Photovoltaics against poverty?

Gerald Leach casts a critical eye upon the often disparate views of the effective use of photovoltaics as an energy supply source that emerged at a recent conference, Village Power 2000.

The author directed the energy programme at the International Institute for Environment and Development from 1974 to 1988. Since then he has been a senior research fellow with the Stockholm Environment Institute, working on various aspects of energy, environment and development.

The conference, Village Power 2000, subtitled “Empowering People and Transforming Markets,” was held at the World Bank in Washington DC in the United States during December 2000.

Like its predecessors in 1994, 1997 and 1998, this meeting attracted a large and diverse collection of actors from the rural and renewable energy scene. Practitioners and theoreticians, talkers and doers, bankers and bureaucrats, enthusiasts and critics (and at least one bemused observer) – a total of 566 participants from 61 countries – assembled to hear over 130 presentations in a little over three days.

The core theme of Village Power 2000 was the familiar one of how best to bring modern energy services to the two billion people who now lack them. Alongside, in bold brackets, was the sub-theme of using modern energy services as a tool for development and poverty reduction: in the words of World Bank President James Wolfensohn “ to respond to the needs of our two billion clients 'in the dark' to help them lift themselves out of poverty and out of drudgery and to empower them to attain a secure future.”

Under these headlines, the meeting included major sessions on the usual related topics:

  • policies for scaling up rural energy services;
  • financing;
  • traditional fuels and household energy;
  • gender issues and how to ensure equitable benefits;
  • developing energy markets; and,
  • case studies of income generation resulting from village power projects.

Typically, about 75 crowded minutes and five presentations were devoted to each of these broad topics.

What key issues and themes emerged from this packed agenda?

First was the continued dominance of photovoltaics (PVs) as the chosen energy supply option. Other technologies were almost entirely ignored, except for short breakout sessions on small-scale, hydro, wind and biomass.

Also ignored was the question of how PV solar home systems, delivering tens of watts to individual consumers for basic services like lighting, might be scaled up into a community power system delivering tens of kilowatts and higher-load energy services.

This was a curious omission for a meeting about village power: if PV cannot be scaled up, with reasonable costs for high-wattage energy storage, it will begin to look decidedly shaky as off-grid communities increase their income and energy-using activities, and hence their demand for power – a principal, long-term aim for providing modern energy services in the first place.

A second dominant issue was the extraordinary amount of uncritical flag-waving for off-grid renewables (and PV in particular) as the answer to rural energy provision and, by extension, rural development as a whole.

Many speakers presented their implementation ‘success story’, sometimes only months after installation had been completed.

One keynote speaker (who shall remain nameless) even claimed that PV could answer all rural energy problems, including the so-called fuelwood crisis. PV-electric cooking, at around US $8,000 a kilowatt, seems an unlikely contender to replace the zero-cost, multi-kilowatt, three-stone cooking fire!

One or two voices did, however, call for a more sober and self-critical approach. Where were the studies, or even the anecdotal stories, not only of project failures and how to avoid them, but also the serious, longer-term follow-up studies which might validate each claim that this or that project is a ‘success’ and thus provides a good model for widespread replication?

Where also are the large-scale studies on the financial viability of PV and other renewables for village power? How many schemes, for example, have genuinely paid their way, without (hidden) subsidies or losses for turnkey operations by developers? And how many schemes could pay their own way if they were to be extended to lower income levels in rural societies?

A third notable theme was the emergence of what one might call the high-tech poverty quick-fix: PVs coupled to computers and the Internet to reach across the rich/poor world ‘digital divide’, not least to support rural education and income-earning enterprises.

A one-day workshop on Rural Telecommunications and Digital Technologies explored many aspects of this topic, including PVs and computers for schools and businesses, use of the Internet for ‘distance education’ and rural telecentres. In principle, this broad concept seems exciting though challenging. And entirely laudable. But in practice, as revealed during Village Power 2000 by several project examples, serious doubts set in.

Your Bemused Observer wondered at this point whether he was getting too old to live with rapid change. Or was it perhaps that he'd visited the wrong villages in the developing world? Nothing in his experience of rural poverty had anything to gain from this display of rich world electronic playthings. But then he read the Greenstar brochure and knew that what he ought to feel was anger at so much misdirected goodwill and effort.

Greenstar, a United States non-governmental organization, plans to set up “self-contained solar-powered communities around the world. Each centre has Internet connections, health facilities, including telemedicine, a classroom complete with distance learning equipment, and a business centre, through which we will operate commerce in native natural products, focused on ‘digital culture’ such as music and art that can be duplicated and transported easily. Solar arrays power the unit, preserve medicines and purify water. E-commerce is the revenue stream that pays for the facilities and brings wealth to the community" [italics added]. Are they seriously proposing that development should ride on the back of the fickle, easily-saturated and failure-prone e-commerce markets of the rich world?

Fortunately, a few voices of broad experience and wisdom were able to restore your Observer’s normal equanimity. Amongst all the loud and persistent energy-centred hype a few people painted on a wider canvas.

Robert Thompson, the World Bank’s Director of Rural Development, noted that the escape from rural poverty is at least twin-tracked – increasing farm productivity and incomes while helping farmers take up off-farm income activities. The priorities are education, health, and then infrastructure to link communities into the national economy, of which one component is reliable power.

Arun Sanghvi, head of the World Bank’s African rural and renewable energy initiative, placed modern energy services in their true position – important but not decisive.

Rural poverty reduction, he said, must be based mainly on non-farm income generation via small and medium enterprises engaged in, for example, crop processing and packaging for urban markets. Modern energy is needed for this as well as for the more familiar lighting and television consumer end-uses. No society has developed without electricity, he noted, but electrification is not development. And while technology matters for rural development, it is not sufficient.

But the wisest words, and the most resonant warning against the energy-centric approach so prevalent at Village Power 2000, came from the echo of a speaker at a rural energy and development meeting held three years earlier in the very same World Bank building.

After much talk from participants of the need for new and specialized financing schemes for PVs and other high-cost renewables, Jacob Yaron, a senior rural development expert at the World Bank, presented an authoritative review of rural financial markets. Subtly but firmly, Yaron questioned the waves of special pleading by rural energy devotees for favourable financial markets and privileged access to credit.

The provision of affordable financial services for rural populations, he said, has been a prime component of development strategy for many decades, as a major tool for accelerating growth and reducing poverty.

Recently, the core approach of providing concessional loans to farmers has been replaced by much wider financing for broader rural activities to reduce transaction costs, integrate rural with general financial markets, and mobilize voluntary savings as the main capital resource for the rural population.

It seemed a very long way from that magisterial appeal for the maintenance of a broad approach to the raucous energy-centric technician’s market place of Village Power 2000. But then, as they say, all is change but nothing really changes.

Further information
Gerald Leach, 3 Tanza Road, London NW3 2UA, UK. Fax: +44-20-74316147. Email:

On the Web
On the Web: Alternative energy lists relevant links.

This commentary was first published in Renewable Energy for Development, the newsletter of the Energy Programme at the Stockholm Environment Institute. A copy of the newsletter (Vol.14, No.1, March 2001) can be obtained by writing to Solveig Nilsson, Stockholm Environment Institute, Box 2142, SE-103 14 Stockholm, Sweden. The newsletter is available free of charge and can also be found on the SEI website at