Today, when the sun goes down in Africa, over 150 million homes will not turn on the lights. The reason is simple: they don’t have electricity. Instead, they will extend their day by the dim light of kerosene lamps. Families will huddle around these lamps, inhaling the lung-burning equivalent of two packs of cigarettes each from kerosene fumes. If they’re unlucky, their children will knock over the lamps and burn themselves, drink the kerosene and end up in the hospital, or knock over the lamps and burn down their houses. Meanwhile, these lamps combined will equal to carbon emissions of all the motor vehicles in the UK. This can be a bit depressing, but there is some good news. Today’s breathtaking advances in batteries, solar panels, and LEDs have eliminated all economic and technological reasons why every house that wants modern lighting cannot have it. With the right policies and cooperation from the public and private sector, we can make modern energy universal within a decade.
Over 150 years ago, when Edison turned on his first lightbulb, he had to compete against the burning of oil for light. Today’s solar entrepreneurs have the same competition, and amazingly there are more people “off the grid” today than in Edison’s time. Like Edison in New York City, solar must deliver a better service for a cheaper price if it wishes to displace the burning of oil for light. Despite its incredible potential, many solar offerings today don’t achieve this. They are either too underpowered to be aspirational (more like flashlights than home electricity), or too expensive to be widely adopted (especially given the risk of failure & lack of service infrastructure). In theory, solar promises decades of “free” power after a high initial cost, but off-grid solar systems are complex electrical systems and many rely on low quality batteries or lights that can fail in a short time.