More than a billion of the world’s poorest still don’t have access to electricity, but they are desperate to get it because they know it has the power to transform lives.
From the slums of Lagos to the foothills of the Himalayas, electricity means more safety at night for women and girls, the ability to connect with the outside world through a phone or TV. It means not having to rely on dim and dirty kerosene lamps, one of the major causes of fire and lung disease in the developing world.
Above all, it means being able to work or study after sunset, giving people a chance to boost their incomes and offer their children a brighter future.
For a long time, many in the development community thought that off-grid solar power was the quickest and most effective of way of delivering that electricity, but until recently these claims were based on anecdote rather than evidence.
Now however, a major new scientific study has finally put them to the test.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh teamed up with Mera Gao Power (MGP), one of the India’s leading providers of solar power. Their study looked at 80 villages in Uttar Pradesh, northern India. Half the villages were left alone as the control group. The other half were given a basic solar system, including two LED lights and a phone charging point for each household.
What the researchers found was shocking. None of the well-attested benefits of having electricity actually materialised. People didn’t work longer hours, create more businesses or study any more than the control group of villages that didn’t have solar power.
According to the study, the problem was that the solar mini-grids just weren’t up to the job. They could power a lightbulb during the day when it wasn’t needed, but once the sun went down the batteries only stored the equivalent of two hours’ lighting.
To truly make a difference to these communities, a much bigger source of power is needed, one that can operate 24/7. This explains why India’s local and national governments are increasingly rejecting the solar shortcut approach and instead starting to connect their rural communities to the grid.
In the end you can’t power a village with good intentions. No-one in the West would accept just two hours of electricity a day. We shouldn’t be promoting solutions that force the world’s poorest to do exactly that.