Andreas Späth

Solar power isn't just for the rich anymore

2013-05-06 13:21

Andreas Späth

Prices for photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are falling globally and soon generating your own electricity by putting a few panels on the roof of your house may become a reality even in South Africa, where small scale solar power has been prohibitively expensive for most until now. What's more, cheap, clean solar energy may provide real solutions for the poorest South Africans who have yet to benefit from access to affordable electricity at all.

There are several reasons why the cost of solar panels is dropping:

- demand is growing worldwide, as is production capacity;

- the efficiency of solar cells is improving constantly through the use of novel technologies, like improved ways of concentrating solar radiation onto panels and mimicking natural processes such as photosynthesis in leafs and the reflective properties of butterfly wings;

- improved manufacturing processes; and

- the use of cheap and abundant new materials and ingredients.

The not too distant future promises major breakthroughs in solar technology, involving 3D printing, fancy substances like graphene and nanotechnology. We may see entire buildings clad in see-trough solar panels and floating solar arrays to rival offshore wind farms.

With a government that insists on pursuing its toxic relationship with coal, nuclear power and (soon) shale gas, sunny South Africa is, of course, unlikely to become a world (or even continental) solar energy leader anytime soon. That's not to say that the technology isn't already having a massively beneficial impact on poor communities elsewhere.

After being heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the "somewhat rundown low-income" St Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans, has been rebuilt as a solar neighbourhood. All buildings in the eight block area now have solar panels on their roofs, providing the capacity to generate 420 kilowatts of electricity.

In India simple solar micro grids offer low-cost, life-improving electricity in some of the country's poorest rural areas. Mera Gao Power, for instance, installs systems consisting of just four solar panels and four batteries to supply LED lighting and mobile phone charging points for villages of 100 households in rural parts of the province of Uttar Pradesh. By 2016, the company aims to service 100 000 households in this way.

In Kenya, an outfit called M-KOPA Solar sells tiny solar power systems that are big enough to provide lights and mobile phone charging for individual rural households on an affordable pay-as-you-go basis.

While solar-powered lights and phone chargers may be little more than novelty gadgets to those of us used to a steady supply of electricity out of wall sockets, they are proving hugely beneficial to many people. A UK-based charity called Solar Aid has become the biggest seller of solar lights in Africa, having distributed over 400 000 to date.

It may not be immediately obvious to the rest of us, but for people who otherwise depend on candles or kerosene lamps for light at night, the benefits are substantial, reducing fire risks, carbon emissions, indoor air pollution and respiratory diseases, while stimulating microenterprises and improving school results.

Clearly the future of solar energy is bright on scales ranging from industrial-strength power plants and neighbourhood micro grids to individual household systems and hand-held devices. Let's hope someone in the SA government wakes up to that fact soon.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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