Development: May 2008 Archives
When I did the Massive Change interview back in 2004, I was asked mostly about solar home lighting systems and the use of microfinance as a way of making this technology affordable to rural households in the developing world. Aside from a brief discussion of wireless communications, I didn't really go into the multiple ways in which solar energy can be used for a wide range of applications beyond the home at the community level.
At the time, we had just launched our project in northern Nigeria, where each of three villages had been equipped with solar systems for water pumping, school, health clinic, street lighting, mosque, and a microenterprise center. This holistic approach later evolved into what has become our "solar integrated development" (SID) model.
Even though SELF is a nonprofit organization, we did not believe that giving these systems away outright would be sustainable over the long term. On the other hand, the cost of a solar home system, which averages $400-500, is prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of rural households in the developing world if that have to pay cash
To overcome the high initial cost of photovoltaic technology, SELF pioneered a variety of financing mechanisms which enable families to purchase solar home systems over time, typically three to four years, paying only slightly more than what they previously spent on kerosene, candles, and dry-cell batteries.
Small amounts of interest would be built into the credit schemes, and as monthly installments were collected, the funds would be used to finance additional units for other families.
Our goal was not merely to supply solar lighting systems to, let’s say, 50 or 100 homes in a given village, and walk away, but rather to establish a mechanism that could be self-sustaining over the long term, and that would eventually pave the way for the commercialization of solar household electrification in the developing world.
Astonishingly, access to modern energy has not been included by the United Nations as one of the Millennium Development Goals, despite the fact that, without an energy component, none of the MDGs are ultimately achievable.
Didn't they know that Energy is a Human Right?
They should've asked my friend Dr. Paul Farmer (Partners in Health).
He'd tell them that a reliable energy source is essential for the operation of hospitals and clinics.
With the exception of Egypt and South Africa, 85 percent of Africa’s 680 million people live in rural areas without electricity.
Diesel generators are the traditional solution — but hardly the best. Diesel is expensive and polluting, including greenhouse gases. And generator breakdowns are common, with replacement parts typically miles and days away.
Faced with a choice between solar and diesel at five rural health clinics in eastern Rwanda, Partners In Health took the solar path, collaborating with SELF on systems for the communities of Mulindi, Rusumo, Rukira, Nyarabuye, and Kirehe. The systems are solar- diesel hybrid systems that generate 90 percent or more of their power from the sun, with diesel generators for back-up during prolonged heavy usage, or in periods of rain.
Back to Dr. Farmer. Here's what he said about the impact of solar power on the operations of his clinics:
"You can't do this without electricity. Because you're not going to have an operation room. You're not going to have a laboratory. You're not going to see people at night..."
More on Partners In Health and SELF here»
But what does the phrase really mean? After all, people talk about human rights; they talk about social and economic rights; and some folks – like Dr. Paul Farmer, famed “physician to the poor” and co-founder of Partners In Health, – even talk about health as a human right.
But “energy” as human right? Now that’s a new one!
It’s precisely because this notion of “energy as a human right” may strike many as being a bit odd or abstruse that I’ve decided the time has finally come for me to sit down and start this blog as a way to educate as many people as I can about a subject I care deeply about and which has huge implications for the future sustainability of the planet.
I’m talking about the fact that some two billion people—almost a third of humanity—still live without access to electricity. Located mostly in rural villages in the developing world, these people are forced to retreat each evening into homes that are illuminated, if at all, by the dim light of candles or smoky, polluting kerosene lanterns.
The problem is especially acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where in many countries as much as 80-90% of the population is without power. If you look at satellite image of the earth at night, Africa appears, literally, as a “dark continent”.
This is an issue in which I have been personally involved for the past 15 years, ever since I first got involved with SELF.
At the time, I was living and working in Taiwan. I had read about China’s first “solar village”, a tiny hamlet in the hard-scrabble mountains of Gansu Province. I wrote to SELF and requested to visit Gansu, and perhaps write a story about how solar energy had impacted the lives of those poor farmers who had been living in darkness for centuries.
One thing led to the next, and before I knew it, I was hired to spend two months in Gansu, overseeing the solar household lighting initiative that had been launched by SELF, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the W. Alton Jones Foundation.
There, in this isolated, dirt poor corner of China, I got to observe families turn on a light bulb for the very first time in their lives.
The following passage is an excerpt of a letter from a farmer who had just installed a solar home system:
As the fixtures were about to be plugged in, we waited breathlessly. In a flash, the lights came on, and as they did, an old man from the village rubbed his eyes in disbelief, and exclaimed, “I have long heard that city folks do not need oil to generate light, but in all my seventy years, this is the first time to actually see such a phenomenon with my own eyes. What a beautiful sight to behold!”
Over the course of the next decade and a half, in my work with the SELF, I have witnessed, in village after village, the heavy toll that “energy poverty” exacts on the health, education, and livelihoods of people who do not have access to electricity.
I have also been fortunate enough to see and document the numerous benefits that even modest amounts of electricity, generated by the sun, can deliver to previously unelectrified households and communities.
The purpose of this blog is twofold: first, to inform and educate the general public about energy poverty and its deep relevance to virtually every aspect of sustainable development; and second, to chronicle the many examples of how solar energy has been, and continues to be, harnessed for improvements in the health, education, and economic well-being of rural villagers who have, for far too long, been deprived of what should be a sine qua non of civilized life in the 21st century.