For the women who pluck the roses that adorn many temples in India, a solar-powered headlamp means the difference between working from midnight to 6 am and finishing a night’s work in three hours.
Solar-powered lamps shine steadily through storms for poor fishermen, who used to find themselves in the dark when waves doused out their kerosene lamps. For the disproportionate number of mothers who go into labor at night, a solar lamp can mean birthing her baby without half-choking on the intense fumes of a kerosene lamp for the long hours—and the endless gasps of air—it takes to push her child out into the world.
And for many children around the world, it can mean having the time to do enough homework to stay in school.
Two billion people in the world have no access to electricity, and almost none will get it in the next ten to 15 years. Many millions more have very unreliable access. Connecting poor, rural communities to power grids is expensive, difficult, and a low priority for many governments and energy enterprises. People without electric lamps at night often use kerosene lamps, but they are expensive to fuel, dangerously flammable, and are terrible to smell and breathe.
The time has come for solar energy to take its place as the source of energy—and empowerment—for the rural poor, said Chris Neidl, advocacy coordinator for SolarOne, and host of a forum in New York City this week on solar energy in the developing world. For the last 30 years, people have talked about solar energy as an energy of the future: green and sustainable, but still too expensive and cumbersome, according to Neidl.
But solar energy has a big role to play in rural development and health, as well as in helping the world hammer out an agreement on how to ensure that measures taken to save the Earth from climate change do not cripple efforts to empower the global poor.
“Developing nations need access to energy to improve the lives of their people. That’s plain and simple,” said Neidl. “But if we’re going to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change, that pathway to greater energy access must look very different than the paradigm that has powered the development of the world’s wealthy nations… Solar energy is central to the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015.”
The cost of solar energy is lower than ever, Max Lacayo, the Sales Manager of Ecami S.A., told MediaGlobal. Ecami is a Nicaraguan company that brings low-cost solar panels to rural communities. In 2006, Lacayo provided one community of about 700 people with a solar panel attached to an irrigation system to bring clean drinking water into the village. Three years later, the health of the community has experienced vast improvements.
“This community has been proven to be the healthiest community in the region. They have eradicated E-Coli, and have a lot less diarrhea [one of the two leading causes of deaths of young children in the world],” said Lacayo.
He has also provided over 400 solar systems to rural health centers. “Imagine a health clinic that takes care of around 2,000 people and doesn’t have electricity. It makes a huge impact when you install solar panels—they are able to have vaccines every day of the week.”
For the rural poor, solar energy provides enough energy to make a big difference in day-to-day life. One of the criticisms of solar energy is that it takes a lot of space for enough panels to fill the needs of industry. But the rural poor do not need the energy to power a fancy office building at all hours of the day and night. Just a little bit of energy—one or two panels worth—gives people the lighting, refrigeration, or irrigation they need to make life much easier.
“Solar energy can win people’s time back. It gives them productivity, it extends their household income, and it means people can see the food on their plates and not eat bugs. It means people can see whether there’s a snake under their bed before they get into it,” said Sarah Butler-Sloss, executive director and founder of the Ashden Awards, a prestigious honor in the field of sustainable energy for the poor. “It’s hard for [people] in the developed world to imagine the impact of having light for the first time.”
One very isolated community in rural Ethiopia even turned down a diesel engine offered by a group because the cost of the diesel was too high. They asked instead for a solar panel, according to Nicola Armacost, co-founder and managing director of Arc Finance, an organization that works with energy and financial companies to bring clean energy products to the global poor.
“The reality is that with diesel, people are stuck paying for the fuel in perpetuity. The prices are going up, fuel is not reliable, [and] the diesel prices fluctuate,” said Armacost. “But people can rely on the sun in Ethiopia. They have it every day.”
Nonetheless, the initial cost can be a strain for many poor families. Solar energy for household use tends to fall outside of the lending guidelines for many microcredit agencies, which generally only lend for entrepreneurial activities that will make money to ensure the loan will be repaid.
But this can be addressed, says Armacost. Her organization is working with microcredit lenders to determine models of lending that work for providing energy. And with the rise of the carbon offsets market, social entrepreneurs such as Lacayo can sell the offsets provided by solar energy for an increasingly worthwhile price.