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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.

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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proclaimed 2012 the Year of Universal Energy Access. His initiative is keyed not to the UN climate talks, but to the Rio +20 Earth Summit talks scheduled for June.

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Imagine that at Rio, instead of embracing business-as-usual solutions to energy access, the world decided to empower the poor with the electricity they can truly afford – distributed solar?

What would the benefits be? In carbon terms alone, kerosene for lighting emits almost as much greenhouse-gas pollution as the entire British economy. 1.5 million lives a year would be saved from respiratory ailments. The available income for the world’s poorest fifth would be increased by 25 to 30 percent – a pretty big development bang-for-the-buck. Numerous studies have shown that providing basic energy access increases household income by 50 percent or more by providing more time and opportunities for home-based income generation.

But the leverage is actually much greater. If one-fifth of the world is on solar, as these people prosper and can afford more electricity, they are going to expand solar systems, rather than turning to coal or nuclear. Their neighbors include the one-third of humanity with “spasmodic” electricity – wires that in rural areas work only at night, and in urban areas go down in the afternoon. These customers would find distributed solar far more reliable than the current grid. If we add those 2 billion to the 1.2 billion who are not on the grid, virtually half of humanity could be turning to renewable power as the cheapest, most reliable and most available form of energy. The fossil fuel interests would lose completely their current moral argument – that more carbon will power the poor.

That, I would argue is a phenomenal game-changer – and a powerful first step in building a trusting, low-carbon coalition of rich and poor nations. And that coalition could lay the groundwork for the more challenging global efforts that will be needed to stabilize and eventually restore the climate.

• Carl Pope, chairman and former executive director of the Sierra Club, has served on the boards for the National Clean Air Coalition, California Common Cause, and Public Interest Economics Inc. A regular contributor to the Huffington Post, he co-wrote the book "Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress," which was published in 2004.

This article originally appeared Jan. 4, 2012, at Yale Environmental 360 (http://e360.yale.edu), a blog published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

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