How is SELF helping to power small villages all over the developing world?
We use photovoltaics as the primary technology - solar cells that convert sunlight directly into electricity without burning any fossil fuels. This technology has been around since the 1950s, when NASA developed it to power satellites in space. Over the last few decades, there has been a steady advance in the efficiency with which these cells convert sunlight to electricity and in improved manufacturing processes, which help to lower their production costs. It has reached a point now where we can visit rural villages all over the world, places that have little hope of ever being connected to a conventional electric grid any time soon, and install panels directly on the homes, schools and clinics and generate clean solar electricity.
Two billion people still live in the dark. How can solar energy help to bring electricity to the entire world population?
Photovoltaics offer many benefits to the developing world. Because the panels can be quickly installed in very remote areas, you have an opportunity to bring immediate relief at the household level. This is what we did as a primary mission during our first decade; we focused on household lights using typically 50 watt systems, which generate enough power to run three or four lights, a radio and a couple of appliances in the home. As a result, we noticed a rapid increase in the quality of life. No longer were these people breathing in toxic kerosene fumes, children were studying and reading at night, and entire families were engaged in productive activities during the evening hours.
How does SELF financially assist the families acquire these solar home systems?
Even though we’re a non-profit organization, we did not believe that giving the systems away outright was a smart thing to do. On the other hand, asking families to pay $400 or more in cash for a solar home system is just prohibitively expensive. So we used micro-credit and other innovative forms of financing that would allow these families in developing countries to pay for and take ownership of these solar electric systems over a period of time. We proved through a series of pilot projects in about eleven countries that if you can provide the access to credit, rural credit, many of these families who are already spending five dollars or in some cases ten dollars a month on candles, kerosene, and small dry cell batteries to power radios, that they were able and willing to pay for solar electricity.
Why combine solar power with wireless communication technology?
Together, they allow us to bring not just light and power to remote communities around the world but also access to voice and data connectivity. We’ve done this in South Africa and, more recently, in a remote part of the rainforest in the Amazon. In collaboration with a conservation group called the Amazon Association, we installed solar power systems to run lights, water pumping systems, refrigerators, computers, and a satellite dish to deliver high-speed broadband Internet access to a group of Caboclo Indians. It has really made a difference in their lives.
Explain the idea of “the centre is everywhere”.
Good concept. In today’s world, our consciousness is dominated by this notion of centre-periphery. If you live in New York you have access to information, entertainment, people, restaurants, and more. If you’re out in the middle of the Gobi Desert, you’re often at a severe disadvantage in terms of your access to information and entertainment. The world that I envision, which is being made more and more possible through distributed power and wireless communications technology, is a world where no matter how isolated you are, you have the same opportunities and access to information as the people in New York do. It’s inexcusable to me that two billion people, a third of humanity, are living without light. We have to find a way of more equitably distributing information, and using science and technology to promote social justice.
How does it make you feel to bring light to villages around the world?
It’s exciting to travel to these remote villages and spend time in them and witness first hand the transformation that can occur with just a little bit of help from SELF. The local communities drive our projects. These people embrace what we do and are well organized and looking to take greater control over their own lives. Being able to generate power for themselves is a wonderful first step and often gives them increased hope and confidence in improving other aspects of their lives. Just seeing a light come on for the first time can be very powerful. I’ve seen it in village after village where people celebrate this event. And it goes beyond this - now we’re using the technology to pump purified water and store vaccines, which is still a problem in terms of bringing immunization programs to remote areas where there’s no electricity. Vaccines have to be stored between 0 and 8 degrees centigrade, and if the cold chain is broken the vaccines are lost. The World Health Organization and others have demonstrated that solar-powered vaccine refrigerators can be a very viable option for storing vaccines and medicines.
What happens on cloudy days?
The panels collect solar energy and convert it into electricity, which is then stored in batteries. On cloudy days or at night, you’re drawing from battery power. There are other applications, such as water pumping, where you don’t need batteries. In this case you can simply pump water to a tank and this tank becomes your storage medium. But with anything electronic - lights, computers, radios, electronic equipment, satellite dishes - batteries are used to store the power from the sun.
Are photovoltaics most cost-efficient off the grid?
For rural communities living off the grid, it is often the least expensive solution for providing electric power. In many cases it will cost over $20,000 a mile to extend the grid, which is why so many villages around the world are not connected; it just doesn’t make economic sense for the utility company to extend the grid to remote areas where the population density is low and the use of electric power is limited. It makes much more economic sense to go in and install these distributed stand-alone systems that can provide exactly as much power as you need. Another advantage of photovoltaics is their modular and scalable nature. You can start off with a small system and as the needs of a household or a community grow, you can add incrementally to generate more power.
SELF currently runs projects in China, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and the Solomon Islands. How far off are we from narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots?
It’s going to take a lot of effort to really bring power to two billion people, but I do think it’s an achievable goal within the next decade or so. There has to be political will by all the countries in the world to solve this problem. It’s not beyond our reach.
Robert Freling is the Executive Director of the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF). For more information, visit www.self.org.
Massive Change Radio was broadcast on the University of Toronto’s CIUT 89.5 FM from September 2003 to June 2004. Created and hosted by Jennifer Leonard, co-author with Bruce Mau of Massive Change (Phaidon Press, 2004) and former Institute without Boundaries team member, the entire season of multidisciplinary interviews is archived for download.