Sunday, May 30, 2010

Small Photovoltaic Lighting Systems: Niche or Not

The small technologies such as solar lanterns and small lights have always been a challenge to promote under development programs.
Solar Lantern in India
The wind up radio, which is now in the mainstream market for developed countries, was originally introduced as a possibility to improve communication in developing countries. Except for emergency situations such as Haiti, it is not a staple product for international donor programs because such products are now readily available in the marketplace, sold through large chains, retail stores and shops at retail prices.

The question is will small photovoltaic lighting systems have a similar fate? In part to answer this question there is a recent report that has been published by GTZ with the long title, What difference can a PicoPV system make? Early findings on small Photovoltaic systems - an emerging low cost energy technology for developing countries.  Here is the link. That must be a literal German translation of the title, but my preference given the content of the report would be something like The Role of Micro-Photovoltaic Lighting Systems in Developing Countries. But admittedly that is more boring.

Nevertheless, the report makes a strong case for PicoPV and has quite a bit of useful information on various photovoltaic systems in developing countries. For instance, did you know that:

  • Solar home system costs for a 50 Wp (peak watt power) system range from US$ 500 in Uganda to an incredible US$ 1200 in Zambia. Are they made of gold in Zambia?
  • The average lighting costs per month for 5 countries in Africa is US $7.8 for kerosene; $1.74 for candles, and $1.84 for flashlights according to a market study from Lighting Africa;
  • Subsidy levels of grid electricity can be as high as US $2000 for the cost of extension especially for programs that are in their late stages reaching out to remote areas.
I also like the straightforwardness of the report. In the issues and options section one of the goals is acclaimed to be “to protect consumers from lemons.” There is nothing that will kill a market faster than poor unreliable products. The report is also not bashful about the possible impact of small lighting systems. It states that if pico-photovoltaic lighting could reach massive market share due to affordability, quality and reliability it would amount to “a change in lighting behavior of historic proportions.” Okay, we all want to change the world. No doubt studies need to be carried out on the exact benefits of these small systems, but it is true that improved lighting always has been among the highest initial benefits for grid electricity and solar home systems.

Field Survey Solar Lighting Systems, Bolivia:  Photo GTZ
The field summaries are an interesting part of the report and they consist of focus discussion groups and other qualitative methods used to assess the impact and desirability of these small lighting systems. Some sensible findings emerged. The lamp should provide 4 hours of light and should last over 5 years. People wanted a warranty and preferred to spread payments over time. The light from the device should spread over a wide area that is quite different from a flashlight beam. People also wanted an indicator bulb to show that the lamp is charging and a warning light to show when the system is about to shut off. These recommendations demonstrate the value of assessment of customer preferences as a critical component of market development.

The report has some drawbacks as well. The examples for alternatives to the pico-photovoltaic systems seem to be from countries with high costs or high taxes and burdened by restrictive import policies. For instance, the cost of solar homes systems in Bangladesh where some parts are manufactured locally and import polices are fairly neutral are about to US $300 for a 50 Wp system. Also most rural household surveys indicated more modest expenses of about US$ 1-2 per month for admittedly poor lighting services from kerosene or candles but these costs may have risen recently due to the rising cost of petroleum products. The costs per customer for most rural electrification programs are far closer to US$ 500 to $1000 per household. Also, I would have liked to see some more examples of actual lighting systems and their costs, but descriptions are available on the Lighting Africa website. Nevertheless the new small lighting systems with their lower upfront costs might be quite attractive to low income households.

In conclusion, my view is that this is a nice early report that clearly makes the point that small lighting systems that address consumer needs should be considered as part of the menu of products that can improve rural energy services in developing countries. The reasoning is sound and the claims of impacts and costs seem to be accurate, although costs of competitive technologies seem high due to selection of country examples. Finally, there is a wealth of information in the report on a wide variety of related topics. It seems this is the first volley of anticipated future reports on this topic.

There is some thinking today these types of smaller systems should be considered as “pre-electrification,” meaning that eventually everyone will have grid electricity in the future. In fact, I eagerly look forward to the day that everyone has electricity from whatever source that  is convenient and financially sustainable. So I guess I just will have to live to around 2050.

More seriously, there are pros and cons on both sides because we know that international agencies and governments are very poor at picking winners. The question is whether these new products need a push to get them off and running for people in areas that will quite honestly not have grid electricity for many years to come. Or should the development of these systems be left up to the market?

So what do you think? Do these systems need support or subsidies?  Should international donors support such projects?  Table the poll or give your opinions below?


Unknown said...

interesting overview of the report Doug. On the average lighting costs per month, does the report indicate whether all households use a combination of the three sources: kerosene, candles, batteries? If so, that would make something like $11/month of cash expenditures, a huge amount for poor families.

On PicoPV: I do have a solar lamp which flashes when the system is about to shut off, and it lasts for 4-5 hours. One of its nice features is that it has a hook, so it can hang like a ceiling light and gives quite good quality lighting. If interested I can provide you with the reference. I don't want to do free advertising on your blog.

Unknown said...

Keith said:
What about lighting from biogas?
In VietNam, small polythene sausage-like digester have been designed that used human & pig manure plus grass etc. They generate under one m3 of gas, but this is sufficient for lighting and boiling water. From memory, the cost is about $100 with a couple of lights and a burner.
By the way, you may have to live way past 2050 to see all houses electrified, especially in Africa!