The Smart Techie was renamed Siliconindia India Edition starting Feb 2012 to continue the nearly two decade track record of excellence of our US edition.

Clean Energy at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Sam Goldman
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Sam Goldman
Every evening when the sun sets, over 1.6 billion people around the world, 350 million of whom are in India, are plunged into utter darkness. They light kerosene lanterns and candles in order to continue with their activities, but everything—studying, housework, work in the fields, even socializing—is challenging with a light source that is over 100 times dimmer than an incandescent bulb.

In addition to being ineffectual, fuel-based lighting sources such as kerosene can be surprisingly expensive. Households in Africa may pay up to 30 percent of their monthly income for kerosene oil. And kerosene is also dangerous: Indoor air pollution from burning kerosene and wood for cooking claims the lives of 1.5 million people annually and leads to severe respiratory infections. Fires caused by open flames also lead to hundreds of thousands of burns and fatalities. In addition, every kerosene lantern emits at least 1 ton of CO2 over five years.

Lighting is only one of the many challenges that off-grid families face. While the deep penetration of mobile phones into rural markets in Asia and Africa has accelerated connectivity to unprecedented levels, the lack of electricity to charge these mobile phones hampers the true potential of mobile technology in rural areas. In Africa, individuals may need to walk several kilometers to reach a charging station, the services of which are not only costly but may actually lead to the theft of phone batteries and precious pre-purchased minutes.

Therefore, for poor rural families, lack of electricity equals lack of access to technology that will improve their quality of life. In fact, the United Nations’ Human Development Report 2010 uses lack of electricity as one of the top ten indicators of poverty. In other words, providing energy for off-grid families gives them much more than lighting or mobile charging options; it actually opens up a path out of poverty.

For years, the assumed solution was to wait for governments to extend the electricity infrastructure to remote areas. Many governments have ambitious plans to do just that, including in India. The reality is that, even under the best of circumstances, it will likely take decades to reach full electrification; in high-population-growth countries, even the most ambitious of electrification plans will be far outstripped by burgeoning populations.

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