Power for Good

The BBC recently screened an adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novel, Wolf Hall. Set in the 16th Century, it examined the relationship between King Henry VIII of England and one of his closest advisors, Thomas Cromwell. The series was generally very well received by the critics, but – with many interior scenes apparently being lit only by candles - some viewers grumbled about the 'dim' lighting. Perhaps they missed the point that 16th Century England was not just 'off-grid', but 'pre-grid'.

Watching Wolf Hall may have given some viewers eyestrain, but at least they could turn to a different channel, or even switch off their TVs. Which is more than the 1.3 billion people around the world who are living without access to a regular electricity supply can do. Not only are they unlikely to have a TV to switch off, but they too may well be relying on candlelight once the sun goes down.

Light is such a basic element of life that it is often taken for granted. For many people, electricity and powerful light bulbs have always been readily availability, and life continues after dark just as it does during daylight. But for those living off-grid, things are not so simple.

Lack of access to reliable electricity supplies after dark means that children cannot do homework, products cannot be made in the evenings for sale the next day, women give birth by candlelight, women's security is restricted and social activity can be limited. Furthermore, the often little lighting that is available relies on kerosene, wood or dung as a fuel - fuel that, when burned indoors, is a fire risk and a source of pollution that can kill.

So poor lighting in off-grid regions can result not just in tired eyes, but could – and too often does – lead to an early funeral.

But the technology exists to provide safe, bright, reliable light for all. And once the technology has been bought, there are no ongoing running costs. The answer is, of course, solar power.

Around half of those currently living off-grid reside in sub-Saharan Africa. In this part of the world, strong sunlight is plentiful, and when the weather clouds over the light is still usually strong enough to charge solar panels. Large-scale solar arrays therefore have the potential to make a very substantial contribution to African countries' burgeoning national grids. The resulting supply of cheap electricity could power industry, enable commerce and bring light to urban homes.

However, rural communities are likely to have to wait much longer for mains electricity supplies to reach them. It is for these people that small-scale solar power is ideal. Freeplay Energy's products – such as the new Energy Hub, the Energy Centre and Indigo Plus lantern - are designed for just such applications. We are working closely with governments, NGO's UN agencies and others to get them into the hands of those who need them most, and we are certainly making headway.

But much more could, and should, be done to give 'power to the people'. We are now into the second year of the UN's 'Decade of Sustainable Energy for All'. It aims to ensure access by 2030 to sustainable energy for all those around the world who are currently living without regular access to an electricity supply. It is a laudable aim, and one worthy of widespread support. However, 2030 is still a long way off, especially for those currently living off grid. In the meantime, we need to remind decision makers both on the ground and in donor nations, that providing access to cheap energy and bright light has the power to transform local economies. Transformed local economies can help to transform regional fortunes, and so on – one of the few examples of 'trickle-up' economics that could realistically work.

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