What is the role of the solar lantern in energy access? In July of last year, I attended an Engineering for Change Webinar called “Off Grid Technology Perspectives, The Case of the Solar Lantern” that explored this question. The webinar included thoughtful, context-setting presentations from Guarav Manchanda of One Degree Solar, Ned Tozun of d.light Design, and Dr. Harald Schützeichel of Sun-Connect eG. The presentations were followed by a discussion that included an interesting exchange between Dr. Schützeichel and the webinar moderator Russell Sturm, who is Head of the Energy Access Advisory at the International Finance Corporation. In publications and presentations (including this webinar), Dr. Schützeichel has openly challenged a perceived focus by the international aid, finance and social enterprise communities on solar lanterns as the primary means to combat energy poverty in emerging markets. He argues that there is a discrepancy between what the energy poor in emerging markets want, which is essentially energy access on parity with grid connection, and what he believes the Western world thinks they need, which is a replacement for kerosene wick lamps. As a result, his argument proceeds, there is a Western-driven overemphasis on the distribution of small solar lamps that force off-grid energy consumers to remain, essentially, under-electrified.
The core tenet of this argument is not new. As the UK non-profit Solar Aid puts it, a debate over the benefits of solar lamps versus full solar home systems (SHSs) has recently “been rumbling”, with some practitioners suggesting that there is an inherent trade-off between the two that make it an either/or situation. During the webinar discussion, Mr. Sturm presented a lucid argument that the challenge of full electrification is less one of Western perception than one of financial practicality. Outright purchases of SHSs are only possible for a higher-income band of the off-grid population. This necessarily leaves out a considerable percentage of the 1.2B people beyond the grid. Financing can facilitate access, and certainly has in the stunningly successful Bangladesh SHS market. But replicating the Bangladeshi success requires a similarly massive pool of low-interest capital that is not readily available outside of targeted government programs. Mr. Sturm argued that to truly and rapidly scale energy access to billions of people, an incremental process is needed whereby people are able to affordably grab the first “rung” of the energy ladder in order to then move to the second rung.
This webinar and discussion was brought to my mind by Greenlight Planet and Angaza’s recent announcement of the Sun King Eco Easy Buy solar lantern. The Eco Easy Buy is the first commercially available Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) entry level solar lamp, designed to be within financial reach of every kerosene-dependent household in emerging markets. It is purchased incrementally over approximately 2 months, at a weekly price below a household’s average kerosene expenditure. This radically affordable solar product represents the true first rung of the modern energy ladder. Energy consumers that purchase the lamp gain an informal “credit” score on Angaza’s software system that de-risks the financing of their purchase of a higher-wattage solar device, thus moving them to the next rung. Decreased financing risk increases the likelihood of private capital deployment into the market (to join innovative leaders like SunFunder), easing working capital constraints throughout the value chain and facilitating scale.
With the release of the Sun King Eco Easy Buy we have a chance to realize the energy ladder that Mr. Sturm discussed, with the end goal of achieving full universal energy access. Debates aside, I believe this is what all practitioners understand that energy consumers around the world both want, and deserve.