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infinite energy

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 energy source.

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 is safe."

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 America.

"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 Internet.

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 · ·

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