Lighting a Path to Distribute Renewable
Power to the Third World
(Originally Published May-June,
2000 In Infinite Energy Magazine Issue #31)
by Bennett Davis
Researchers struggle to master the secrets
of new energy sources and processes, but their work is only part
of the solution to the world's energy crisis. Equally urgent is
the search for effective new ways to finance and distribute renewable,
decentralized energy systems--especially among the Third World's
estimated two billion people who live on less than $1 a day and
the three billion living without electricity.
The need is dire: the poorer the population, the greater
damage it does to the natural world--stripping it of trees to use
for fuel and shelter and burning animal dung for heat instead of
using it to renew soil. In many areas south of the Equator, the
absence of energy to run simple pumps consigns hundreds of thousands
of people--most of them women and children--to spend hours each
day hauling water. In those places, a localized source of energy
to run a simple pump could free thousands of person-hours each month
for more useful work. It also would ease the pressure on families
to produce more children to share the chores.
A small nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.,
has set out to solve this facet of the world's energy equation.
The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) doesn't just dispense photovoltaic
power systems in poor countries. It's also shaping a model of entrepreneurial,
self-financing power distribution that can work with any decentralized
In its early projects, SELF used funds donated by
the World Bank, private philanthropies, or loans from development
agencies, to buy home-size photovoltaic systems in bulk on the open
market, usually enough for one small village at a time. It then
sold the systems at slim mark-ups to villagers in developing areas,
usually forming a partnership with an in-country nonprofit agency.
Each participating household made a 20% down payment on a system
and paid off the balance--usually between $300 and $400--over several
years. The buyers' payments were pooled in a local revolving loan
fund from which their neighbors could borrow to buy their own solar
power gear. SELF used a portion of the mark-ups on the equipment
to establish a local dealership and trained local residents as solar
installers and technicians.
The arrangement brought power to the people in more
ways than one. They had electricity for their homes and farms through
equipment that they had paid for themselves. The technicians learned
a profitable trade that also ensured that the power systems' continued
operation didn't depend on return visits from outsiders with exotic
knowledge. The loan fund made it possible for villagers to finance
the continued dissemination of solar systems in their areas.
There have been broader benefits as well. In much
of the developing world, the prime fuel for night lighting is kerosene.
Although no agency keeps records, SELF estimates from anecdotal
evidence that there are more than 20,000 kerosene-related injuries
and house fires annually caused by spills and other accidents. In
addition, every home burning the dim, kerosene-fueled lamps puts
an average of six tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually
and exposes family members to fumes as harmful as smoking two packs
of cigarettes a day.
"Gone are the days when we have to spend up to $50
each month for kerosene," one Solomon islander says," and we no
longer have fear because the electric current our equipment produces
Around the Equator, where darkness comes year-round
by 6:30 p.m., children in PV-powered homes are able to study longer
at night without eyestrain. And there is some evidence that when
PVs power radios or small televisions in rural areas, birth rates
fall: people have something else to do after dark.
SELF was founded in 1990 by Neville Williams, a former
journalist who had promoted solar power as a staffer with the U.S.
Department of Energy during the Carter administration. By 1997,
his modest operation had established eleven self-sustaining solar
energy projects in eleven countries across Asia, Africa, and South
"We're seeking to accelerate commercial market acceptance
of solar-generated electricity in developing countries through showcase
projects, technology transfer, technical assistance, youth training,
grass-roots financing mechanisms, and multilateral development bank
support," Williams says.
It's a hefty agenda and, so far, SELF has been surprisingly
effective in effecting it. In western China, SELF has brought sun
power to 1,000 households in fourteen villages, created the Gansu
PV Company to manufacture small-scale photovoltaic systems as a
joint venture with SELF, and established the Gansu Solar Electric
Light Fund to extend credit to villagers to buy the systems. In
Sri Lanka, it helped a national development agency start a division
to sell photovoltaic systems at prices that villagers can afford
but that still will enable the agency to sustain itself. In Tanzania,
SELF has worked with the Masai people--a widely-scattered group
of herders--to help the tribe acquire solar-powered telephones and
FM radios to share information about land speculators threatening
to drive them off their ancestral lands. In a poor area of black
South Africa, SELF installed a photovoltaic system in a school and
used the energy to power computers and connect the school to the
But, over time, SELF began to evolve more elaborate
project structures. In one joint venture in India, SELF formed a
for-profit subsidiary with local partners. Through India's Renewable
Energy Development Agency, the venture tapped World Bank funds set
aside specifically for photovoltaic installations. In part, the
company used the money to finance rural co-op's bulk purchase of
solar-energy systems for its members, install the systems, train
local technicians, then repaid the World Bank's loan from funds
the company collected from the co-ops.
In 1997, SELF gathered assets it developed through
for-profit partnerships in India, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam to form
SELCO, the Solar Electric Light Company. SELCO seeds new for-profit
partnerships and helps to manage existing ones; SELF continues as
a nonprofit entity developing new demonstration projects. For its
part in establishing the partnerships, SELF received a 20% equity
stake in SELCO.
"There's a lot of capital flowing into the developing
world, but it's building Nike factories and five-star hotels," says
Williams, now SELCO's president. "How does that benefit the ordinary
person in these countries? We've shown that there are markets in
these countries where capital can earn a profit by building an essential
infrastructure for ordinary people."
That infrastructure can do far more than run lights
and radios in homes, says Robert Freling, SELF's executive director.
"This technology is so versatile that it can be used to improve
the quality of rural life in areas of health, education, micro-enterprise,
and communication. SELF's challenge now is to develop programs and
projects that demonstrate--through examples like the South African
school--that this technology can be used in a holistic, environmentally
benign way for rural development."
But he's really talking about two technologies. One
is photovoltaic hardware. The other is the method that SELF has
pioneered to finance and grow an infrastructure of decentralized,
renewable energy. That method now stands ready and waiting for other
new energy sources about to be born.
Solar Electric Light Fund · 1775 K St. NW
#595 · Washington, DC 20006 202-234-7265 · www.self.org