Friday, March 23 , 2018, 12:34 am | Mostly Cloudy 54º


Tam Hunt: How Solar Can Help Developing World Leapfrog the Dirty Energy Phase

Some commentators have criticized the focus on renewable energy and other “green” technologies in part because they fear that an undue focus on low emissions and non-fossil fuel sources of energy will doom many developing nations to energy poverty for a long time to come.

The idea is that these countries would be better off economically from using fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to build their own modern grid systems with large central-station power plants, which has been the default model for many decades. Even though these plants may exact some environmental costs, it is thought, a modern central-station grid will allow these countries to develop more quickly than would otherwise be possible, and they can eventually enter the developed-nation club due to the benefits that a modern grid can provide.

I appreciate the concerns behind these arguments but I think they’re wrong in many, if not most, situations. As with all of my analysis, even though I’m making conclusions that I will defend I always come at this kind of issue objectively and I won’t ignore facts that don’t support my conclusions. In other words, I’m always going to do my best to be fair with the facts.

Jim Rogers was CEO of Duke Energy, based in North Carolina and the largest electric holding company in North America, for a number of years. He retired in 2014 to focus on scholarship and philanthropy. One of his initiatives is an effort to bring renewable energy to the developing world. He states eloquently in a 2015 article in EnergyBiz magazine:

"My interest in the lack of access to electricity in many countries of the world began with a chance meeting with a young man in a Kenyan village. He was holding a cellphone in the middle of nowhere, with not a power line in sight.

"'How do you charge that thing?' I asked.

"'I walk three hours to the charging station,' he said.

"Wow, I thought. He walks three hours to the charging station — six hours in one day — to charge his cell phone. I can barely stand it when I check into a hotel and find there's not an outlet conveniently placed next to my bed.

"I've spent most of my career providing electricity to millions of people, and I'm stunned by the global statistics: [more than] one in six people worldwide lack access to electrical power. That means [1.5] billion people have no Internet, no water pumps, no bright lights to study by. Around another billion and a half people or so have limited access. There's no question that electricity is the foundation for economic development, education, women's rights, health and efficient farming. Let's give these people the chance to get ahead and take better care of their families. It is a human imperative. I believe that together we can make access to clean and sustainable electricity a basic human right."

Rogers is putting his money and time where his mouth is. His Global BrightLight Foundation has distributed free of charge, or sometimes in return for community service, over 70,000 combination solar LED lanterns and cell-phone chargers to families in Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Nepal, Peru, Bolivia, Haiti and Guatemala. After their initial efforts focused on the free distribution model they began charging for this product and are now turning profits from these sales back into increased sales around the world. The lantern that Global BrightLight distributes is available on for $20 for the mid-range model and $45 for the top model; both have great reviews.

A smaller and waterproof solar LED lighting solution is available from Luci for $15. I’ve used this model myself when camping and it provides great light over many hours on a single change. It’s not that good for lighting up anything bigger than a tent or small room, but it can provide ambient light for a lot of purposes. It’s also compressible, very lightweight, and entirely water and windproof.

These prices are about the same as a cell phone and service plan for many in developing countries and various options for payments, including microcredit programs, have proven quite successful in many circumstances. Many of those benefiting from these solar LED and cell phone-charging devices would otherwise spend the same or more on candles or kerosene lanterns and fuel, or have to walk hours to charge their cell phones. There is, thus, a major net benefit from going solar in these situations.

Hunt graphic
Figure 1. Global BrightLight Foundation’s solar lantern and cell phone charger. (Source)

The debate over central-station generation (from fossil fuels) and a distributed renewable energy system is generally, in the case of the poorest countries, a non-debate: the central-station model clearly hasn’t worked, more than 100 years after this model was created in Europe and the U.S., for the 1.5 billion people still without access to basic electricity services (according to the International Energy Agency’s 2013 Pico PV report). And we are now seeing a number of companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Rogers’ step into the gap left by the modern central-station model. Another 1.7 billion people don’t have access to clean or reliable electricity because the available grid is so bad. This means that over 45 percent of the world’s seven billion population could currently benefit greatly from a distributed renewable energy model for at least basic electricity needs like lighting, phone charging and small electronics use. To those without access to these basic features of a modern society such benefits can be literally life-changing — as Rogers’ simple example of a man walking six hours a day just to charge his cell phone makes clear.

“Pico PV” refers to very small-scale solar systems like those used in the U.S. to power an automatic gate or a traffic light, but increasingly used in the developing world as the primary source of power. The IEA’s 2013 Pico PV report adds:

"Solar pico PV systems have experienced significant development in the last few years, combining the use of very efficient lights (mostly LEDs) with sophisticated charge controllers and efficient batteries. With a small PV panel of only a few watts essential services can be provided, such as lighting, phone charging and powering a radio. Expandable solar pico systems have entered the market. Households can start by buying a small kit, later adding an extra kit, allowing extra lights and services to be connected and even a small TV to be considered."

This warms my heart to know that people who crave access to the benefits of modern society can have many of these benefits while also avoiding some of the biggest downsides of that same society: the pollution, dependency, and landscape-scarring effects of the developed world’s fossil fuel addiction.

IEA provides a strong warning, however: Pico PV is not a full solution and it may have some downsides in terms of the “solar trap” of believing a community’s energy needs are fully met with pico PV when this is, instead, only a partial move toward electrification and all the benefits that can bring:

"The majority of the 1.5 billion people mentioned above will have no grid connection for years to come, perhaps never, and for them solar pico PV systems can help in providing a few essential energy services. But it should also be realized that rural inhabitants usually prefer a grid connection, in order to watch color TV and to iron their clothes when they want. Despite the provision of this initial level of service with pico solar PV systems, they should still be considered non-electrified and the so-called 'solar trap' should be avoided."

Pico PV is, then, one step on the way toward electrification. This doesn’t mean that pico PV is a step toward central-station generation. Rather, it should mean that the next step is building out more robust community-scale and home-scale PV systems, with good batteries, that can provide more robust power to these communities when needed. This larger-scale, but still distributed, solar and storage grid, is still far cheaper and faster to build than the traditional central-station fossil fuel grid that is considered the default option for modern development.

An example of this next step in solar development can be found in Tanzania in south-central Africa. OffGrid Electric, with major investments from the large U.S. solar company SolarCity, is investing millions of U.S. dollars to solarize that country. The products aren’t that different than the solar lanterns offered by Global BrightLight but the objective is to install panels and lights in homes as a bit more permanent solution than the ultra-portable Sun King lights.

Solar Sister is a similar effort in Tanzania, but led by local partners, with US Agency for International Development backing, as part of the $9 billion Power Africa initiative. Solar Sister has since 2009 brought solar power to almost 200,000 people in Tanzania, providing a major economic and health boost to this country of 50 million people.

What About Intermediate-Level Economies?

The debate between central-station grids and distributed renewable energy grids is more significant when we look up the economic ladder of nations a little. Coal and natural gas costs can be very low at times, but these prices are always volatile. Large power grids can work quite well and in those countries, such as India, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, etc., where there are semi-functioning grids it is not as clear that going solar and distributed is a cheaper option at this time.

However, when we factor in the health costs of fossil fuel power, the lack of reliability of such grids, and the always-declining cost curves for solar power, it is very clear that even if fossil fuels can sometimes be cheaper than the solar alternatives today it is only a matter of a few years until solar will become the default choice in these countries, too. This is the primary message of the “solar singularity”: on the current solar development trajectory around the world we’re going to see solar prices continue to plummet in the coming years.

In sum, solar power and a distributed grid offer substantial benefits to most developing countries today and these benefits will become more pronounced over time as the solar singularity works its magic.

— Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based in Santa Barbara and author of the upcoming book The Solar Singularity: Why Our Energy Future Is So Bright. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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