By Sean Endres
As it becomes increasingly obvious that society’s rampant use of fossil fuels needs to be addressed, renewable sources of energy have been celebrated as a way for the world to break its fossil fuel dependence and move on to a cleaner and safer future. But renewable energy has the potential to change lives on a much smaller scale as well. As the world fights over what methods are used to power its computers and refrigerators, there are still nearly 1.3 billion people in the world, including 30% of the population of Oceania, who do not have access to electricity at all [1,2,3]. Most of these households live in the rural areas or remote islands of developing countries where there is no access to the regional power grid. Wood and other biofuels are typically used for cooking in these regions, and the only options for lighting are candles and kerosene lamps [1,2,4]. When electricity is needed for economic purposes, diesel generators are often used . Since many electrical utilities do not consider these areas to be worth the vast expense of expanding the power grid to meet them, it is unlikely that this situation is going to change any time soon. Because of this, many non-profits (including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ) have been looking into ways to fit these areas with independent power sources. Off-grid solar power is not a novel concept. It has been around for decades as a way to provide power to those who are out of reach of the electrical grid [1,2,6]. The problem is, off-grid solar comes with a host of new issues. Many of these issues are technological, and many of them stem from flaws in how these units are implemented [1,6].
Off-grid solar has tremendous potential to improve the lives of those who do not have access to grid electricity. However, the non-profits that are leading the push to implement this technology are too fixated on providing individual households with electricity for domestic uses. This money and effort would have a much greater impact if it were spent on off-grid solar projects that benefit the communities as a whole. This could mean providing lighting in schools so that they could hold night classes, installing solar-powered street lighting to improve safety, or using the technology for utilitarian purposes such as pumping water. This not only benefits the communities much more than home lighting would, but at a much lower cost as well.
Photo 1. Solar project in Port Vila, Vanuatu, funded by a donor from the Middle East
Photo credit: Andreas Neef
Off-grid solar is a broad term used to describe any electrical system that is not connected to a larger electrical grid, and where most or all of the electricity comes from solar generation. While solar-thermal systems are occasionally used, a vast majority of off-grid solar systems use photovoltaics (PV). These are the bluish panels that most people associate with solar power, and they use a semiconductive material that produces electricity when exposed to the sun’s radiation. PV technology has been around for generations and is often considered the best option for small-scale solar generation. The electricity produced during the daytime is then stored in a battery for use at night. The amount of electricity produced is dependent on sun exposure and the generating capabilities of a particular system. The quality of the batteries used, as well as the energy demand, will affect how long the stored electricity will last . The off-grid solar systems most commonly used for these programmes (to bring electricity to rural households in developing countries) are relatively basic and have a small capacity capable of supplying low-demand domestic uses such as lighting and small electronics, but they are typically not powerful enough to supply the appliances needed for cooking or heating water [1,2].
What many people do not realise is that implementing a successful off-grid solar system is not a simple matter. In order for these projects to work, there are several requirements that must be met: the solar units need to be dependable yet affordable, they need to be adaptable enough to be used in wide variety of situations, and they need to be simple enough that maintenance and repairs can be completed without any outside help . Balancing the cost and quality can be a major issue, especially if the financial burden falls on a single household. Lower quality solar units will burn out too quickly and require too much maintenance to be useful. The trouble is, in order for solar power to be feasible it needs to be economically comparable to more traditional off-grid electrical sources, such as diesel generators. Even when off-grid solar is subsidised, it can be a tremendous financial burden in regions where the average household income can be as little as 90 US dollars per month . In addition to the initial investment, solar units will inevitably need routine maintenance and repairs, which is problematic in remote areas where technical education opportunities are limited. To add to the issue, trained technicians often migrate to the cities due to the lack of employment opportunities in rural areas. Because of this, the solar units need to be simple and intuitive, and the organisations that bring this technology to these regions need to remember that educating the locals on how to use and maintain the units is just as important as the technology itself. They must also ensure that spare parts are available for repairs, since most of the parts in the solar units are highly specialised. The lack of an adequate supporting infrastructure is one of the commonly cited issues when an off-grid solar project fails . The entire point of these projects is to bring empowerment and a higher standard of living to areas that lack access to the same resources and opportunities as the rest of the world. Straddling them with a complex technology that they cannot operate themselves would be a complete failure in that regard, and would most likely result in the failure of the entire project.
The biggest issue with the current off-grid solar programs, however, is actually not technological. As a matter of fact, the non-profits who oversee these projects have put a great amount of effort into addressing the issues mentioned above [2,7]. As solar technology improves, the cost of solar units continues to decrease, and education is now a key part of their implementation strategies . The main issue with these strategies is a lack of understanding about priorities. Those of us from developed countries think of having electricity in our homes as a high priority, but in reality, implementing solar-powered lighting in homes in these rural areas is not always beneficial to the communities. For one thing, it is unlikely that solar power will ever be cheaper than burning candles or kerosene lamps . While it is true that burning kerosene lamps can produce toxic fumes, studies have shown that most of the harmful fumes in these homes are produced through cooking, and that cleaner burning stoves would be the best way to address this issue [1,4]. It has also been found that the bright LED lighting that comes with the solar units is not only unpleasant to the occupants, but can also make them a target for theft . All of this might be worth it if solar power provided the households with a way to generate income, but in most cases it is simply not powerful enough for commercial purposes. In addition, solar power is entirely dependent on an intermittent resource that will not be available at all times due to cloud cover. This means that diesel generators are still far more practical for commercial purposes . There are also questions about the global benefit of off-grid solar. While solar power is undeniably greener than diesel generators, researchers are still debating how much effect off-grid solar projects would have on greenhouse gas emissions in the long run [1,2].
That is why focusing on uses that would benefit the entire community is the best way to take advantage of this technology. Not just because the benefits would impact more people, but because these uses would also benefit the individual households far more than home lighting would. For one thing, any community use would spread the cost of the solar systems across all of the households, making it less expensive per person and more likely to have an economic advantage over diesel generators. One use that could definitely make a difference is fitting schools with solar lighting so that they could provide night classes. This would greatly increase educational opportunities for adults and children alike, especially considering that many people in the developing world must sacrifice their education in order to work and make ends meet [8,9]. The option to take night classes means that the necessity to earn a living may no longer automatically exclude them from educational opportunities. If empowerment and providing opportunity is the goal, there are few factors that would achieve this goal as much as increasing access to education. Another potential use of solar power would be to install street lighting and exterior lighting around residences. In many of the countries where access to electricity is the most limited, the rates of violence (especially violence against women) is disproportionately high . This is true for many states in the Pacific as well . Providing solar-powered street lighting could go a long way towards improving safety and deterring crime. Women are frequently targeted while fetching water or walking to and from the latrine . Providing lighting on these pathways would be a deterrent to these incidences of violence. Solar power could also be used to pump water. An appropriately sized solar unit would provide enough power to operate a low-volume pump that could be used to pump water from a well or an open water source to a storage container in the village . Being able to maintain a water reservoir within the village, rather than the villagers having to walk several kilometres to retrieve it, could improve safety for women and children as much as street lighting would . Allowing them to stay within or closer to the village while fetching water could keep them out of harm’s way to begin with.
Photo 2. Community-based solar project in Kais village, Papua
Photo credit: Andreas Neef
Because most of the off-grid solar projects in developing countries are run by NGOs and non-profits, this is where the change in implementation needs to start. These organisations have done excellent work in an attempt to improve the lives of the people living in these countries while simultaneously helping the planet. However, they need to recognise that solar units for individual homes may not be the best way to improve people’s lives. The ideas stated above are not vastly different from what these organisations currently do. Indeed, many of these ideas have occasionally been tried [3,7,12]. What I am proposing is that much more attention be given to community applications for off-grid solar. There is nothing inherently wrong with providing households with electricity for domestic uses, but people need to keep in mind that this is a world of limited resources. These non-profits are operating with limited capital and manpower. While government assistance may be available for some solar programs, it should not be taken for granted due to the volatile nature of political will. These solar units need to be integrated into the existing culture and environment, and part of that is providing communities with solar capabilities that they can both afford and maintain themselves. The ultimate goal of off-grid solar programs is to improve the lives of those who do not currently have access to electricity. By balancing the needs of these communities with the limited resources that are available, our society can optimise the way that solar technology is utilised for this purpose.
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This article was prepared as part of a postgraduate course on Ethics and Governance in International Development directed by Professor Andreas Neef of the University of Auckland’s Development Studies programme.