Like her mother before her, and her grandmother before that, Channama wakes up every morning before dawn in a remote village. Unlike her forebears, however, her day begins as she flicks on the LED lights in her bedroom and cooks the family’s morning meal on an improved cook stove.
If you were to step outside with her, you would notice that there are no power lines anywhere — not overhead or below the ground. She doesn’t live in the shadow of giant coal plants that belch out toxic pollution while exporting electricity to wealthier urban areas and industrial hubs. Instead, she gets her electricity from the solar panels on her roof, and she pays for that power by making monthly trips to a local bank and depositing a part of her daily wages. This power is delivered by social entrepreneurs who are creating jobs in local communities by leveraging innovative business models to deliver tailored solutions for the unique needs of the poor.
This is not a wildly idealistic vision of a utopian future. All these innovations exist today and are being implemented across the developing world. Combined, they represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leapfrog the rural poor into a 21st century that is free from the outdated notion that environmental protection and economic development do not go hand in hand, or that power from massive coal plants will somehow trickle down to the poor.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proclaimed 2012 the Year of Universal Energy Access. His campaign presents the world with a clear choice: we can double down on costly and ineffective grid extensions that have failed the rural poor for decades, or we can build a future worth living by realising that the best way to bring electricity to the billion or so who lack it is to provide decentralised clean energy.
Decades of experience have shown that if we want the poor to benefit from electricity, they can’t wait for the grid or rely on fossil fuels. Instead, they are best served by (and can best afford) the most sophisticated lighting — off-grid combinations of solar panels, power electronics and LED lights. More importantly, solar energy is a proven solution that has been, time and again, tailored to the local needs and conditions of the world’s poorest areas.
The historic barriers to getting decentralised clean power to scale in rural and urban poor communities are rapidly being dismantled by progress in technology, finance, and business models. Getting a billion people local solar power they can afford will free the world from the grid — and dirty energy. If one-fifth of the world is on decentralised clean energy, it’s going to expand decentralised systems — not coal or nuclear. Their neighbours include the one-third of humanity with ‘spasmodic’ electricity — wires that in rural areas work only at night and in urban areas go down in the afternoon. If we add those 2 billion to the 1 billion who are not on the grid, virtually half of humanity could be turning to clean and renewable power as the cheapest, most reliable and most available form of energy.
Carl Pope is former executive director and chairman of the US environment organisation, the Sierra Club. He is a member of the US-India Track II Climate Dialogue. Harish Hande is co-founder of Selco, a Bangalore-based social enterprise that promotes sustainable technologies in rural India.
The views expressed by the authors are personal