MIDLOTHIAN, Va. — Solar energy is becoming a new part in the fight to end global poverty. Access to light, and the consequent elimination of kerosene-powered lamps, results in savings of around $100 a year for families. This allows children more time to work and study, thus giving them a chance to rise out of poverty.
Solar energy is becoming a way to give power to the 1.3 billion people in the world who have no reliable access to electricity without spending billions to build transmission lines.
However, a new Sierra Club report states that international organizations like the World Bank are not investing enough money in the right places to allow for universal electrification and thus denying the potential of solar energy.
“The poorest people in the world pay 40 times more for the same energy services but get poor lighting and poor health outcomes,” said Justin Guay, the associate director of Sierra Club’s International Climate Program and coauthor of the report. “Instead of building centralized power plants, we need a different approach to solve this problem.”
Guay added that the World Bank and other international leaders should start funding projects that ‘provide solar energy’ like those offered by d.light, a company that develops and distributes products that range from lanterns to home solar system in off-grid communities around the world.
The report notes that the World Bank rarely invests in small energy projects, despite the goal of universal electrification by 2030; nor does it measure access to energy correctly.
“Rather than measuring services provided and new access to energy for poor populations, they look at the supply of energy created and kilometers of energy transmission lines built,” said Guay. “Just because you build a coal plant doesn’t mean that access lines are extended to poor people and that they can service their needs and repair the grid lines—or that communities can afford the power.”
According to Christopher Neal, a spokesperson for the World Bank, the bank is supporting hydro-power, natural gas and renewable power sources that expand access to electricity.
However, in recent months, investors have put $45 million into off-grid solar start-ups, including $7 million for Tanzania-based Off.Grid:Electric and $11 million for San Francisco’s d.light.
“The largest barrier to universal electrification is financial access,” said Guay. “Most of the private finance has been in equity, which gives stakes in private companies and helps to build these companies. What the space needs now is cheap capital from public institutions that enables them to scale their operations.”
The report from Sierra Club estimates that $500 million in public financing would provide a $12 billion off-grid solar market by 2030, helping end global poverty.
There has been some progress. The World Bank Group’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) has offered $5.2 billion in guarantees to lower investor risks for non-commercial projects in Kenya, Nicaragua, China and Rwanda. The U.S. Agency for International Development granted 11 entrepreneurs up to $1.5 million each last year to develop clean tech solutions in agriculture for the developing world. Many of the solutions involved off-grid solar technology.
“Just providing a few hours of solar lighting alone improves the human condition,” said Guay.
– Monica Newell