Note: It would be great to hear from SftP folk about this concept of bringing solar power to the masses. I think it has great potential thruout the tropics-- SEA
SUNNY countries are often poor. A shame, then, that solar power is still quite expensive. But it is getting cheaper by the day, and is now cheap enough to be competitive with other forms of energy in places that are not attached to electricity grids. Since 1.6 billion people are still in that unfortunate position, a large potential market for solar energy now exists. The problem is that although sunlight is free, a lot of those 1.6 billion people still cannot afford the cost of the kit in one go, and no one will lend them the money to do so.
Eight19, a British company spun out of Cambridge University, has, however, devised a novel way to get round this. In return for a deposit of around $10 it is supplying poor Kenyan families with a solar cell able to generate 2.5 watts of electricity, a battery that can deliver a three amp current to store this electricity, and a lamp whose bulb is a light-emitting diode. The firm reckons that this system, once the battery is fully charged, is sufficient to light two small rooms and to power a mobile-phone charger for seven hours. Then, next day, it can be put outside and charged back up again.
The trick is that, to be able to use the electricity, the system’s keeper must buy a scratch card—for as little as a dollar—on which is printed a reference number. The keeper sends this reference, plus the serial number of the household solar unit, by SMS to Eight19. The company’s server will respond automatically with an access code to the unit.
Users may consider that they are paying an hourly rate for their electricity. In fact, they are paying off the cost of the unit. After buying around $80 worth of scratch cards—which Eight19 expects would take the average family around 18 months—the user will own it. He will then have the option of continuing to use it for nothing, or of trading it in for a bigger one, perhaps driven by a 10-watt solar cell.
In that case, he would go then through the same process again, paying off the additional cost of the upgraded kit at a slightly higher rate. Users would thereby increase their electricity supply—ascending the “energy escalator”, as Eight19 puts it—steadily and affordably. Simultaneously, the company would be able to build a payment record of its clients, sorting the unreliable from the rest.
According to Eight19’s figures, this looks like a good deal for customers. The firm reckons the average energy-starved Kenyan spends around $10 a month on paraffin—sufficient to fuel a couple of smoky lamps—plus $2 on charging his mobile phone in the market-place. Regular users of one of Eight19’s basic solar units will spend around half that, before owning it outright. Meanwhile, as the cost of solar technology falls, it should get even cheaper. The company hopes to be able to supply users with a new, low-cost and robust sort of solar cell, printed onto plastic strips, within two years.
The scheme has so far been tried out among a couple of hundred Kenyan families. With the aid of a charitable loan to accelerate its roll-out, Eight19 is planning to disperse 4,000 solar units in Kenya, Malawi and Zambia over the next two months. If the idea works, solar power will have a whole, new set of customers and the days of the paraffin lamp may be numbered.
Sent from Sam + Rosemari's iPad