Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary

Solar Power and the Poor

David Dickson David Dickson argues that, as technological obstacles to the efficient use of solar energy diminish, economic and political challenges remain to its widespread adoption by the poor.
The author is director of the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net).

In principle, solar energy is a near-perfect solution for the energy needs of developing countries. It is universally and freely available, particularly near the equator, where many developing countries are found. Solar energy is the ultimate renewable energy resource, at least within the timescale of human existence. Its use doesn't deplete reserves, or emit much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, making it the ideal response to the challenge of climate change.

Until recently, the major barrier to solar energy's uptake lay in the low efficiency - and relatively high cost - of converting it into a usable form. But scientific breakthroughs are rapidly eroding this barrier. Photovoltaic technologies, which use chemical reactions to turn sunlight into electricity, are advancing rapidly, as are the batteries used to store electricity until it is needed. As conversion and storage costs fall, solar technology's potential for serving poor communities will inevitably rise. In India, the long-term costs of using solar-powered lamps are already considerably cheaper than traditional lighting fuelled by kerosene.

If the economic playing field were a level one, this combination of strong need/demand and falling costs would be sufficient to guarantee solar energy's rapid dissemination across the developing world. But, unfortunately, the playing field is not level. The capital costs of solar devices remain considerable, particularly to the poor. And government subsidies for energy produced from non-renewable sources - intended ostensibly to keep prices affordable - have too often also distorted the market in the interests of conventional energy suppliers.

All this means that the spread of solar energy, particularly to the rural communities that stand to benefit most from it, is far slower than it should be.

One of the frequently-overlooked achievements of last December's climate conference in Copenhagen was the agreement on a Green Climate Fund. This is intended to raise and distribute about US$30 billion a year for the next three years to help developing countries expand their use of renewable technologies and integrate these into development plans. The fund reflects growing acceptance that developing renewable energy sources - particularly solar - is crucial to raising the world's poor out of poverty in a way that is environmentally sustainable.

But governments' failure to reach a global commitment to reduce carbon emissions underlines how energy policy is, and always has been, highly political. Powerful interests (which can include those of consumers in the developed world) often have as much influence on policy as technological opportunities.

If solar energy is to contribute effectively to sustainable development, it must be an integral part of community-based innovation strategies. And these must simultaneously promote local needs and contest conflicting external forces.


This comment is based, with the author's permission, on the editorial Solar Power to the People! published by SciDev.Net.

Further information

David Dickson, 9–11 Richmond Buildings, London W1D 3HF, United Kingdom. Fax: +44-20-72929929. Email: david.dickson@scidev.net. Web: www.scidev.net.

On the Web

SciDev.Net has published a series of features on solar power and the power, including news, comment and analysis. The Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary lists selected websites concerning alternative energy sources.