In the comments on Vinay's post about flashlights, WorldChanging ally George Mokray gave some details about a talk at MIT by Kate Steel about the challenges of integrating photovoltaics into African rural villages. I thought the comment was worth highlighting, so got his permission to repost it on the front page:
Kate Steel spoke about solar electricity in Africa at MIT this week. The notes from an earlier presentation on sustainable energy in developing countries, with a focus on south Africa is available online at web.mit.edu/10.391j/www/Kate_0506.pdf. (Ed: the other lecture notes for MIT's Spring 2004 Sustainable Energy class also look very interesting.)
As one example, she said more rural people in Kenya get electricity from PV than the grid but there's no coordination between the grid and the distribution of PV. She is endeavoring to do a systems analysis of the problem. Furthermore, there is no linkage between PV and existing rural businesses: grain milling, restaurants, brewery/bars, snack shops/kiosks, satellite TVs, and mobile phones. The only business that can conceivably be all or predominantly solar is the mobile phone business. There are no warranties or insurance in rural Africa so development experiments can't afford to fail. ITDG (Intermediate Technology Development Group) and Ignite Innovations are two groups that have developed solar PV lanterns for rural use but the price point is still too high, over $100 per.
Urbanization may diminish the need for rural electricity in the near future; in any case, the greater problem is the indoor pollution and biomass use from even the newer, more efficient stoves. Mali will exhaust all its biomass in 60 years at present rate. 70% of all the energy used in Africa is biomass. The crucial problem is less reading light and a radio/TV/computer than a safe, efficient, and non-polluting stove. If we can do that, some space heating (or a hearth) would be nice.
I asked about solar stoves but Ms Steel said that they weren't being adopted. It would take no other, ready alternative in order for them to be generally used. LPG is the next step up from wood, charcoal, and dried dung. Electric stoves is what the people want in part because that is what they perceive the developed countries as using.
Kate Steel emailed me the following comment:
One clarification from your post--mobile phones are not the only viable business from PV panels. Specifically, the business of renting a mobile phone to other villagers could use PV (currently uses car battery). Also, there are other businesses that could use PV but more of the point
was that it is up to locals to decide what businesses they want to develop, coming in with new business plans based on PV, developed outside the village, seem unlikely to work.