Two billion people — a round statistic for a sharply divisive global problem. With several hundred million families worldwide still relying on crude energy sources like kerosene to light homes and dry-cell batteries — at 500 times the price of grid electricity — to power radios, the “energy divide” casts shadows over much of the globe.RE Insider — July 12, 2004 — Conscious of the possibilities embedded in this problem, growing groups of talented people from government, non-profit and private sectors are working to bring energy to the world’s rural poor living beyond the electrical grid. Many of those groups were represented at the Renewables 2004 conference in Bonn, Germany, last month. Photovoltaics (PV) represent one of the most promising technologies for providing electrical services for households, micro-enterprises, schools, and other applications in remote areas. Even small amounts of PV electricity can light children’s schoolwork, pump potable water, power cellular phones and refrigerate food and vaccines. The over US$200M in grants allocated to PV projects from 1991 to 2000 by the Global Environmental Facility through U.N. and World Bank-managed projects are a clear vote for PV as a serious energy option. In the early 1980’s, when rural PV systems typically originated from development projects with little attention to sustainability, colleagues and I decided to engage market forces to introduce PV technology to rural Dominicans (see sidebar below). While many of the systems donated by aid agencies now lie in disrepair — casualties of a lack of technical support — our approach caught on and spread.
From a Panel to a Passion|
My own experience with PV for rural electrification began in 1983, when I purchased a 35-watt PV module for US$315 from ARCO Solar (now part of Shell Solar) to determine its suitability for use in rural areas of the Dominican Republic. With electrical components locally available in that country, I created a simple PV system, which I sold (on a payment plan) and installed in a rural house in early 1984. This first installation helped me understand basic customer needs, system performance and the economics of PV in rural markets so that I could plan if and how to proceed with the PV opportunity. After evaluating the results and discovering other interested families, I believed perhaps a local PV supply enterprise could sell and install PV systems. It became clear that some people could actually afford small systems on a cash basis, while others would need some type of payment plan. With local Dominicans I established an early model PV supply business, later replicated by others. Beginning in 1985 I also assisted the establishment of several micro-credit mechanisms to finance PV system purchases. Upon my return from the 1992 Earth Summit, we found that our efforts had led to the electrification of about 2000 households by small enterprises around the Dominican Republic, an important early start in what is now a blossoming industry.