Empowering the Developing World with Solar Energy

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A young female engineer holds up a solar panel against the landscape of her home in Orissa, India.  (UK Department for International Development / Flickr Creative Commons)

A young female engineer holds up a solar panel against the landscape of her home in Orissa, India.
(UK Department for International Development / Flickr Creative Commons)

There is a narrow but growing sector at the nexus between clean energy and international development—one that may be leveraged to simultaneously address both climate change and wealth inequality. Developing states are increasingly taking advantage of this synergy to galvanize their economies with zero carbon footprints. At the heart of this movement is solar energy, the energy source that will soon be a major catalyst for international sustainable development.

Energy poverty, the state of living without access to household electricity, is concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and India, and is moderately prevalent throughout the Middle East and South America. Of the one and a half billion people living in energy poverty around the world, nearly 85% are in rural areas, which lack the complex infrastructure of a city that allows electricity to be transmitted through a grid. Solar energy is the solution to powering these underdeveloped regions, because it is a natural, renewable resource that allows citizens the freedom to harness electricity for themselves.

While other types of clean energy require public utilities to harvest and allocate electricity through vast networks, solar energy sidesteps the barriers of centralized energy as a type of distributed generation. Both wind and hydroelectric power demand large-scale construction and capital, not to mention the ownership of viable land and rivers. Even nuclear energy, which has the potential to power hundreds of households, calls for the most extensive upkeep and a preexisting grid. Solar alone fits the bill for small-scale development, because photovoltaic cells are modular, which allows batteries to be independent and easily scalable, ranging in size from a single lantern to a solar farm.

Flexibility is essential to powering rural areas, because the energy infrastructure is decentralized. The small-scale version of a centralized system is the microgrid: a generator that supplies electricity to multiple users. Because village communities typically consist of less than 100 households, pushing the electricity through a grid over great distances is more expensive than building a smaller power source. Originally, microgrids were only a temporary interim between a centralized power system and distributed electricity generation. But, more than ever, rural populations are adopting microgrids as a permanent solution since they allow developing regions to leapfrog building a complex energy infrastructure and start employing modern technologies immediately.

Looking to the future, decentralized, renewable energy will be a major component of environmental resilience. As fossil fuel prices fluctuate, solar energy is particularly important in low-income regions, which are extremely susceptible to the impending shortage of global oil. Additionally, damage to major power plants can shut down entire neighborhoods and take days to fix; but, if a single microgrid suffers from mechanical failure or a natural disaster, then the others will remain intact. Climate change will inevitably hit impoverished and marginalized communities the hardest because they cannot afford rising market prices of kerosene, oil, or coal, nor can they tolerate the pollution of natural resources, which they may use for water, shelter, or income. Solar energy is not only a short-term solution to electricity, but must also be a long-term solution to development.

To date, several developing countries have begun to adopt substantial solar energy projects. In early 2014, Schneider Electric, specialists in energy management, introduced the Microsol Project to Kenya: the creation of village-size public utility models that use solar thermodynamics to provide drinking water, heating and electricity to dozens of households. With a lifespan of 20 years, a Microsol produces 50 MWh/year, 1000 m3/year of clean water, 800 MWh/year of heat. Annually, 50 MWh would provide over 100 rural households with two lights and a cell phone charger, or the equivalent of five American households. In July, Dharnai became the first village in India to be entirely solar powered, serving 2,400 residents, two schools, one health centers and over 50 growing businesses. This is just one of many instances in India where solar energy fosters community and entrepreneurship; to produce one’s own power is liberating, and this equips students and business owners with the ability to work at night and embrace modern technologies. In addition to sustainability, distributed solar energy allows rural areas to leapfrog into the modern economy.

Even in the developed world, however, solar is becoming a major asset. For example, more than half of Germany’s energy is now generated by the sun. Thanks to China, panel production escalated to meet Germany’s demand, the price of solar energy has fallen by 70% in the last five years. As the upfront cost of going solar continues to drop, it becomes more and more expensive for households, and whole cities, to stay dependent on fossil fuels. Environmentalism no longer has to be incentivized morally, but can be inspired by the prospects of long-term economic advantage and equality.

Despite these successes, sunlight is not the catch-all, end-all solution to international development. Though solar energy has made significant progress in certain countries, those without sufficient sun exposure may have to wait for a more long-term solution, like storing solar power in batteries, to become affordable. The presence of NGOs has also boosted the presence of solar, but regions that gain less nonprofit attention suffer from the high upfront costs of solar installation. While the cost of solar panels has dropped by over 99% per watt since 1997, and now sits below retail prices in the Western world, the transition remains daunting for rural populations in developing countries. However, access to a personal cell phone and lighting at night has a high rate of return for loans and investment; microfinance has already begun to play a leading role in support for solar energy. Furthermore, solar panels, once established, require negligible maintenance and zero operating costs after an initial investment.

The looming prospects of global warming and volatile fossil fuel prices have jumpstarted a solar revolution. As solar energy becomes cheaper and more developing regions catch on to its multifaceted potential, the outlook of the next few decades is hopeful that clean energy will simultaneously combat climate change and provide electricity around the world.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors. 

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About Author

Erin Wong is a sophomore Urban Studies major at Barnard College. Her research interests include environmental resilience and international development, particularly with regards to using renewable energy as a solution to poverty. In her hometown of Seattle, she interned at the non-profit Climate Solutions and worked directly with Northwest city governments to adapt accelerated Climate Action Plans. This past summer, she worked as an environmental journalist for the City Atlas Project in New York City, publishing six research pieces discussing the potential of a global transition to clean energy, as well as the importance of balancing individual and corporate responsibility with policy change. She has also worked at the District Office of Congresswoman Karen Bass and the Refugee Women’s Alliance.

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