Solar Solutions for the Developing World

Photograph by Philip Jones Griffiths

“True, they don’t have any electricity,” John Corsi, CEO of Solarex Corporation, told me in 1990, “but they also don’t have any money.” The chief of America’s then-largest solar company, later absorbed into BP Solar, expressed doubts about my idea of starting a non-profit organization to bring solar lighting to the developing world. I explained that as many as two billion people on the planet still had no access to electricity, rendering this the world’s largest potential market for solar photovoltaics (PV).

That year I launched the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF, for energy self-reliance). Corsi donated $5,000 and wished me luck, “At least your organization and our company will have something in common: we’re both non-profit.” Over the next decade, developing countries became the world’s largest and most exciting market for solar power.

And yes, it turns out that ostensibly “poor” rural people can afford solar, as the social enterprise that spun off from SELF seven years later has proven by selling and installing 110,000 solar home lighting systems in India.

But I’m jumping ahead in the story. When I joined the U.S. Dept. of Energy in 1979 to help promote President Carter’s nascent solar energy program, it was clear that PV, enjoying a vast R&D budget, was the sexiest and most promising new energy technology. Ten years later, after PV module prices fell from $90 per watt to $5 per watt (today we’re at $2/W), it seemed to me that solar PV could be a great tool, bringing clean, affordable light to some of the millions of families in Africa and Asia who lived in the dark, with only candles and kerosene for illumination (and kerosene won’t run a radio, TV or a fan). It was during my travels in Africa that I got the idea for SELF.

The original SELF plan was to raise money from U.S. charitable foundations, launch pilot solar “seed” projects in as many countries as possible, and somehow try to make solar technology “sustainable”— a new word back then. Solar seemed well positioned to address two problems: the lack of basic household electricity and carbon emissions from millions of kerosene lamps. For Western donors, it was an environmental issue – bringing clean power to the developing world – but for families without electricity it was a development issue. Solar lights improved their lives. Clean was beside the point.

We started in Sri Lanka, working with the extraordinary NGO Sarvodaya as our partner. That alliance worked so well that it fostered the growth of numerous local solar installation companies, which led to more funding, and eventually to a $40 million World Bank solar project. The result has been the deployment of more than 100,000 solar home lighting systems island-wide, in lieu of extending the country’s power-constrained grid.

SELF eventually expanded its program to include Vietnam, Nepal, China, South Africa and a half dozen other countries. In each country, we address the affordability problem by setting up revolving funds, allowing for a three-year credit purchase of solar home systems. Later, we figured out how to involve third-party rural financial institutions.

The first thing we learned was that “rural poor” is a misleading concept: most of the poor in those 11 countries live in the cities. Our customers were cash crop farmers with nice four-room houses on land they owned, far from the electric grid. Our technicians wired them like a normal house, with wall-mounted light switches and extremely bright DC compact fluorescent light fixtures, and solar panels mounted on poles. We served the “richest of the poor.” There are hundreds of millions of such rural families without electricity (later, other NGO’s would begin to bring light to the poorest of the poor using various Chinese-made solar lanterns and flashlights).

Lesson two was that solar technology already exists in most countries. Solar panels tend to be imported, except in China and India where they have been made domestically for over 20 years. Light fixtures, charge controllers, and well-made deep cycle batteries (the best were made in Bangladesh) could all be procured locally or regionally. And talented entrepreneurs devoted to building solar businesses emerged wherever we went.


Photograph by Robert Freling/SELF

But philanthropy and NGOs could only do so much. The Rockefeller Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund urged us to consider “commercializing” some of SELF’s activities, to make solar “projects” into actual businesses. So we began in China, where we launched the first Sino-American solar joint venture, a pioneering enterprise that was responsible for China’s first exemplar “solar village.” It was rewarding to visit remote Western Chinese communes and witness the delight of peasants enjoying electric light in their houses for the first time, which they had paid for themselves.

Around 2000, I hired a young man, Harish Hande, then working on a PhD in solar engineering at U. Mass, Lowell, to investigate the prospects for SELF in India, which the World Bank had proposed we do (with no funds ever to follow, thank you). Hande identified Karnataka, a huge, prosperous southern state with a hopeless utility system and no money to extend the grid, as the best candidate. But we could not figure out what SELF could do to effect solar rural electrification. After reading Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce, which convinced me that a commercial enterprise could work hand-in-hand with social purpose, Harish and I decided to launch a solar business in India and call it the Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO). It soon made sense for me to leave my non-profit organization and charter a U.S. corporation to raise money for solar enterprises in several countries. With capital from European investors who shared our vision, we were able to fund SELCO-India and launch SELCO subsidiaries in Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

Harish found a powerful regional banker to be on SELCO-India’s board, and with his help, we had some 475 South Indian rural banks making solar loans to our customers by 2002. I travelled around Karnataka giving talks about solar power to village bankers. Solar loans, surprising the skeptics, had the highest recovery rates. Tata BP Solar, India’s largest manufacturer of solar cells and modules, offered SELCO special pricing and support. Managing Director Hande learned how to assemble reliable four-light solar home systems employing DC lighting fixtures and charge controllers made in SELCO’s own women-run workshop in Mangalore. SELCO systems featured top-quality deep-cycle batteries and 30- to 40-Watt peak Tata BP Solar panels. Technicians managed to carry the smaller systems on motorbikes and could install one in half a day. The company also bought a fleet of jeeps and minivans.

Bangalore-based SELCO-India grew to 175 employees with 27 “solar service centers” across the state, marketing and selling solar home systems. Soon, Shell Solar got into the game. Today, competitors abound, but SELCO remains the well-regarded leader. Last year, Dr. Harish Hande received the Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He used to tell me, “I wake up every morning amazed that we are making money selling solar energy to poor people.”

SELCO was eventually restructured and its headquarters moved from the Washington suburbs to Bangalore. With SELCO in capable hands, I moved on in 2004 to found a new company in Maryland, to bring home what I’d learned in India and elsewhere about selling solar: it works, it reduces greenhouse gases, retail solar power can be profitable, and solar entrepreneurs will almost always be successful if they focus on quality service, a reliable product, brand marketing, and consumer finance. I had been inspired by a Mother Jones article by Bill McKibben titled “One Roof At A Time,” in which he celebrated his own solar home system and proposed that rooftop solar had a big future. The timing was right, and Standard Solar Inc. subsequently branded residential solar power as affordable and economic, environmentally beneficial, and a contributor to energy security. It has worked: more people today want solar than I could have ever imagined. According to a recent survey, 49% of Americans are pondering solar power options for their homes.

Rural folks in Africa and Asia often asked me, “If solar is go great, why aren’t you using it?” Well, finally we are. In the developing world, the issue is often solar electricity or no electricity. In the West and North, solar is about generating power without fossil fuel. In America, a typical 4.2-kW solar home system will displace approximately 160 tons of carbon emissions over its lifetime. That’s nearly 50 times the carbon avoided by replacing kerosene lighting in a rural Indian home. We are clearly the ones who should be using solar power.

Today, Standard Solar is “Making Solar Standard” in the National Capital region, with 65 employees selling and installing multi kilowatt rooftop solar electric systems – residential and commercial. I’m pleased to see American families tackling global warming by making long-term investments in the planet’s future. Today, solar is not just good for the environment; it’s a smart economic investment for homes and businesses.

Solar electricity is now the fastest growing business on Earth. Manufacturers are producing megawatts of PV cells monthly, and the global power industry is talking of gigawatts of solar electricity to come. Meanwhile, in the developing world, a thousand small mission-driven businesses continue to bring light to those in the dark.