Director talks importance of mini solar
The popularity of small-scale solar-powered technology is spreading in countries with limited access to standard electric grids.
Arne Jacobson, director of the Schatz Energy Research Center, discussed how he worked on a wide range of off-grid solar initiatives in developing countries at Rutgers Energy Institute yesterday and how they can replace other harmful fuel sources.
Jacobson said about 1.4 billion people lack access to grid electricity around the globe, which includes most of Africa and Asia. Many cannot afford to make significant energy investments.
In rural Kenya, the widespread population distribution and expensive installation slowed down the grid development process.
Political factors influence this process as well, he said. If a region’s government official is politically out of favor for grid development, it is less likely to receive electricity.
Even regions in connected to grids may only have access to a few hours of energy a week because Kenya lacks resources for power.
“Kenya’s government is the driving force, but they’re depending almost entirely on international funding,” he said.
People traditionally substitute kerosene lamps for electricity, he said. While Americans pay attention to gas prices, Kenyans pay attention to fluctuations in the kerosene market.
Together, the kerosene and other fuel-based lighting industries produce more than $20 billion per year across existing market channels, Jacobson said.
People in rural areas tend to buy kerosene in small quantities to fuel about four hours of lighting per day for two days, Jacobson said. Purchasing small amounts of fuel at a time costs people 45 percent more than it would for bulk quantities.
Off-grid Kenyan households near the median income level spend about $40-50 dollars per year on kerosene — exhausting a significant percentage of their income, he said.
Kerosene is also a dangerous substance, able to cause fires and other accidents.
But LED lights fueled by smaller-scale solar power are a cost effective alterative for kerosene because sunlight provides a constant, free source of energy.
Decreases in prices and advances in LED technology made small-scale solar powered technology more readily available, he said.
“Things are available now that weren’t effective three or four years ago,” he said.
From the public health, environmental and economic perspective, this energy source provides enormous benefits, but the power source is no substitute for grid energy, Jacobson said
A variety of problems prevent the technology from spreading, Jacobson said.
“The level of frustration just with figuring out what to buy is extremely high,” he said.
Since this technology is new, this technology is more expensive to install and people with low incomes cannot afford it. Targeted government subsidies and other policy tools could fix this problem, he said.
Jacobson said he works with Lighting Africa, an initiative launched in 2009 to create a quality-assurance framework so that banks can comfortably provide financing for suppliers and citizens who want to buy the technology.
Banks hesitate to lend money to technology companies that have not had their products quality assured, but the solar LED market does not have a quality standard yet, he said.
Jacobson’s presentation was part of the REI’s seminar series on energy policy, said Bob Kopp, associate director of the institute.
Kopp said the presentation is the second of four REI energy policy seminars occurring during the spring semester. The Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers Energy Institute, Initiative on Climate and Society and The Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs cosponsored the event.
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