The falling cost of LED lighting, batteries, and solar panels, together with innovative business plans, are allowing millions of households in Africa and elsewhere to switch from crude kerosene lamps to cleaner and safer electric lighting. For many, this offers a means to charge their mobile phones, which are becoming ubiquitous in Africa, instead of having to rent a charger.
Technology advances are opening up a huge new market for solar power: the approximately 1.3 billion people around the world who don’t have access to grid electricity. Even though they are typically very poor, these people have to pay far more for lighting than people in rich countries because they use inefficient kerosene lamps. While in most parts of the world solar power typically costs far more than electricity from conventional power plants—especially when including battery costs—for some people, solar power makes economic sense because it costs half as much as lighting with kerosene.
Hundreds of companies are swooping in to grab a piece of this market.
“This sector has exploded,” says Richenda Van Leeuwen, senior director for the Energy and Climate team at the United Nations Foundation. “There’s been a sea change in the last five years.”
The sudden interest is fueled by the advent of relatively low-cost LEDs, she says. Not long ago, powering lightbulbs required a solar panel that could generate 20 to 30 watts, since only incandescent lightbulbs were affordable. LEDs are far more efficient. Now people can have bright lighting using a panel that only generates a couple of watts of power, Van Leeuwen says.
But such technological improvements aren’t quite enough to open up the market. High-quality LED systems, with a pair of lamps and enough battery storage for several hours of lighting, cost less than $50. The systems can pay for themselves in less than two years, but the upfront cost is still too steep for many people.
Eight19, a company based in Cambridge, U.K., is one of several companies offering some type of payment plan to make the systems affordable. Customers pay $10 for the solar lighting system, which includes a 2.5-watt solar panel, two LED overhead lamps, and a lithium-iron phosphate battery pack. Then they pay a weekly fee for the power it generates.