Ignore the hype: Kenya’s home solar users have not leapfrogged the grid

A recent article in the New York Times describes how a solar home provider will, “help some of the 1.2 billion people in the world who don’t have electricity to leapfrog the coal-dependent grid straight to renewable energy sources.” Does that mean someone didn’t read my previous attempt to stamp out the phrase “leapfrogging” in the context of distributed solar energy for households in the developing world?!? Alas!

One of the reasons I object to the phrase leapfrogging is that, at least given current technologies, home solar systems do not provide anywhere close to the same level of service as electricity from the grid. By contrast, a mobile phone, the oft-cited analogy in the leapfrogging discussions, has at least one notable advantage over a landline – it’s mobile.

Together with my co-authors Ken Lee and Ted Miguel, I just released a working paper that provides direct evidence that home solar users have not leapfrogged the grid

That’s Catherine Wolfram of Haas at Berkeley. Read the paper.

Regular readers of the blog know of my deep skepticism over the “leapfrogging the grid” talk.

And it’s not just in Kenya. Wolfram reminds readers in the post that:

The Center for Global Development describes recent research that makes a similar point. They found that nearly 90% of households in Tanzania who already had “access to electricity outside of the national grid, such as solar power” still wanted a connection to the national grid. They also link to an article that describes villagers with a solar microgrid in India who still want “real” electricity, by which they mean grid.

On a side note, these findings should inform the marketing strategies of solar power companies that may want to go big on the Continent. The last thing you want to do is “NGO-ize” your product by making it seem like it is exclusively meant for those who cannot afford to be on the “real” grid.

Also, Africa’s grids are actually a lot greener than you might think:

Over 60 percent of the existing generation in Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa comes from hydro, geothermal and other non-fossil-fuel sources.

So, pushing households to home solar in Sub-Saharan Africa may not save nearly as much fossil fuel as some proponents would have you believe.

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