Read Michael Edison Hayden’s full story ‘How Solar Lanterns Are Giving Power to the People’ in the National Geographic’s special climate issue.
Sustainability: How important has solar energy been in transforming the lives of people in India and Uganda?
Michael Edison Hayden: It can be a matter of life and death. I can only speak firsthand about the research I conducted in Uttar Pradesh, India, but it's safe to say that the same thing is true for Africans living in rural, energy poor villages.
Temperatures in North Indian villages can reach 48 degrees Celsius on a bad day, and having access to a working fan can save the life of a child, or an ill or elderly person.
But even scaling back that level of urgency for a moment, the long term impact on families is staggering. Men and women can keep their businesses open after dark. Children are able to study longer hours. For families living in brutal economic conditions, sometimes earning as little as 50 US dollars per month, and living in a handmade shack with actual tigers roaming around outside, a few extra hours of light per day can represent the first step out of extreme poverty. Without solar energy, some of these families might never get the chance to leave the place where they live.
S: SimpaNetwork is a great example, are there any other examples you found through your research, for innovative approaches to introducing solar in developing countries?
MEH: Boond is another company working in this field that interests me. Rustam Sengupta, the founder, is passionate and it's a pleasure to hear him speak about his work. India is replete with unsung innovators like this and filled with a kind of intellectual energy that I feel is sometimes lacking in the West, partially due to a sense of cultural complacency that many feel but are afraid to talk about. But like Simpa, the work Sengupta does is complicated by the financial situation of his customers. They have to collaborate with banks--securing loans with the burden on the customer, essentially--in order to make the product affordable.
Simpa, on the other hand, has the challenge of convincing their customers to pay what is sometimes a fifth of their budget or more on solar power. Both of these systems have flaws because of the nature of the problem they are trying to solve.
It's like trying to squeeze two pennies out of one.
S: How have and can governments support or help?
MEH: In the case of India, they can start by stripping out the corruption! Uttar Pradesh, the state from which the story's central character is based, is a nightmare in terms of corruption. Journalists are murdered and disappear without a trace, bribes are ubiquitous, etcetera. Is it any wonder why they can't get organized enough to get power to more remote villages?
Uttar Pradesh has a population of over 200 million people. That's just one Indian state and it has more people than Russia.
The work that needs to be done in order to shift that massive number of people away from coal and kerosene can't be accomplished with a PR victory here or there. What's needed is a radical rethinking of energy at the global scale.
S: Are there any drawbacks and what are some of the challenges with solar energy in India?
MEH: The drawback to solar power at the micro-level is that the clients have two poverties to overcome at the same time: energy poverty and financial poverty.
You need solar-powered energy to earn more money, but you also need the money to buy the solar.
It can save a person's life and bankrupt them at the same time, if they're not careful.
The challenges are related to the market. It's amusing when I see libertarian-minded, Randian thinkers dismiss the recent global interest in inequality. They say 'well, ultimately people rise out of poverty through the market'. And in India we have a right wing Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, with a story of rising up from being a humble chai seller, who both symbolizes that ideology and enforces it through his policies.
But while capitalism has undeniably lifted many from poverty, the ideology doesn't provide any incentive to fix an ecological crisis that presently threatens to wipe out the entire human race. If coal makes more money than solar, people use coal. It's as simple as that. The market doesn't provide enough incentive on its own to switch the developing world to solar.
For me, it's not a coincidence that Modi, who just made Forbes list of the most powerful people in the world, is challenged by environmental issues. Never mind moving the country to solar, the air in Delhi in December looks like a scene from John Carpenter's eco-horror film The Fog, and one gets the sense from living there that, that reality doesn't bother him in the slightest.
S: Where do you see the future of solar energy going in the developing world?
MEH: You know, I hate to be pessimistic about this subject because I find the positive energy that environmental activists put into their work to be extraordinarily moving. I find the entrepreneurs I've written about in National Geographic, for example, to be inspirational. I have a two year old son, and if he grew up to do work like this I'd pat myself on the back as a parent. It takes immense strength of will to wake up every morning and fight against the dominant ideology of the day on such a tiny scale by selling solar power from hut to hut in a neglected corner of the world. These are clever people who could be using their intelligence to be making millions selling useless junk to people for a fast profit, but instead work within the rules they are given, to try and make the world a better place.
Still, I'm a writer, and perhaps because of it, I see human nature in a different way. The things we are doing right now, as a planet, in terms of solar energy, are things we should have been doing a long, long time ago. And what should be happening right now is a widespread collaboration between governments to both improve solar technology and spread it across the map. The market on its own can do many things but it cannot sell the kind of massive projects we as human beings need to undertake in order to save us from an impending ecological catastrophe. There are climate scientists who believe that we need to stop flying in airplanes. Can you imagine such a proposal sticking? The notion sounds hallucinatory in the context of our current era of global politics.
So, the answer to your question is that I think we need to begin working together to implement solar power both on the micro and macro level everywhere we can immediately, and without waiting for the market to take us there, but I'm doubtful that it will happen without some kind of political revolution taking place on a global scale.