For Sara Ruto, the desperate yearning for electricity began last year with the purchase of her first cellphone, a lifeline for receiving small money transfers, contacting relatives in the city or checking chicken prices at the nearest market.
Charging the phone was no simple matter in this farming village far from Kenya’s electric grid.
Every week, Ms. Ruto walked two miles to hire a motorcycle taxi for the three-hour ride to Mogotio, the nearest town with electricity. There, she dropped off her cellphone at a store that recharges phones for 30 cents. Yet the service was in such demand that she had to leave it behind for three full days before returning.
That wearying routine ended in February when the family sold some animals to buy a small Chinese-made solar power system for about $80. Now balanced precariously atop their tin roof, a lone solar panel provides enough electricity to charge the phone and run four bright overhead lights with switches.
“My main motivation was the phone, but this has changed so many other things,” Ms. Ruto said on a recent evening as she relaxed on a bench in the mud-walled shack she shares with her husband and six children.
As small-scale renewable energy becomes cheaper, more reliable and more efficient, it is providing the first drops of modern power to people who live far from slow-growing electricity grids and fuel pipelines in developing countries. Although dwarfed by the big renewable energy projects that many industrialized countries are embracing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, these tiny systems are playing an epic, transformative role.
Since Ms. Ruto hooked up the system, her teenagers’ grades have improved because they have light for studying. The toddlers no longer risk burns from the smoky kerosene lamp. And each month, she saves $15 in kerosene and battery costs — and the $20 she used to spend on travel.
In fact, neighbors now pay her 20 cents to charge their phones, although that business may soon evaporate: 63 families in Kiptusuri have recently installed their own solar power systems.
“You leapfrog over the need for fixed lines,” said Adam Kendall, head of the sub-Saharan Africa power practice for McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm. “Renewable energy becomes more and more important in less and less developed markets.”
The United Nations estimates that 1.5 billion people across the globe still live without electricity, including 85 percent of Kenyans, and that three billion still cook and heat with primitive fuels like wood or charcoal.
There is no reliable data on the spread of off-grid renewable energy on a small scale, in part because the projects are often installed by individuals or tiny nongovernmental organizations.
But Dana Younger, senior renewable energy adviser at the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank Group’s private lending arm, said there was no question that the trend was accelerating. “It’s a phenomenon that’s sweeping the world; a huge number of these systems are being installed,” Mr. Younger said.
With the advent of cheap solar panels and high-efficiency LED lights, which can light a room with just 4 watts of power instead of 60, these small solar systems now deliver useful electricity at a price that even the poor can afford, he noted. “You’re seeing herders in Inner Mongolia with solar cells on top of their yurts,” Mr. Younger said.
Check out this video about the IFC’s programm “Lighting Africa”
In Sub-Saharan Africa, 500 million people are without electricity. For light they rely on antiquate kerosene lamps and paraffin candles that cast little light, produce toxic fumes and too often start deadly fires.
The World Bank and IFC have created the program “Lighting Africa” to replace those lamps with modern off-grid lights, that light better, and are safe and affordable. These efficient Compact Fluorescents Lamps (CFLs) and Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) rely for their energy on solar panels, windup mechanisms or batteries.
Laura Stachel, co-founder of WE CARE Solar, demonstrates the impact of a basic solar-powered lighting system. Energy-efficient LED lights revolutionized the quality of care in a Nigerian maternity ward, where patients in need of emergency surgery had been turned away from care at night.