Off-grid solar LED technology: the secret to snuffing out light poverty by 2030

 

Bill Bien
Head of Strategy and Marketing at Philips Lighting


For most of us, light is a given. We flick a switch and normal life goes on, regardless of the time of day or night. On the rare occasions we experience a power cut, the novelty of using flash lights and candles soon wears off – and within hours people are in uproar. Now imagine your frustration if life were like that every single day. That is the reality for 1.1 billion people – more than one in seven around the world – who are trapped in light poverty, with no access to electric light.

But for those afflicted, this inequality is more than simply an irritating inconvenience. Without electric light, people are forced to resort to candles, kerosene lamps and fires to counter darkness. These primitive light sources claim the lives of 1.5 million people every year through fires and respiratory illnesses. That’s the equivalent of two-thirds of the population of Dubai being wiped out annually. Light poverty also strangles human and economic development as businesses and essential services are forced to close, children are unable to study, and communal life grinds to a standstill at sunset.

 

It’s no coincidence that light poverty is most prevalent in many of the most underdeveloped parts of the world. The harsh economic situations and geographical landscapes in many of these countries have proved an unforgiving barrier to establishing power grids to provide their citizens with a reliable supply of electricity. However, while the cures for so many of the world’s most devastating problems remain undiscovered, the antidote to light poverty is staring us in the face. Through off-grid solar LED technology, the power of the sun can take millions of people out of the darkness at a fraction of the cost of grid solutions, or, indeed, the primitive light sources that off-grid communities currently use.

 

A single solar-powered LED lantern costs $10 – 20 to buy and can light a room without any carbon emissions, noxious fumes or energy bills. By contrast, a polluting and potentially lethal kerosene lamp costs around $50 per year on average to run. Meanwhile, estimates suggest it would cost around $4,000 per household to alleviate light poverty through grid infrastructure.

 

Solar LED solutions are equally effective to light outdoor spaces too. Philips has developed Community Light Centers that combine energy-efficient LED light fixtures with solar panels to light public places such as markets and sports grounds, without the need for costly infrastructure. These centers are relatively inexpensive, easy to install and maintain, and far more reliable than electric grids, which can suffer from outages in remote areas. Philips will have installed more than 100 of them in rural Africa by the end of this year.

 

These and other projects are having an impact. The latest research by the World Bank suggests that the number of people without access to electric power fell from 1.2 billion to 1.1 billion between 2010 and 2012.

 

But we must accelerate the rate of progress – and that requires the commitment and collaboration of governments, NGOs, aid organizations and businesses. The Global Off-Grid Lighting Association is proving how this approach can make an impact where it is most needed.

 

Inadequate and outdated regulations and subsidy schemes stifle the adoption of off-grid solutions in many parts of Africa. The introduction of VAT and tariff exemptions, together with minimum quality standards can create an environment conducive to helping cheaper off-grid technologies to thrive.

 

Such measures, according to research by UNEP , have helped millions of low-income households off the grid to gain access to clean and sustainable lighting. In Ethiopia, for example, collaboration between the World Bank, the Government of Ethiopia and Lighting Africa established a US$20 million financing facility for off-grid solutions. Within 18 months, the scheme enabled more than 300,000 quality-verified solar lighting products to be imported, providing one million Ethiopians with access to electric light.

 

Light poverty should not be viewed as an issue to be solved through philanthropy. The economic argument for affected countries is also compelling. Unshackling millions of citizens from this impoverishment would have a profound effect on their economies through education and business growth, resulting in a huge boost to world GDP. Let’s not forget that those of us in developed countries are still reaping the benefits of the socio-economic revolution that was sparked when our ancestors made the same switch to electric light.

 

It is our hope that by recognizing both the scale of this injustice and the tremendous opportunity in alleviating it, alliances will be inspired that can make a real difference and meet our goal of ending light poverty by 2030. Together, businesses, governments and other groups can form a potent force and snuff out light poverty forever.

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