Will some of the world’s poorest people bring about the solar revolution? It’s possible, for Indian villagers are beginning to plump for solar power, encouraged by aid programmes and their own government.
Some 300 million Indians – a quarter of the country’s population – have no electricity at home. Their children suffer at school because they cannot study properly after dark. Burning cow dung and wood for fuel produces toxic fumes, which is one of the world’s biggest killers, and black carbon, the second biggest cause of climate change after carbon dioxide. And the main alternative, kerosene, can often only be bought at prohibitively expensive black market prices.
It would be prohibitively expensive to extend the electricity grid to the 500,000 villages scattered around the giant country. So centralised power generation – whether from coal,oil,gas or the atom – simply is not going to do reach most of the, literally, powerless. But renewable energy from the sun -or the wind, for that matter – offers real hope, because nature distributes it for free. And, of course, there is much more sunlight than, say, in Britain.
The Indian government is already mounting a massive campaign to distribute 200 million solar lanterns to rural homes. There are also several initiatives to increase the use of solar cooking stoves. And, perhaps more surprisingly, the solar photovoltaic panels – widely regarded as the preserve of the prosperous middle class in Britain – are proliferating. Just one company has fitted 125,000 solar panels to rural house in the south western state of Karnataka alone.
A small solar system costs about £225, less than a year’s supply of black-market kerosene: so it can pay for itself after a year. Some predict that they will spread like mobile phones; there is now one handset for every two people in the country.