Here’s a Reuters piece about using locally grown crops to power remote cell phone towers in areas of the developing world. Always walking that fine line between reality and pessimism, I have a few thoughts to share.

It turns out that most of the people in the world who do not already have cell phones also live where there is no power-generation infrastructure (electricity). It’s a bit of a conundrum. If you are going to expand your cell phone market to the billions who don’t have one yet, you have to find ways to power your cell phone towers, as well as give your potential customers enough electricity to power the phones you want to sell to them.

That is why they are using generators (internal combustion engines), which are really expensive to run because they are horrifically inefficient. If I were to try to power my home with a generator, it would use far more fuel (and cost five times as much) as tapping the grid. A typical tower consumes an amount of fuel equivalent to running 20 cars 12,000 miles annually. Imagine trying to run every cell tower in America with its own generator.

The telecommunications companies plan to get help from the GSMA (Global Shared Mobile Association) development fund. Go to this site for some interesting photos. Note the African woman with a cell phone hooked to a car battery. Note also the cell phone kiosk in a shantytown without clean water, sewer services, power, or plumbing. And finally, watch the subsistence fisherman talking, I am going to guess, to his stockbroker.

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This is all packaged as though it is a humanitarian aid thing. The digital divide generally refers to the internet, not cell phones. Providing education facilities with the internet can only be good. Providing impoverished people with cell phones, well, sounds like a way to make money off of them, sort of like selling them latte machines. On the other hand, cell phones can go a long way to help entrepreneurs to communicate with suppliers and customers, so I agree that cell phones are a nifty piece of technology with a lot of potential. They are an example of a leapfrog technology, but powering cell towers with generators is a leap in the other direction.

Why do these telecommunications companies want to replace the diesel in the tower generators with biodiesel? Profit. They are hoping to increase profit by 30%. I am all for profit, especially if it facilitates protecting biodiversity and poverty reduction at the same time. I just want to make it clear that they are not doing this out of the kindness of their hearts. Apparently, driving tankers of diesel (or biodiesel) across Africa is expensive. You need armed escorts and undoubtedly pay a lot of bribes.

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The idea is to grow the crops used to make the biodiesel near the generators, reducing dependency on fossil fuels and ostensibly helping local farmers. The crops will also be processed into fuel at local facilities. So, now you are building refineries and stocking them with the necessary equipment and chemicals in addition to running generators.

Note also how this press release comes complete with a rubber stamp statement at the end to nip letters to the editor questioning their motives and wisdom. Didn’t stop me though:

The crops will be processed into fuel at local facilities … will control farming methods, making sure crops are not genetically manipulated, are grown sustainably and do not require fresh clearing of land by cutting forests. Solar and wind energy are also being investigated as alternative power sources for remote base stations.

They forgot to mention that they would also be organically grown. Anyway, these farmers may essentially become employees. It sounds like they are going to be told what to plant, when to plant, and how to plant. Crop prices may also be controlled locally, meaning the farmer will take what he is offered, not what the world market will pay. You can bet that as soon as the telecommunications companies find a cheaper way to power these towers, they will dump the farmers.

They also failed to define what is meant by “freshly” cleared forests. Is six months adequate lead time? What is to stop a farmer after converting his cropland from food to generator fuel from making up the difference by clearing forest to grow his food? Gets a little complicated when you think about it.