Alex Honnold Goes Solar in Angola

In a country whose primary industry is oil, renewable energy has yet to gain a foothold. When they weren’t climbing the uncharted domes and spires of Angola, Alex Honnold and his crew were trying to change that.

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Dec 18 2015, 7:45pm

Photo by Abazar Khayami

Angola is a beautiful, difficult country. Thirty years of devastating civil war, on top of centuries of colonialism, have stunted the country's development, despite its abundant natural resources, including, most notably, petroleum. Outside of that industry, foreign investment has remained scarce; tourism is basically nonexistent. After more than a decade of relative peace and stability, importing products remains very difficult. Converting the currency, kwanzas, into U.S. dollars is very difficult. The process to obtain a visa, which can take months, requires banking information, vaccinations, and a letter of invitation written in Portuguese by an Angolan.

"Angola is insanely hard to do business in," says Ted Hesser, a director at Off Grid Electic, who has worked with solar companies throughout Africa. "Every business is Angolan, and there are very few international players."

So Alex Honnold's rock-climbing expedition to the country this past September marked a chance to explore the country's relatively uncharted granite domes and conglomerate spires. It also presented an opportunity for one of Honnold's other endeavors: supporting solar energy with his charity, the Honnold Foundation.

READ MORE: Kevin Shields, The Scottish Climber With A Difference

Beyond the capital, Luanda, and its surrounding region, most of Angola lacks the infrastructure for even basics like clean water and electricity. The country is literally being left in the dark: after the sun sets, at about 6 PM (which it does every night, given Angola's sub-equatorial latitude), there's almost no itinerant light.

So when Honnold, accompanied by Hesser and adventurer Stacy Bare, visited Angola, he brought with him 100 portable solar energy systems. The team planned to help local families install the units, which retail for about $200 and are designed to power a mobile phone, light bulb, or radio.

"Energy access is at the base of all development," Hesser said. "With very small, very cheap solar kits you can provide people with 80 percent of a modern energy lifestyle."

While Hesser says that the portable systems "captured the interest" of the Angolan Minister of Energy, 100 imported units are a beginning, little more than that.

"No one knows where this solar initiative will go in Angola," said Honnold Foundation founder Maury Birdwell, who also went on the expedition, "but the hope is that it demonstrates to them the bigger potential for success and pays long-term dividends."

An investment in solar energy could leapfrog much of the high-footprint infrastructure and power sources developed during the twentieth century, like coal plants and costly transmission lines. Off-grid solar, on the other hand, presents a reliable, renewable, scalable power source. The Honnold Foundation has been making grants to Solar Aid, a charity that fights poverty and climate change through solar distribution and entrepreneurship programs in countries throughout East Africa.

The most common route for off-grid solar electricity to arrive in developing countries is through private companies and NGOs. Before those organizations start work in a country, the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, or similar group advises the country on setting up a framework to do business. They prime the country for solar development. None of that's happened in Angola yet.

"There's a lot of people in Angola that don't have energy access but have the money to pay for energy access," Hesser said. "We're hoping people see that."

Photo by Abazar Khayami

The idea for the Angolan expedition was hatched at a Sierra Club dinner last year. Stacy Bare had been in Angola 11 years before to clear landmines and was looking for an excuse to return. Ted Hesser wanted to continue his solar work in Africa and had been pitching ideas to Honnold, with the implied involvement of the Honnold Foundation. The nod from Alex set the expedition in motion.

Outdoor gear and apparel company The North Face, one of Honnold's climbing sponsors, supported the expedition, which was documented by a VICE Sports video crew. Additional support came from BBOXX, a British solar energy company, and portable solar panel maker Goal Zero. The expedition also worked with a local businessman, a shipping and trucking magnate who has started his own renewable energy company.

"While we were in the middle of it, it seemed a little rugged. I was like, I wish the rock was a little better, or I wish I wasn't pooping my pants," Honnold said. "But really it all worked out."

As an adventure tourism destination, however, Angola presents a challenging landscape.

"I've never been in a country where you couldn't go off trail because of landmines," Honnold said.

The landmines are just one remnant of the civil war; the dearth of wildlife is another. The Serengeti, Angola is not. A combination of subsistence hunting and the fighting killed or drove off most of the animals. (The team did see and hear baboons on a few occasions.) Slash-and-burn agriculture is widespread and casts an acrid smell over the landscape.

"But 11 years ago there was almost no widespread agriculture," said Bare, who spent nearly a year in Angola clearing land mines with The HALO Trust. "Slash-and-burn may not be the healthiest for the soil or the healthiest for the humans but at least now people are feeding themselves, at least now they're growing their own food."

People are also trying to reintroduce native wildlife. At a fenced sanctuary, a breeding pair of elands, imported from South Africa, was expected to produce babies that could be released into the wild. Life in Angola is improving, Bare says. Eleven years ago, he saw virtually no motorcycles on the road. Now there are many. There's more electricity in and around Luanda, and Chinese companies in particular are funneling money into development projects. Globalization has crept in, though slowly.

"There's a general optimism and confidence in the country that I didn't see before," Bare said. "We saw one kid, probably ten years old, who had two cell phones. Said that one was to call his girl, one was to call his mom. What do you say to that? We were like, Well, be nice to the ladies."