By: James Hawkins – AfricanBrains
Solar panels are widely known as a “fit and forget” technology – they require very little on-going maintenance, and 90% of systems still operate effectively after 30 years. Solar panels are what astronauts lives rely on for their power. In More Economically Developed Countries (MEDCs), solar panels are heavily funded both for large scale installations – enormous solar farms – and also for domestic sized household systems. These small set ups are able to produce 70% of more of an average household’s electricity, and they’re dropping in price very rapidly. To many people, it seems difficult to imagine such a cutting-edge technology to gain popularity in areas of the world still lacking a reliable electrical infrastructure.
However, this is precisely why small sets of solar panels are particularly suitable for economically poorer countries. Unreliable electricity transmission is rife – take the example of USA and India. Even in the late ’90s, the USA lost only 6-7% of its electricity during transmission from power station to people’s homes, and today that figure is likely closer to 3-4%. In India, roughly a quarter of all electricity is lost during transmission, much of which is due to electricity theft. In Delhi, 42% of the entire electricity supply is lost during transmission, largely because of such obvious theft as this photo shows:
Many people in LEDCs have no electricity supply at all. India has much, much stronger economic growth than dozens of other countries, and yet still it’s an example of why a conventional model of a large power station transmitting power across hundreds of kilometers is not suitable in many areas of the world. Small scale solar panels mean that each household can be responsible for its own electricity supply. The costs of solar panels have fallen very dramatically over the last 18 months, due to increased numbers of suppliers, keen to take part in a growing market, fueled by government subsidies. For example, the UK has experienced a 30% drop in solar panels prices since April 2010 because of a government scheme encouraging their adoption, which lead to a large rise in the number of solar panel installation companies.
A lot of countries which would really benefit also are located geographically near to the equator. These hot, sunny areas are perfect for electricity generation. A set of solar panels in Africa could produce between 20 and 35% more electricity than a set of panels in Washington. This means that many households could meet their entire electricity needs, and without any bills from an electricity company and in remote areas where there is no national grid access available. A small solar power system is quite simple to make – the charity Solar Sister sets up entrepreneurs with all the materials they need to make solar panel lamps by hand, which can be used by schoolchildren or households so they can have lights after sunset.
Investing in solar panels for LEDCs is an interesting potential area for new funding from charities. The success of such schemes have already been very evident in Europe, and with the dramatically increased advantages for economically poorer countries, it is an option that should be considered carefully. Whilst it may not produce a short term solution to healthcare problems and malnutrition, it is a fast method of improving countries’ effective infrastructures to enable business and economic growth and a better standard of life, taking less time to put into action than conventional large power stations.