Off-grid solar technology is often held up as a quick and easy way to bring electricity to the world’s poor. But a study from India shows that for many it remains too expensive and unreliable.
Currently, 1.2 billion people around the world still lack access to modern energy. For light they are forced to rely on dim kerosene lamps which are one of the major causes of fire and lung disease in the developing world. For heat and cooking they have to burn traditional biomass like wood, dung and charcoal, forcing women and girls to spend long hours fetching fuel when they could be in school or work.
Many say that the answer is to provide the world’s energy poor with sun-powered technology such as solar lanterns, solar hot water heaters and rooftop solar panels. In the 1990s the Indian government even set up a network of shops to sell these products at subsidised rates. But new evidence has questioned the wisdom of this approach.
The study, from Washington-based think tank the Center for Global Development, looked in detail at India’s Solar Shops programme. The authors found that in most cases, the shops in each district were only recording a few thousand sales a year, despite serving markets containing millions of potential customers without electricity. With a quarter of India’s 1.3 billion people still living without power, sales should have been vastly higher.
So why is this? According to the authors, there are three big problems with solar technology, which have all contributed to limit its popularity among India’s rural poor.
The first challenge is that despite the subsidies, the upfront costs of installing a new solar system are still prohibitive for many people. The second, related problem is that much of this technology requires regular maintenance and repairs, which can be difficult to access for people living outside cities. Third, many people would prefer to save their money and wait for a connection to the country’s rapidly expanding electricity grid.
This is because a grid connection can supply far more power than a rooftop solar system, and crucially the electricity is available whenever needed. By contrast, the batteries supplied with a typical home solar system can only store enough power for a few hours a day.
Unfortunately, this study provides yet more evidence that there are no easy shortcuts when it comes to delivering modern levels of energy access to the world’s poorest people. Fortunately, the Indian government seem to have taken note and are now concentrating more effort on rolling out the grid.