Richenda van Leeuwen

The end of the myth that solar energy is too expensive for the poor


For many years, the prevailing myth in the energy sector was that there were no cost effective ways to extend energy infrastructure to very poor communities, and that renewable energy solutions were too expensive for the poor. Many organizations have proved and continue to show that energy services – when combined with the right types of investment capital, applicable technology, strong management teams, and tailored consumer financing – can indeed provide electricity and the economic and social benefits that this brings in terms of lights for children and adult education, better health outcomes through electrification of medical clinics, increased agricultural production, and market development.

It is estimated by the World Bank’s Lighting Africa Program that annual global expenditures for kerosene-based lighting amounts to $37 billion. The people depending on these rudimentary forms of lighting are often already paying the most as a proportion of their household income for inadequate, dangerous, and unhealthy energy sources that kill many women and children prematurely. To those who object to a market-based orientation in the delivery of energy services, it is clear that a market already exists. Further, solutions are available to help provide improved energy services to even the poorest households, both affordably and sustainably, when structured to align with family cash flows and when supported by policies at both national and local levels.

Practitioners recognize the need to build sustainable supply chains and to put the customer at the center. Thus, the focus should not be solely on the installation of the solution set, but ensuring that the parts and maintenance required over the full life of the system are available in the local setting. This entails an emphasis on quality – of components, of products, of installation, of user education, and of support following the installation. It also requires listening to customers and designing and delivering the solutions they desire, keeping in mind that the majority of these customers are women. And at the broader level, it means developing and implementing policies that are well tailored to support economic development in poor communities.

Richenda Van Leeuwen, Energy Access Practitioner Network Coordinator and Executive Director, Energy and Climate, Energy Access Initiative, United Nations Foundation

Source: Energy Access Practitioner Network. Towards Achieving Universal Energy Access by 2030. United Nations Foundation, June 2012.
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