There’s excitement about solar in areas like Tanzania that have limited grid coverage. Most of that excitement focuses on photo-voltaics and solar-thermal as technologies, rightly so. As is well noted, these tools are now below parity (aka. cheaper than) their fossil fuel peers in off-grid environments, and can more easily be sized for small-scale applications. With the high-cost of infrastructure leaving grid connection improbable in these regions, we’re going to see a very different energy structure than we have in more population-concentrated parts of the world.
I’m excited about that, for sure. But I’m more excited about solar as a human development. Power is after all the ultimate enabler. It fired up the industrial revolution, which for all its detractions left us with tools for health, transport, leisure, and connection. In the information age, it has been an assumption appreciated by anyone searching for a plug for his or her laptop or phone, or running a server farm.
I’ve seen what it looks like when power is not affordably and reliably available. Working with farmers in the Amazon, we ran up against the lack of power for processing and storing perishable forest goods, limiting the ability to earn a sustainable (and environmentally supportive) income. In Lagos, Nigeria, I saw the same challenge in an urban setting: unreliable power meant small businesses had to carry the extra (often unsustainable) cost of generators and diesel. Now in the Lake Zone of Tanzania, it is clear how much potential is waiting to be unlocked with the arrival of affordable energy.
It starts with phones, as communication is key to identifying opportunities and doing business. Many of our customers are buying oversized home-systems in order to charge their neighbors’ phones for supplementary income. Then come small business solutions: print shops, internet cafes, salons, repair shops, entertainment, and retailers. Next, you see more involved value-chains plug in: irrigation, processing, and storage. Distributed energy is still in its early days: expect solutions to develop that may differ significantly from what we’ve seen before. Human creative capacity thrives when given the tools.
At Simusolar, we are likewise in the early days of identifying opportunities to unlock the potential of power. In collaboration with small businesses, clients, non-profits, and communities, we will continue exploring needs and testing out creative applications with our partners. With the reception the first innovations have received, it’s clear the path ahead is bright.