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Could Rooftop Solar Help Tackle World Poverty?
FEBRUARY 05, 2021 | BELLA ZANIN
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably recently charged your laptop, phone or tablet from a mains electricity supply. You may have the lights switched on to avoid straining your eyes. Perhaps you just boiled the kettle to make yourself a cuppa. These are all things that we, in the Global North, do on a regular basis without really thinking about it. But what about the households with no access to power? Could rooftop solar be their solution?
The Need for Power
The last decade has seen a dramatic rise in the use of commercial scale solar farms and rooftop solar panels (also called ‘distributed solar’). In fact, a recent report by the UN Environment Programme revealed that solar energy has added more capacity worldwide than any other form of power over the past ten years.
In places like the UK, Europe and America, solar technology is a vital tool in making the existing energy system cleaner. In low-income countries, the story is a little different. An estimated 800 million people, or around 10% of the world’s population, don’t have access to electricity. A large proportion live in Sub-Saharan Africa. This may be because they cannot afford the electricity rates or because there is no national power network where they live, as is often the case in rural areas.
Many low-income nations are also ‘fragile’, as they suffer problems like war, social division and ineffective Government. These conditions make a central, national power system even more difficult to achieve. In such parts of the world, rooftop solar can be the difference between having and not having electricity.
Solar panels can provide low-income households with a clean, affordable source of electricity. This can help lift them out of poverty in several ways. Let’s take a closer look…
Increased Standards of Living
The most obvious benefit of rooftop solar in the Global South is the provision of services powered by electricity. For example, solar power enables households to have light when it gets dark, keep food cool in a fridge and charge mobile phones so they can communicate with friends or family far away.
Solar power also means households no longer have to use primitive fuels such as kerosene lamps, diesel generators and open fires. These produce toxic chemicals and can require a lot of time and effort to prepare and maintain.
In most African countries, wood is still the most widely used domestic fuel. The World Health Organisation states that the harm caused by cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner over a wood fire is equivalent to smoking 3-20 packets of cigarettes a day! Solar energy can therefore help improve the health of people living in energy poverty, as well as freeing up time (for example, the hours previously spent collecting firewood).
It’s not just houses though. Solar panels can provide electricity to hospitals, schools, farms, irrigation systems and businesses as well, helping to improve access to education, healthcare, food and clean water.
A Source of Income
Having access to power can boost people’s livelihoods. In the short-term, adults can work longer hours or run their own businesses out of their homes. Some families have even made an income by offering phone-charging services to local villagers. From a long-term perspective, lighting enables children to study after school, improving their education and job prospects, and helping to break the cycle of poverty.
For houses where it’s possible to connect to a power grid, solar installations can also offer homeowners the chance to sell surplus electricity back to the local or national network, providing an additional source of income.
On top of that, a growing solar industry creates jobs. To put more solar panels on more roofs, nations will need to employ more people in manufacturing, installation, sales and various other sectors. In Bangladesh, more than 3.6 million home solar systems had been installed by 2017, creating 115,000 direct jobs and 50,000 more downstream.
In areas suffering war and political instability, distributed rooftop solar is a safer and more resilient power option than solar farms (or fossil fuel power plants). Such large-scale generation facilities are vulnerable to destruction by armed groups and can exacerbate conflict. The same applies to areas at risk of natural disasters – distributed solar power means a disruption in one area is less likely to cut off power to an entire region.
But Isn't Solar Expensive?
In the Global South, rooftop solar is actually one of the most cost-effective ways of providing people with power. This is because the other options – whether that be grid electricity or alternative fuels – are often comparatively more expensive. This cost advantage is only going to increase. Solar energy has enjoyed rapidly falling costs over the past ten years and will continue to do so thanks to economies of scale and increasingly efficient manufacturing methods.
Additionally, homes in low-income countries tend not to be filled with multiple energy-hungry devices. Energy consumption in African households is typically lower than in European or American households. The aim of rooftop solar in low-income areas is to provide enough power for basic services such as lighting and mobile phone charging. This requires far fewer solar panels than typical domestic solar installations in the Global North.
Deploying rooftop solar power in low-income nations makes sense. It is a clean, cost-effective way of providing reliable electricity that can help improve the lives of millions of people currently living in energy poverty.