Solar Power for the Global Masses: The Next Revolution

By Juan Cole

As the price of solar panels drops, they increasingly are being spontaneously bought and installed by villagers throughout the world, who are often ill-served, or not served at all, by the central power grid in their countries. Some remain off the grid once they have gone solar. Just as many countries in Africa skipped the stage of building copper wire telephone transmission lines all over the place, and instead went straight for cell phones, so they may also be able to avoid trying to deliver power through a central grid to everyone. So here are some promising signs:

The new BJP government in India plans to install 20 gigawatts of grid-connected solar power by 2022, and 2 gigawatts of distributed solar power. New PM Narendra Modi says he wants to bring electricity to 400 million poor Indians who lack it.

South Africa’s two largest solar energy installations are now operational, providing electricity to 85,000 homes.

The Williamson Tea processing plant in Kenya has built a solar energy farm, which will supply 30% of the firm’s energy. Industry is often held back in the global South by intermittent electricity, which idles factories. Solar power can fix this problem.

Indeed, some analysts are saying that solar energy could provide the power to Africa needed for increased economic growth because of its increasing affordability.

Japan’s vegetable farmers are finding that they can put solar panels in their fields without hurting the growth of the crops, and then sell the electricity. They are bringing in 7 times from the solar panels what the land would produce in agricultural revenue. Because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan is electricity-hungry, and a new sort of solar farming is becoming lucrative among those in crowded Japan who have the space to erect the panels– the farmers.

Central America’s largest solar facility, in Guatamala, is still relatively small by world standards (5 megawatts). But it will power 24,000 homes and in a country like Guatamala, that is huge.

Given the power of Big Oil in North America and the utilities’ dilemma of how to incorporate solar into their business model, it may well be that the US is not where the solar revolution will occur first or most extensively. It may be the poor of the global south, hungry for electricity, which has been scarce in their countries, who lead this revolution.

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8 Responses

  1. I was recently in Turkey and struck by the number of solar panels I saw as I traveled around the country, including a pension I stayed at that had solar-heated water for the rooms. It took a while to get hot water in the shower, but that’s a small price to pay. It does appear other countries are leading the way on solar power, and the U.S. needs to catch up.

  2. For countries where much of the population is not connected to a central power grid, it makes sense to put in solar and wind… especially if there isn’t an entrenched set of lobbyists paid to push petrochemical-powered centralized power stations.

    It’s also better from a political instability point of view. Centralized power grids, being centralized, can more easily be shut down by the government, or taken down by terrorists. Large numbers of decentralized/distributed power generation stations make much more sense from a security standpoint.

  3. One of the things I appreciate about solar is its scalability. You need a solar panel to charge the household cell phone? It’s available. You need solar panels to bring electricity to a couple of factories in a small city? It’s available.

    I appreciate the foreign policy news attention given to alternative energy and global warming on Informed Comment. Both energy and global warming are becoming such crucial international issues that I wish there were other sites also covering the range of issues involved.

    Even the sharing of technology innovations is big news, such as some of the interactions between Germans and Americans researchers when they have complementary technology ideas. There are leaps happening that are almost as fast as what we saw in computer technology.

    If anyone has links, I would appreciate it. I’ll be checking back.

  4. While it may not have dominated power supply overall, it is the developing world which gave birth to solar energy. Companies like SELCO and non-profits like SELF (Solar Electric Light Fund) took a large fraction, if not the majority, of the industry’s output during the 1980s and 1990s. (Both of those had Indian roots; I wonder if Mr. Modi knows of them.) These worked on a self-sustaining (non-philanthropic) basis even when PV panels cost several dollars per watt.

  5. Re: India’s new government, led by Narendra Modi, plans to use solar power to bring electricity to the homes of 400 million people who currently do not have access to it.

    I wonder if India is accounting for the fact that solar is unavailable at night or (mostly) in cloudy weather. One way would be to use a transmission grid spread over wide area, and use the distributed solar power units in areas where the sun is shining to supply power to areas where it is cloudy. While that doesn’t do much for night-time periods, of course, it would be a big help.

    If India is tackling that problem the US could learn a lot from them.

    • If solar is being used to power industries, well they mostly work during the day. And rural households go to bed early & don’t use much energy at night.

  6. I hope India has studied closely the work of such companies as Grameen Shakti in Bangladesh and the way they’ve provided, with great success, solar power and microgrids to the poorest people in that country.

    As we transition to renewable power, the economics of daily solar income should change the way we think about money and value. To my thinking, solar energy is an apt manifestation of Gandhi’s foundation for political and economic non-violence, swadeshi or local production.

    Another example we all should be studying is Denmark which now gets about a third of its electricity from renewables, primarily wind, and is actively working toward 100% renewable energy by 2050.

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