Britain has announced it is joining the International Solar Alliance (ISA): a group of countries pledged to increase the use of solar power in the developing world. The ISA plans to help mobilise $1 trillion of investment in affordable solar energy by 2030.
As part of this drive, the UK government has committed to support the development of solar-powered water pumps, giving farmers an alternative to dirty and expensive diesel pumps. The UK has also said it will help provide solar mini-grids to villages that don’t yet have access to mains electricity.
This is welcome news, but Britain should be realistic about what these kinds of power projects can actually achieve. Studies have shown that solar mini-grids have only a limited impact on rural poverty. The ability to charge a phone or power a lightbulb for a few hours a day of course improves people’s quality of life, but it does little to raise their earning power. With current technology, solar can’t yet power industrial development, the hospitals, factories, airports, railways and broadband infrastructure that a country needs to escape poverty.
It’s why, when offered a choice between off-grid solar and a connection to the grid, rural communities generally opt for the grid. Think about it. If you wouldn’t put up with just a few hours of power each day with lights off at 6pm, why should the world’s poorest?