Grid-connected solar projects are benefiting urban populations worldwide, yet hundreds of millions of people in remote areas continue to languish in energy poverty. We look at how PV manufacturers can turn around this crisis.
More than 1.3 billion people worldwide are living without electricity today, and 2.6 billion lack clean cooking facilities, according to the International Energy Agency.
Without electricity, these populations cannot make a decent living, as their productive day ends as soon as the sun goes down. They cannot read at night, or pump clean water in the day, and are forced to walk long and dangerous distances in search of water and wood for the fires needed to purify it.
As a consequence, many children drop out of school to do these basic tasks of survival. Families have no choice but to breathe in the carcinogenic fumes of kerosene lanterns, and are vulnerable to fatal fires caused by falling or exploding kerosene lamps.
PV fits everywhere
This dire situation has moved PV companies from across the supply chain to take action. After all, PV manufacturing costs are continuously falling, and the versatility of the systems allows them to be mounted on the ground or on rooftops in remote areas.
"In the past few years, we've all witnessed the transformative effect PV has had on the lives of families across the developing world. It literally reaches into homes, schools, and business, and offers not simply lights but education, safety, economic opportunities, and empowerment,” Kevin Brownawell, director of the Office of Infrastructure and Energy at USAID, told PV Insider.
In 2012, USAID, together with its partners – the Governments of Sweden and Germany, Duke Energy, and Overseas Private Investment Corporation – launched Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge Program. This initiative was designed to find and support market-based, clean energy technologies to overcome the most pressing obstacles at the nexus of energy and agriculture.
By linking renewable technologies with farmers and agribusiness in low-income countries, the program is empowering farmers to produce better quality food and move that food to more distant markets.
“We recently announced our twelve winners — from an applicant pool of 475 applications from 80 countries. As I'm sure you expect, many of our winners used solar technologies, solar for improving productivity all along the agriculture value chain – for irrigation, cold storage and processing,” explains Brownawell. “We expect that solar will be a key component of Powering Agriculture as we move forward."
PV in micro-grids
EarthSpark, one of the 12 winners of Powering Agriculture, has been developing smart micro-grids powered 90% by photovoltaics. The Washington-based firm chose Haiti for its nonprofit work for good reasons. Not only is the Caribbean country the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, but half of its population live on less than $1 a day.
Haiti’s poverty goes hand in hand with its prevalent energy poverty, since less than 25% of its households are connected to electricity grids. For the remaining 75%, lighting is produced mainly from kerosene lamps and wax candles. Moreover, the country’s electricity infrastructure is plagued by unreliable generation, transmission and distribution with total system losses, believed to be about 50% according to EarthSpark.
“EarthSpark is working in two ways to use PV for rural electrification. First, we work with local clean energy entrepreneurs to sell small-scale stand-alone PV systems (as small as 0.5 watts) to displace candles and kerosene and, in the case of larger systems, to power small appliances,” president of EarthSpark, Allison Archambault, told PV Insider.
In 2012, EarthSpark partnered with Kiva MicroFunds to enable people to invest in the company’s cleantech entrepreneurs through micro loans. “Kiva has been instrumental in expanding our solar retail work. Kiva loans to EarthSpark partner retailers have enabled EarthSpark to extend credit to its partners who in turn grow their businesses and expand energy access in their communities,” says Archambault.
EarthSpark’s latest project involved the development of a low-cost, pre-pay smart meter that improves the business case for micro-grids in rural communities. Having received $1.1m in grant funding from the Powering Agriculture, the NGO is now also incorporating PV into its micro-grid expansion.
“With this funding, we are expanding our existing pre-pay micro-grid from 52 to about 400 customers and will move from 100% diesel to about 80% solar energy. The decision to go mostly solar for the grid expansion was driven by economics. Solar, combined with batteries and some diesel generation, is the most cost-effective generation option,” says Archambault.
While EarthSpark continues to focus on energy access in Haiti, SparkMeter – the company recently founded around the meter development – is in discussions with micro-grid developers in other countries.
The collective initiative
An NGO that has been leading social entrepreneurship in solar power for the past 24 years is Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF). With the support of individuals, foundations, corporations and public agencies, the fund electrifies rural areas with stand-alone PV systems and solar-powered pumps, and uses innovative solar technologies to ensure food security.
SELF’s corporation partners in particular comprise an impressive group of PV module manufacturers from around the world, including SunPower, Suntech, Trina Solar, Yingli Solar,Solar Liberty, SMA, Applied Materials, SolarWorld, Q-Cells, Solar Liberty, and AEE Solar. Its foundation supporters include Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, National Geographic Society, to name a very few.
Backed by this diverse group of partners, SELF has completed projects in at more than 20 countries and pioneered solar power applications for drip irrigation, healthcare, telemedicine, online learning, and microenterprise development.
To enable individual families to pay for their electricity units, the NGO uses microfinance arrangements. Although costing $500 to $650, in the long run, a residential PV system works out much cheaper than people buying kerosene and candles every week for their whole lives, and according to Bob Freling, executive director of SELF, families have usually paid for the systems within two to three years.
SELF initially focused on powering individual homes, but in the early 2000s, the fund expanded to power entire communities. One of the ways it accomplishes this is with the Whole Village Development Model, which takes an integrated approach to community empowerment using a mix of solar energy solutions.
The model has already transformed the lives of 7,500 people in the northern Nigerian state of Jigawa, where despite the country’s vast oil wealth, many locals live in mud and thatch homes, grow crops among desert grasslands, use wood fires for cooking and kerosene lamps for lighting.
SELF electrified three villages in Jigawa; providing PV-generated electricity for homes, a school, health clinic, mosque, water pumps, street lights, and even a microenterprise centre that would power small businesses in the village. It also powered clinics across Malawi, Rwanda, Burundi and Lesotho with solar PV, enabling doctors to treat patients at night, vaccines to be refrigerated, and facilitating round-the-clock treatment of people with serious diseases.
While many PV manufacturers support SELF, some also run their own programmes. First Solar, for example, provides green education programmes, financial contributions, training and expertise and donations through its Global Charitable Giving Program.
SunPower, too, is working with several charities to install solar systems in impoverished, remote communities, and Solar City recently launched GivePower Foundation with the mission of donating a solar power system and battery combination to one school for every megawatt it installs.
For what end?
Social entrepreneurship may not be specifically measurable, but the rewards it brings are clearly worthwhile for many PV pioneers.
As suggested by Hayes Barnard, Chief Revenue Officer of SolarCity and President of GivePower Foundation, it’s about creating a culture. “If we can find a way internally to create a culture that is about growing and giving…I think that’s really powerful”.
Powerful in the way it impacts everyone – for when employees and customers know that the company they’re working for or dealing with has a mission to give back, this enhances the value of the relationship and adds a sense of purpose. “Now every SolarCity customer will play a part in giving light to a community in need,” Barnard said when launching the foundation in December.
It is also worth considering that every individual growing up in these communities is also a potential future customer, and that by training locals and integrating PV plants in their villages, charitable PV firms are in fact building the foundations of a new solar market.