Is the sun our solution to global accessible energy?  

Writer: Charles Sin 
Editor: Ebani Dhawan 
Artist: Lucie Gourmet


The Problem  

As of 2019, around 940 million people (13% of the world’s population) still did not have access to electricity. A lack of electricity in rural areas can have detrimental effects on children’s education and healthcare. Mothers in Zambia give birth by candlelight and many children spend their time collecting firewood for cooking rather than studying in school. Providing stable access to electricity can transform communities and save lives, as reliable energy is key to helping children stay in school and allowing healthcare professionals to carry out their tasks. Solar power relies on little to produce electricity and may be the solution to bringing widespread accessible electricity to developing nations.   

The Solution and Strategy  

Following the footsteps of rapper Akon’s venture ‘Akon Lighting Africa’, an initiative that has brought solar power to over 80 million people in Africa, I believe that solar panels have the ability to bring electricity to residents of developing countries and plug the electricity gap. Research from the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimates that of the few countries that represent 90% of the global unelectrified population, about 150 million households could potentially benefit from solar power home systems. However, while this ‘solar power’ solution sounds fantastic on paper, it must be implemented in a way that makes it accessible to those who really need it the most. Below are a few strategic criteria for the effective execution of the solar power solution:    

1. Affordability. Costs of solar power can manifest in two forms: costs of purchasing and costs of energy storage. When Charles Fritts developed the first solar panel in 1884, one of the key factors that held back the commercial expansion of his invention was its high cost of manufacturing and installation. Fast forward 136 years, cost still remains a problem. To purchase a solar panel, one must buy the panels, the inverter, the wiring, and pay the maintenance costs. For charity organisations and households in rural areas of developing countries, these costs are simply too much to bear. Furthermore, solar energy has to be stored in huge batteries which can be very expensive for rural households as well. Subsidising or micro-financing families to install solar panels or offering monthly payment subscription models might be viable solutions.  

2. Overcoming the dependence on weather. Solar power is heavily dependent on the weather. Since man has no control over the elements this may be one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome. One potential solution may be to combine solar power with another energy resource available in the region, such as hydro or geothermal power, to share the responsibility of providing energy.  

3. Accessibility. Solar power must be accessible to residents of rural communities in developing countries. For this to happen, infrastructure support must be installed. Examples of such support may be facilitating off-grid logistics for solar energy, implementing policies on nationwide energy grid expansions and subsidising imported solar power technologies. 

In addition to the three key criteria above, further factors are required for our solar power strategy to succeed. The first is government recognition. The first step for any change in society is for its governing body to recognise it as a feasible alternative to the status quo. Secondly, the governing authority must then promote public awareness of the solar power alternatives available to those in rural areas. Educational campaigns to the public may be a viable solution for promoting consumer awareness of solar alternatives. Increase in consumer awareness and understanding of the value-addition that it brings to communities would boost the demand for solar energy. As demand for solar power increases over time, the governing authority should then provide a support system for domestic producers of solar technology. Through subsidies to local firms and the construction of physical logistics channels, the costs of supplying solar panels and related hardware can be made cheaper than foreign imports in the long run, in turn translating into lower prices for the locals.  

Case Study  

Endowed with an immense solar power potential, India has adopted solar power as a major power player in its efforts to push for renewable energy across the country. By establishing the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI), not only has India become the world’s fastest pioneers of solar energy, it has also become the 5th largest installer of solar panels in the world. The government has held numerous public awareness campaigns to educate the public on the benefits of solar power, provided 30% subsidies on rooftop solar panels, and provided tax incentives to locals who switch to solar alternatives. Furthermore, India has capped the cost of solar power for 25 years, providing stability in prices that have become eminently competitive against fossil fuel costs.   

India has campaigned to increase consumer awareness, provided subsidies and support systems to further facilitate the expansion of solar power in the country. It will be interesting to see the development of solar power in rural areas of India in the near future.   

Final Thoughts

A large portion of the world still does not have access to electricity and are in desperate need of a solution. Solar power relies on a readily available and inexhaustible resource, and may just be the key to solving the global energy problem. Further to the solution and strategy outlined above, it may also be a viable idea to allow excess energy generated by solar panels to be sold by households to others who need the extra electricity. People living in different microclimates in rural areas might experience different weathers and thus produce differing amounts of energy. Being able to resell this excess energy back into the grid system may then be a way for rural families in developing countries to earn a supplementary income to support themselves or further pay for their solar panels.    

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