Renewable energy means different things to different people. For some, renewables are a path to halting or even reversing adverse climate change. For others, renewables are a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels, which are a finite resource and hence expensive. For yet others, renewable energy is a safe alternative to energy sources like nuclear energy, which are considered dangerous.
One area that renewable energy, especially solar energy, can have a major impact, however, is in helping developing countries. In this article, Sanjeev Mansotra discusses what solar energy means for developing countries and how renewables can help transform the lives of those living in those countries.
Abundant Raw Materials
The chief benefit of solar energy is that the raw materials used to generate it — the sun’s rays — are available in abundance. Unlike other types of energy that require extensive value creation chains, solar is a simple two-step process that converts the sun’s rays into electrical energy. For developing countries, this is a massive opportunity because it means being able to harvest this raw material without having to pay for it.
For countries that already have expensive energy supplies like fossil fuel generators, this could help significantly lower the cost of energy. As a result, the knock-on effect would positively impact households, industries, and the entire economy at large. However, for this to become a reality, there must first be a push to deploy as many solar cells as possible, as Sanjeev Mansotra discusses next.
It takes close to six years to build a coal power plant. In comparison, it takes around three years to deploy a large-scale solar energy plant. In terms of cost, it takes twice the amount of money to build a coal power plant than to set up a solar farm. What this means for developing countries such as countries in Africa, is that solar energy is both cheaper and faster to deploy, trumping even other renewable energy sources like hydro, which also takes up to six years to build.
Energy time-to-grid is important in developing countries because of several factors. The first is politics. Most democratic developing nations have elections every five years. If a project drags on beyond this time frame, it runs the risk of being abandoned by the new regime. Secondly, for most funding agencies, long-running projects are perceived to be riskier than those that can be concluded in two to three years. As such, the fast and cheap deployment of solar offers significant upside to developing nations.
Most developing countries lack sophisticated power grid infrastructure. This means that people living far from the main grid cannot access power. Solar energy makes it possible to create microgrids that support far-flung communities. Setting up solar farms in different areas of the country means power generated from those hubs does not have to be transmitted across the country but only serves those living in that area.
Over time and as the country’s power infrastructure matures, says Sanjeev Mansotra, these microgrids can be connected to form a super grid. A major benefit of microgrid setups is that they can serve anything from a small village to an entire city. For developing countries trying to leapfrog into energy-abundant middle-income countries, microgrids offer a perfect tool to achieve this end.
Clean Energy Substitute
In Africa, hydropower accounts for 86 percent of all non-fossil fuel energy use. Despite the continent’s massive renewable energy potential, fossil fuels are still the main source of energy on the continent. The story is no different for other developing nations around the world. Solar energy is seen as a stopgap measure that can help such nations transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Solar can do this in several ways.
For instance, the cost and time it takes to deploy solar energy are lower than building a hydroelectric power plant. So, instead of turning to easily available fossil fuels, countries can rely on solar as they build out more robust renewable energy sources such as hydro and wind. In this way, solar energy can help developing nations avoid using fossil fuels even as they work on costlier and more long-term renewable energy projects.
Sanjeev Mansotra on Solar Energy
In summary, solar energy is a crucial steppingstone for developing nations as they move towards energy independence. However, says Sanjeev Mansotra, there’s still much that can and should be done to create scalable solar energy solutions that can offer economies of scale. Meanwhile, it is encouraging to see the price of solar cells continue to fall, something that will ultimately make it easier and cheaper for developing nations to embrace solar as their main source of energy.