New Internationalist

Miracle or mirage?

November 2009

Solar-powered development has huge potential if problems can be overcome

Across the Global South, renewable energy is increasingly being used to power new development projects. The aspiration is for education, healthcare, sanitation and other necessities to be fuelled by the sun, wind and tide – a cheap source of unending power.

The theory of a transitional leap that avoids Industrial Age ‘dirty development’ and propels developing economies into a post-carbon world is certainly attractive. However, as Dr Chris Jardine, a researcher at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute found out, matters are not always so simple. Working on solar installation projects in Ghana, he fitted several hospitals with solar power arrays. Problems soon reared their head – the biggest of which was the almost complete lack of healthcare professionals at the hospital.

‘There is little point in having a well-equipped and renewably powered hospital if the culture makes it impossible to attract doctors,’ he explains. ‘We did our best to make the facilities inviting, but the fact remains that far-flung rural hospitals with virtually no infrastructure do not only need decentralized energy. They require a much wider development solution, of which renewables are just a part.’

Dr Jardine also pointed to the cost of renewables as a serious issue, a problem that is heightened by the need to fit battery-supported solar power due to the unreliable and sometimes non-existent electricity grid in developing countries. However, with sufficient money flowing into renewable energy, he believes that markets could be created in the developing world. ‘The most lasting legacy of our project is likely to be the local people that we trained to fit and maintain the solar systems. By creating a skill base in the countries themselves, we can make it more likely that a transition to renewable energy will occur.’

Another organization with hands-on experience of using renewable energy in the developing world is the Interlock Charitable Trust ( Working in remote rural areas of India, the Trust experienced significant problems both with cost and quality of the work when paying for solar installations at the village it is building to house children with HIV/AIDS and their parents. As a result, it too found that ‘skilling up’ the local population was both popular and empowering. Terrence McKee, a director of the Trust, explains that ‘new technology, such as renewable energy, can unlock many new possibilities for rural communities. However, it is not an end in itself. The most important thing about these projects are the possibilities for empowerment and self-reliance which they provide.’

Interlock’s rural medical clinics have encountered similar problems to the hospital projects in Ghana – but have also proven the capacity of modern technology to provide solutions, when used innovatively. Lacking trained doctors, Interlock has managed to set up an internet connection in its remote Shanti Van foundation, and is powering its computer equipment through solar energy. Through agreements with large training hospitals in major cities, as well as with retired doctors across India, Interlock hopes to arrange remote consultations and surgeries for the local community via webcam – removing, at least partially, the need for doctors to reside full time at the clinic. None of this would be possible without a reliable and consistent energy supply, provided by the sun.

Matt Sellwood

This column was published in the November 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 427

New Internationalist Magazine issue 427
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