Solar power has long been mooted as an answer to the problem of getting power to the 1.2 billion people around the world who are currently living off-grid – especially those in Africa. The UK government has recently backed solar lighting and the work of GOGLA, the US administration has its Power Africa initiative and a broad range of NGOs and UN agencies have been promoting both large-scale and small-scale solar solutions.
So, it is fantastic to see that Rwanda has defied sceptics by getting a major solar array up and running just a year after signing contracts. The USD23.7m (GBP15.6m) solar field is comprised of some 28,360 panels and has increased Rwanda’s generation capacity by 6%, or 8.5 megawatts. That is enough to power more than 15,000 homes.
It is a fine example to set to other countries on the continent and shows that the future of large-scale power generation does not have to be carbon-based.
But it does not solve the problems faced by those who have little hope of getting a connection to the grid. Remote rural locations in Rwanda and elsewhere are unlikely to get hooked up any time soon, so alternative solutions are required. Again, NGOs and UN agencies have taken the lead, supported by manufacturers such as Freeplay. They have played a crucial role in getting solar powered lighting systems, radios and other products in to the hands of those who need them most. However, there is still a long way to go – not least because of the scale of the issue and the fact that aid and development organisations often tend to focus on those in desperate need. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that many are left to buy their own products if they want to make the most of solar power. And those products, however hard the manufacturers try to keep costs down, are often seen as unaffordable.
The dilemma of how to improve access to solar power for small, remote communities has, though, also received a boost. Familiar to mobile phone users around the world, the concept of pay-as-you-go is now being applied to solar-powered lighting systems. And that means that instead of paying the full price for system such as Freeplay’s Energy Hub, a much lower retail price is supplemented by regular payments over a fixed period. A single payment might offer light whenever it is needed for a period of one day, a week or a month – depending on the supplier – with access being gained via a unique PIN number.
Future blogs will explore pay-as-you-go in more detail, but it is a great example of the ingenuity at play in the fight to put clean, safe energy into the hands of people for whom it has been little more than a dream. Until now.