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Solar power: cheap electricity for world’s poor

More than a billion people worldwide lack access to electricity. The best way to bring it to them is to provide ever-cheaper, clean, locally produced solar power that can replace dirty and dangerous kerosene.

By Carl PopeYale Environment 360 / February 16, 2012

A woman sews clothes on a sewing machine driven by solar energy in Ahmedabad in western India. When night falls in remote parts of Africa and the Indian subcontinent, hundreds of millions of people without access to electricity turn to candles or flammable and polluting kerosene lamps for illumination. Solar power is becoming an economical way to bring light to these rural regions where a lack of electricity has stymied economic development, literacy rates, and health.

Amit Dave/Reuters/File

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After the Durban talks last month, climate realists must face the reality that “shared sacrifice,” however necessary eventually, has proven a catastrophically bad starting point for global collaboration. Nations have already spent decades debating who was going to give up how much first in exchange for what. So we need to seek opportunities – arenas where there are advantages, not penalties, for those who first take action – both to achieve first-round emission reductions and to build trust and cooperation.

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 One of the major opportunities lies in providing energy access for the more than 1.2 billion people who don’t have electricity, most of whom, in business-as-usual scenarios, still won’t have it in 2030. These are the poorest people on the planet. Ironically, the world’s poorest can best afford the most sophisticated lighting – off-grid combinations of solar panels, power electronics, and LED lights. And this creates an opportunity for which the economics are compelling, the moral urgency profound, the development benefits enormous, and the potential leverage game changing.

As the accompanying graphs show, the cost of coal and copper – the ingredients of conventional grid power – are soaring. Meanwhile, the cost of solar panels and LEDs, the ingredients of distributed renewable power, are racing down even faster.

IN PICTURES: Solar power: Harnessing the sun's energy

If we want the poor to benefit from electricity we cannot wait for the grid, and we cannot rely on fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency, historically a grid-centric, establishment voice, admits that half of those without electricity today will never be wired. The government of India estimates that two-thirds of its non-electrified households need distributed power.

Fortunately, the historic barriers to getting distributed renewable power to scale in poor villages and neighborhoods are rapidly being dismantled by progress in technology, finance, and business models. Getting 1.2 billion people local solar power they can afford is within grasp – if we only think about the problem in a different way. In fact, the world can finish this job by 2020.

The poor already pay for light. They pay for kerosene and candles. And they pay a lot. The poorest fifth of the world pays one-fifth of the world’s lighting bill – but receives only 0.1 percent of the lighting benefits. Over a decade, the average poor family spends $1,800 on energy expenditures. Replacing kerosene with a vastly superior 40 Wp (Watts peak) home solar system would cost only $300 and provide them not only light, but access to cell-phone charging, fans, computers, and even televisions.

Kerosene costs 25 to 30 percent of a family’s income – globally that amounts to $36 billion a year. The poor do not use kerosene because it is cheap – they are kept poor in significant part because they must rely on expensive, dirty kerosene.

And the poor pay in other ways. A room lit by kerosene typically can have concentrations of pollution 10 times safe levels. About 1.5 million people, mostly women, die of this pollution every year, in addition to those who die from burns in fires.

So why do the poor use kerosene? Because they can buy a single day’s worth in a bottle, if that is all they can afford. For the poor, affordability has three dimensions: total cost, up-front price, and payment flexibility. Solar power comes in a panel that will give 10, or even 20, years of light and power – but the poor cannot afford a 10-year investment up front. And many cannot handle conventional finance plans, which require fixed payments regardless of their income that month.

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