Solar Lamps Are No Substitute for Access to Modern Energy

Energy Poor Need Cheap, Reliable Electricity

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Solar lamps are a useful innovation to immediately help the energy poor, but they are no replacement for real access to modern energy. It’s great to be able to turn on a light or charge your mobile phone, but people also want to have a refrigerator, a stove, maybe even one day an air conditioner. In effect, modern economies need high volumes of reliable affordable energy.

January 8, 2014 | Todd Moss,

I’m a pretty big fan of cash transfers. I’ve become convinced that cash is an efficient immediate way to help the poor and very often a better alternative than other standard development interventions like training or building schools. Cash transfers may even be catalytic, giving poor people a floor to invest in business, their children’s health and education, and some breathing space to pursue higher value activities. 

Yet I would never argue that cash transfers are a replacement for economic growth or industrialization or a steady income. Countries want to transform their economies and people will always aspire to be wealthier than what cash transfers can ever reasonably provide. It’s great that cash may enable poor people to eat more protein or afford a better roof, but ultimately their ambitions are surely higher than to rise just above the bare minimum. More importantly, while a bit of regular cash may be helpful in giving people a leg up to escape poverty, it can never replace the dignity or value of a job. Simply put, cash transfers are a useful innovation, but they aren’t a modern economy that can on their own fulfill the aspirations of the world’s poor.

That’s how I think of solar lamps too. Solar lamps are probably an efficient immediate way to help the energy poor and very often a better alternative than other standard interventions like fuel subsidies or waiting for a power plant to be built. Solar lamps may even be catalytic, allowing energy poor students to study at night and helping entrepreneurs figure out new business models to deliver greater energy services.

Yet I would never argue that solar lamps are a replacement for real access to modern energy. Countries that want to transform their economies and people will always aspire to use more energy than what a solar lamp can currently reasonably provide. It’s great to be able to turn on a light or charge your mobile phone, but people also want to have a refrigerator, a stove, maybe even one day an air conditioner. And modern economies need high volumes of reliable affordable energy. More importantly, while a bit of low cost light may be helpful in giving people a leg up to escape energy poverty, it can never replace the utility or value of a modern energy system. Simply put, solar lamps are a useful innovation, but they aren’t a modern energy system that can on their own fulfill the aspirations of the world’s energy poor. 

 

Todd Moss is vice president for programs and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. In addition to his institutional responsibilities, he directs The Emerging Africa Project and his work focuses on U.S.-Africa relations and financial issues facing sub-Saharan Africa, including policies that affect private investment, debt, and aid. This is a joint post with Madeleine Gleave. This post was originally published on the Center for Global Development blog.


Comments

  • Hi Todd,

    I have a different take on the solar lamp. Yes, it is primitive and kind of a joke by our standards. Watch as developing countries increasingly by-pass our centralized grid concept, and derive a lot of benefit from modest amounts of renewable energy and microgrids.

    Fact is, we are currently using less - not more - electricity and fossil fuels in this country. The growth is in other parts of the world. China is an interesting blend of new and old energy forms. Less industrialized areas will carve out viable new directions and develop workable technologies. These developments may not be exactly what we have done or want to do.


    I believe one of the worse mistakes the developed world makes is that every other country will develop just like we have.

    By Lee James on 2014 01 13

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    • Lee James makes a good point. It’s probably more appropriate to compare non-grid locally generated electricity to grid-based electricity rather than solar lamps to grid-based electricity. A breakthrough in energy storage capacity for rooftop or village solar would enable scattered populations of villages to enjoy reliable electricity before a national grid could be constructed. A recent example of a possible technology is here
      http://news.sciencemag.org/chemistry/2014/01/rhubarb-battery-could-store-
      energy-future

      Of course, no one can say that any given technology would be the right one for countries pursuing this route. It is also true that while rooftop solar would be enough for home use, it is questionable whether it would be enough for industrial purposes. Still, both grid and non-grid systems may be in the future.
      Bear in mind the enormous impact of cellular phone technology in the developing world and how it has leapfrogged land lines.

      By Robert Marshall Kelley on 2014 01 13

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      • Hi Robert, You mused about how far we can go with a central grid while relying on renewable power sources. The grid could be important for large loads, like industrial.

        I am encouraged by a bit of news I saw this morning on 2013 renewable performance in Spain and Portugal. Spain generated 21% of grid electricity from wind—the most from any power source, including nuclear. Portugal was over 70% when calling hydro “renewable.”

        http://www.climatecentral.org/news/wind-power-tops-spains-electricity-source-in-2013-16940

        It’s beginning to look like we can think “renewables and grid” all in the same sentence. smile

        By Lee James on 2014 01 13

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