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Solar power: cheap electricity for world’s poor

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Amit Dave/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A woman sews clothes on a sewing machine driven by solar energy in Ahmedabad in western India. When night falls in remote parts of Africa and the Indian subcontinent, hundreds of millions of people without access to electricity turn to candles or flammable and polluting kerosene lamps for illumination. Solar power is becoming an economical way to bring light to these rural regions where a lack of electricity has stymied economic development, literacy rates, and health.

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After the Durban talks last month, climate realists must face the reality that “shared sacrifice,” however necessary eventually, has proven a catastrophically bad starting point for global collaboration. Nations have already spent decades debating who was going to give up how much first in exchange for what. So we need to seek opportunities – arenas where there are advantages, not penalties, for those who first take action – both to achieve first-round emission reductions and to build trust and cooperation.

 One of the major opportunities lies in providing energy access for the more than 1.2 billion people who don’t have electricity, most of whom, in business-as-usual scenarios, still won’t have it in 2030. These are the poorest people on the planet. Ironically, the world’s poorest can best afford the most sophisticated lighting – off-grid combinations of solar panels, power electronics, and LED lights. And this creates an opportunity for which the economics are compelling, the moral urgency profound, the development benefits enormous, and the potential leverage game changing.

As the accompanying graphs show, the cost of coal and copper – the ingredients of conventional grid power – are soaring. Meanwhile, the cost of solar panels and LEDs, the ingredients of distributed renewable power, are racing down even faster.

IN PICTURES: Solar power: Harnessing the sun's energy

If we want the poor to benefit from electricity we cannot wait for the grid, and we cannot rely on fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency, historically a grid-centric, establishment voice, admits that half of those without electricity today will never be wired. The government of India estimates that two-thirds of its non-electrified households need distributed power.

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