Let There Be Light

Imagine a world where everyone has light -- and no one needs to burn carbon to have it.
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Mumbai, India -- Ironically, in places like Europe and the U.S., where it's relatively dark and cold, people are talking about warming. In India, where it's significantly warmer and brighter, the concern is lack of light.

It's hard to convey just how profoundly this matters. India has 400 million people with no electricity and, hence, effectively, with no artificial light. That's about a third of the total lightless inhabitants on the planet. For decades a measure of national progress was the reduction in that number -- and the pathway to that progress was to build central power plants (mostly powered by coal), string copper wire to villages, and then run that electricity through filaments in incandescent bulbs. But only a trivial fraction of the energy in the coal turned into light, and much of the copper wire was stolen (along with a good chunk of the electricity).

There's now a better way. Solar panels, small batteries, and LED lighting make it possible to do away with the whole grid and light households, minimally, for costs that seem to average about $100 a family today.

Even in big cities, there's a role for such distributed power. Mumbai is moving towards solar-powered streetlights in its slums. They cost more but maintenance is far lower and power costs are zero -- which matters for a city that spends $20 million a year on electricity for streetlights alone. Mumbai plans to install enough solar streetlights to cut that bill by 30 percent -- and these lights will mostly be installed in slums where, previously, nighttime meant dark.

I first encountered this trend eighteen months ago, when I blogged about the village of Mohri, a very poor, shepherds' community that had been electrified with solar cells and two LED lights in every household. My blog was noticed by a journalist for the Times of India, who went to Mohri to tell the full story. It's worth reading.

Not only did Mohri lack light before Aar-em Electronics adopted it and installed lighting, but villagers had to haul kerosene up the steep slopes to their village (a seven- to eight-hour trip) to obtain even the expensive and polluting power source they enjoyed. And the village has been transformed by light.

This idea is catching on. Last week in Mumbai, the Indian advertising industry gathered to launch its -- and I suspect the world's -- biggest-ever public-service advertising campaign, in support of an initiative launched by The Energy Research Institute (TERI) in New Delhi, headed by the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri. This ad campaign is designed to raise awareness and support (and money) for TERI's Light a Billion Lives campaign. The campaign's goal is to bring light -- in the form of a solar lantern -- to a billion of the world's lightless people. Most of India's biggest media leaders were at the event to bless it and commit to help support the campaign.

This is wonderful.

But I ran the numbers. Solar lanterns cost about $40. A modest, two-light fixed solar system for a village home costs about $100. If we did this at scale the costs would come down -- probably way down.

But let's pretend they don't. The 400 million inhabitants of Indian without light live in 67 million homes. So with $6.7 billion we could light every home in India that is dark tonight. It's not a lot of money. But the numbers get better.

At the same event where Pachauri launched the Billion Lives campaign, Farooq Abdullah, who is the minister in charge of renewable energy in India, pointed out that these solar lights would replace the need for 2 billion liters of kerosene currently being burned for light by these families. The government of India heavily subsidizes this kerosene -- if it were given low-interest loans to finance the solar homes program at scale, it could pay back even the full 10,000 MW of photovoltaics and LEDs needed to give every villager some light, just from the savings on the kerosene subsidy. And in addition to having light, the villagers would save the money they currently waste on kerosene, and air pollution would be dramatically improved.

So here's a suggestion. Let's not wait for Copenhagen. Why don't the U.S. and Europe use the Pittsburgh meeting of the G-20, in late September, to make this simple offer: Take light off the table.

The rich nations agree to provide loans to the poor to give every lightless household on the planet a basic photovoltaic lighting system. The countries needing the program agree to train and support the human infrastructure -- installers, maintenance workers, trainers -- that will be needed to get this done. They can also get loans, if they desire, to build the factories needed to provide silicon cells and LED lights for their needs. This project would take these two key clean-energy technologies to scale seriously fast. The U.S., Europe, Canada, Japan, India, and China can compete to perfect these two technologies to meet what has suddenly become an enormous market.

The global cost is trivial -- and it's all a good investment. Solar cells now make more sense than kerosene to light remote villages all over the world. (OK, maybe not in Greenland -- but in most places.) And this could be an enormous confidence-building measure in the lead-up to Copenhagen.

Imagine a world where everyone has light -- and no one needs to burn carbon to have it.

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