Big Solar Generates Big Wins for Rural Communities

Business Features Solar Power
Big Solar Generates Big Wins for Rural Communities

In remote parts of the world, some people have never known electricity. But today, solar power has truly reimagined their lives, bringing millions of people out of the darkness.

CleanTechnica estimates that 70 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to an electrical grid, meaning all business must be conducted during daylight hours or crudely by the light of toxic kerosene lamps. To expect such rural areas to grow economically is nearsighted and for all intents, unlikely. However, production has begun on a series of solar microgrids across 25 communities in Nigeria that would bring clean, solar-powered electricity to more than 10,000 residents by the end of 2017.

The 10-megawatt capacity will provide LED lighting for street lamps and power cellphones, which will connect the impoverished with new business opportunities, safer, illuminated neighborhoods and a new frontier from which to expand further.

This is but one example of how impactful solar has been in transforming tiny villages, arid deserts and rural locations across the globe into 21st century beacons of sustainability.

Solar Microgrids Support Modernity

One of the most critical benefits of bringing online once-neglected parts of the world is supporting economic development at a local level. Because rural areas tend to highly concentrate poverty, commercial endeavors are scarce. However, solar companies are finding these regions to be precisely the sort of communities that stand to gain the most at the lowest expense.

For instance, some small villages in Kenya have never had landline phones, electrical grids or many of the trappings that modern humans have taken for granted for decades. But SteamaCo, a British-Kenyan solar startup, is revamping these areas in a big way.

In recent years, SteamaCo has employed locals to install solar arrays in remote parts of Kenya, connecting small communities to centralized electrical grids in larger cities. These cutting-edge microgrids are deployed cheaply, quickly and with far-reaching goals in mind.

Since many communities have virtually no existing infrastructure or corporate interests, solar companies can conduct operations without many of the normal holdups that typically hamper speedy production and delivery of electricity (bureaucratic red tape, for instance). This allows them to keep costs low and create new models of B2C interactions.

95 percent of Kenyans own mobile phones, yet only 32 percent have reliable access to electricity. Solar companies are broadening this dynamic by allowing solar customers to pay their monthly electricity bills in advance through mobile apps. Using mobile payment systems enables faster transactions that make sense for both parties (customers and businesses) while also building upon a process that locals are already familiar with.

The World Bank has identified such rural electrification projects as successful mechanisms for combating poverty and revitalizing core institutions such as hospitals, schools, transportation hubs and various government agencies tasked with maintaining and improving rule of law.

The World Bank has partnered with the government of Mozambique to expand electrification efforts across the country through renewable means. The installation of photovoltaic solar modules has brought electricity to more than 500 health facilities and 300 schools in some of the most isolated towns in Mozambique.

Moving toward renewables has also brought economic and health benefits. Tradesmen and businesses are now using electrical tools for the first time, empowering them to work more efficiently, inexpensively and on par with other competitors. And with solar power, individuals are no longer exposed to harmful carbon monoxide and coal-fired fumes in their homes and workplaces.

To show how far many nations have come in achieving sustainability, Mozambique’s energy portfolio will consist of 55 percent renewables by 2030, which surpasses many Western benchmarks.

In addition, solar power is permitting emergency service vehicles to reach remote communities that once had zero access to medical care or the ambulances that could potentially transport ill patients to hospitals. For roughly one-tenth the cost of a conventional ambulance, Bangladesh has manufactured solar-powered vehicles which are smaller, more nimble and capable of reaching rural patients. By the end of the year, areas that still lack electricity will be able to benefit from emergency transportation, saving untold lives.

Rural U.S. Now Open to Solar

Though solar companies are discovering that doing business in Africa, Asia and South America can be financially and socially rewarding in its own right, they’ve also recognized that rural communities in the U.S. are prime training grounds for solar technology.

In conservative strongholds of the country, such as Georgia, Texas and parts of California, long-held enthusiasm for traditional fossil fuels is waning. Instead, many local officials and business owners believe renewable energy is their ticket toward long-term success.

Farmers in California have found solar panels to be helpful energy generators capable of powering heavy equipment and heating facilities necessary for animals and crops. Solar power has provided an avenue to trim gasoline costs at a time when many farming operations are facing slim margins and heavy competition from cheap overseas producers.

Similarly, Georgia is in the midst of constructing the state’s first sustainable highway, a 16-mile stretch of road made from solar materials, complete with electric charging stations and solar panels atop rest stops. In just a few years’ time, builders expect the highway to be turning a profit and believe the project will become a template for other states to follow. Drivers crossing the Alabama border into Georgia will no doubt see the future of highway technology before their eyes—deep in the heartland of the Southern U.S.

Former President Jimmy Carter recently transformed his family farm in Georgia into a utility-scale solar array that will meet the energy demands of half of his rural town’s 700 residents. Working with SolAmerica Energy, the 3,800 solar panels will track and rotate with the sun—a project that would’ve been unheard of just a few years ago.

As more people are exposed to the benefits of renewable energy, solar’s impact around the world will expand. And with the economic and ecological virtues inherent in solar’s future, it’s only a matter of time before clean energy electrifies even the most secluded and inaccessible sections of the globe.

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