By Vijay Narasimhan
In August, for the first time, one billion people logged into Facebook on a single day, a staggering testament to the reach of technology in our daily lives. But about the same number of people can’t even fathom logging into Facebook because they lack basic access to electricity. Electricity means more than just lighting and communication in the developing world: energy access is correlated with economic development, safety, education, health, maternal and childhood welfare, and more. With no action, the rate of increase in energy access will barely keep up with population growth, if at all, and energy poverty will still be rampant in the world.
So where will the energy that’s needed to power all of humanity come from? In order to avoid further accelerating the pace of climate change, sustainable energy development will depend on renewable energy sources.* Perhaps there is no better suited renewable energy source than nuclear fusion. I don’t mean the nuclear fusion inside a reactor on earth, but rather nuclear fusion inside that giant glowing orb of radiation in space: the sun.
Note: there is a common refrain that providing energy access to 1 billion people with fossil fuels will only increase emissions by 2%, but this is predicated on providing only the most basic energy access (say for minimal light, cooking, and cell phone charging, rather than the full-fledged access to electricity needed for refrigeration, home appliances, and industrial uses).
Why is solar power our best option? Stop reading this article right now, and come back in three hours. Are you back? The sun just dropped enough power on the planet to power all of humanity’s energy needs for a whole year. No joke! When the sun is directly overhead, it shines about 1000W of power over a square meter of area (the same amount of power that would be used by a standard microwave oven). Assuming power extraction only from accessible areas of the Earth (excluding, for example, the North Pole and the middle of the ocean) and using the efficiency numbers from currently available technologies, solar power could meet all of humanity’s energy demands right now, and has the potential to immediately improve life in the developing world.
Solar power is indeed a quickly growing energy resource, but it is dwarfed by other types of energy generation: currently, solar energy makes up only 1% of the global electricity mix. So with solar energy being such an abundant resource, why is it not being deployed everywhere to solve the world’s energy access crisis right now?
As a researcher in the Bay Area Photovoltaic Consortium and during a MAP Fellowship at the UN Foundation, the implementing partner of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Program, I learned that the deployment of solar energy systems for enabling energy access is to a large extent hampered by misconceptions on the part of policymakers, energy service providers, and financiers. In this article, I aim to clear the air of some of the most common misconceptions about access to solar energy in the developing world.
Misconception 1. Solar energy technology is too costly.
Although a few years ago the cost of solar energy seemed prohibitive, the price per watt of electricity generated by silicon solar panels has been plummeting, following a curve known as Swanson’s law (named after the founder of SunPower, Dick Swanson). This massive price drop comprises a combination of improved technology to make the solar cells more efficient and improved technology to make solar panels cheaper and easier to operate and maintain, such as solar panel washing robots. There are also projects underway to drop the cost of silicon solar even further by decreasing manufacturing costs and improving efficiency. During grad school, I had the opportunity to work on two such projects that could prove useful for silicon solar panels of the future (Figure 1, 2): developing a new nanoscale architecture that absorbs the same amount of light as a thick silicon film using much less material and developing a metal contact grid that is nearly invisible to incoming light. Beyond that, silicon isn’t the only game in town, and other materials promise very cheap solar cells, too. First Solar’s Cadium Telluride-based thin film solar film solar cell technology has recently been selected for a project in Dubai that provides power at a lower cost than other sources on the grid (without any government subsidy), and perovskite solar cells, which only emerged in laboratories 6 years ago, have already started to rival the power conversion efficiency of much older and more well established technologies (15% efficiency in large-scale devices and 20% in small ones).
While solar energy technology is on the steady march towards lower and lower costs, a threat to the cost competitiveness of solar energy technology still looms: “soft costs,” read: red tape. These costs, which include things like getting permits and obtaining financing, can represent as much as 64% of the installed cost of a solar energy system. At the Energy Access Forum in Patna, India in 2013, sponsored by IEEE and hosted by the UN Foundation’s Energy Access Practitioner Network, I heard first-hand from rural bankers that the process for obtaining government-assisted financing for solar systems was confusing and slow, while a government minister fired back that the process was only slowed down because bankers filled out forms incorrectly. Simplifying red tape would have a huge impact both on the cost competitiveness of solar power and on the speed with which such systems could be deployed.
Misconception 2. Even with access to more affordable solar energy systems, the poor won’t pay their electricity bills.
Misconceptions about the poor are endemic in all aspects of development, and energy access is no exception. A common fear when it comes to deploying home or village-level solar energy systems is that these systems won’t be financially sustainable because of low repayment rates (see the “before” parts of these case studies). Payment rates for electricity have often been low in developing countries because the quality of service received has been so poor. In addition to the 1 billion people with no access to electricity, a further 1 billion have unreliable access. Imagine that your local electricity utility experienced random power cuts, and that when you flipped on a light switch, the light would only turn on a quarter of the time. There would be a natural hostility on your part to pay for a service that is unreliable.
Even in the emerging area of modern solar lighting and solar home systems, quality and reliability is a problem. In a shop I visited in Patna’s solar market, one of the world’s largest, cheap knockoffs of solar-powered LED lanterns and low-grade solar panels masquerading as high-quality panels lined store shelves (Figure 3). When knockoffs of poor quality fail or produce less electricity than expected, there is a loss of consumer confidence and a hesitation to either purchase additional systems or repay loans for existing ones.
When a solar energy product or service is designed with trust, quality, feedback, and follow-up service, repayment rates are much higher. To ensure a high rate of repayment, schemes that allow individuals to pay with small sums of money over time are critical. But microloans alone tend not be as effective as schemes that couple payments with ongoing quality service. An interesting model is the “fee for service” model, which operates much the way that companies like Solar City and Sunrun do in the US. In this model, rather than loaning individuals money for solar systems which are purchased outright and paid over time, the provider of the systems owns the systems and instead charges the individuals a small sum each month for operations and maintenance. This model fosters trust, because it is in everyone’s best interest to keep the system up and running. Based on models for the ubiquitous mobile phones in the developing world, pay-as-you-go systems (that, in fact, offer payments through mobile phones) have also been highly effective. Further, solutions that involve local businesses and individuals are more likely to be trusted than solutions imported from elsewhere. This explains the success of organizations like Solar Sister, which rely on local entrepreneurs with personal community relationships to distribute solar energy systems.
Misconception 3. Home and village-level energy systems aren’t worth the investment when a national electricity grid may arrive any day.
Many sources estimate that two thirds of the energy that will be delivered to the developing world for energy access will be distributed over mini-grid or off-grid systems, much of it from solar energy, in part because extending a traditional power grid to rural and remote regions is a daunting and expensive proposition. Solar energy is particularly suited for such “distributed” systems (ones where the source of energy is located close to the point of use rather than in a large, centralized power plant) because the fuel for the system, sunlight, is available everywhere. Contrast this with current solutions, like kerosene for lighting and diesel for electric generators, which need to be transported to remote regions at high cost. However, even in the most optimistic of articles, there is a hint of fear about the “threat” imposed by the arrival of the grid. Imagine you invested in electrifying a village in India by providing the capital to build a micro-grid based on an array of solar panels. Based on revenue projections, you expect payback on your investment within 7 years. Now imagine that electricity utilities, incentivized by the government, extend the national electric grid to your village in only 2 years, offering electricity at rates lower than what the microgrid can provide. Your investment could become worthless overnight.
This fear is based on the false dichotomy between the grid and off-grid systems. If designed properly, using established standards for interconnection (many of which are made free in developing countries through the IEC), mini-grids could provide important infrastructure that macro-grids of the future will need, leapfrogging many of the problems of the grid today. For example, because renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, are subject to the vagaries of the weather, most mini-grids will need some form of energy storage to provide power at night. Banks of batteries provide this power now, but new solutions are on the horizon, such as molten salt systems. The storage needed for distributed solar systems now can also provide a handy benefit when interconnected to the grid in the future, because they can store not only energy from local sources, but also energy from other sources on the grid. The local storage units could thus be used for peak energy shaving (reducing the carbon intensity of the entire grid). Further, by offering some generation, storage, and wiring close to the point of use, mini-grids are more robust to outages (see Vivek’s article in this magazine for more information on this topic).
The evidence is overwhelming: contrary to the three misconceptions I’ve discussed here, solar energy is affordable, financially sustainable, and future-proof. The sun, simply put, the most abundant sustainable energy resource available today for development, so to not harness its incredible potential as quickly as possible is to miss a tremendous opportunity to light up the lives of a billion people.
Vijay Narasimhan is a 2009 fellow of the Fulbright Science and Technology program from Canada. He recently graduated from Stanford University with a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering and is currently a Senior Process/Device Engineer at Intermolecular Inc., a materials research company specializing in semiconductors and renewable energy.
The September issue of The Global Scientist was guest edited by Elizabeth O’Sullivan, a 2011 fellow of the Fulbright Science & Technology program, from Ireland, and a PhD Candidate in Human Nutrition at Cornell University.