the clean and reliable energy necessary for essential needs such as clean water, health care facilities, heating and lighting is one of the most pressing problems facing humanity today. Global warming, caused by burning fossil fuels, threatens people's lives around the world. While the world's poorest people use only a fraction of the world's oil, coal and gas, they are likely to suffer most from the impacts of climate change like extreme weather events such as floods and storms if no action is taken. Rising sea levels threaten to engulf entire countries in the Indian and Pacific oceans. If we are going to stop the earth's climate spinning out of control, most of the world's reserves of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas cannot be used for energy and must stay underground. We must make the switch to positive energy at home and globally. Oil, coal and gas cannot meet the needs of the poorest, but 'positive' or renewable energy can.

Renewable energy technologies are the most appropriate, affordable, reliable and environmentally friendly way to get essential energy services to poorer countries where 80 perecnt of the world's people live. Energy is the lifeblood of modern society. But, due to the global impact of current polluting energy supplies such as oil, coal, gas and nuclear power, we are at a crossroads. A clean energy future is now urgently needed. Renewable energy is reliable, inexhaustible power generated by natural processes such as wind, solar, biomass and small-scale hydro. The increased use of renewable energy sources can improve the quality of life, especially in developing countries. Without contributing to climate change, it can provide an affordable and reliable means of getting power to the world's poorest people. It can provide electricity for basic needs such as refrigeration of medical supplies, sterilisation, lighting and telecommunications as well as for radios and water pumps. The total cost of getting renewable energy to the world's poorest two billion people is estimated to be less than half of the US$500+ billion that is likely to be invested over the next decade in fossil fuel power stations and infrastructure in poorer countries. For just US$1.4 billion, clean renewable energy could be supplied to one million schools and health care centres, serving some 600 million people.