1.3 billion people in the world lack access to electricity. They depend on mostly kerosene to use as light at night, which gets expensive over time and poses a lot of health risks at home (think toxic fumes and accidental fires). But there is a viable solution already available today: affordable solar energy. In the last 5 years, the cost of solar PV technology has dropped so drastically that companies are sprouting up all over the developing world to manufacture and distribute affordable solar products to light up unelectrified homes. These products range from basic torch lights to entire solar home systems that can power multiple lights, cellphone charging, radio, and even TV. So what's enabling the off-grid solar revolution? Here are the three main reasons:
End-User Financing That Makes Sense
While the cost of solar has gone down, many of the 1.3 billion off-grid population still find the price tag on most solar products prohibitively expensive. However, solar companies have coupled their solar products with financing plans that allow customers to purchase solar products according to their level of income. These plans include monthly installments or weekly installments that span from 3 to 18 months. Some companies even go further and sell solar energy as a service similar to how people in the developed world pay their electric bills. In those cases, each family pays to keep their solar powered electricity services on, and the service will be cut off if the family stops their payment.
Looking at examples of what people currently spend on energy will put these costs and financing plans in context. A typical rural Indian household spends Rs. 150 to Rs. 300 each month on kerosene lighting. If we include diesel generators the cost goes up more. They end up spending a significant part of their overall income, which leaves them with not much funds to do anything else. A micro-grid solar project that was funded on SunFunder's crowdfunding platform ends up costing each household Rs. 100 a month and it gives them clean, bright solar lighting and overnight cell phone charging. Solar is more affordable and better for the people's health.
People Want Solar Energy to Charge Cellphones
Of the 1.3 billion people that lack access to electricity, about 600 million use cellphones. The majority of these off-grid cellphone users have to charge their phones through inconvenient means, like walking for hours to the nearest station where they can plug their phones into a car battery.
Almost all basic solar lights can now also charge cellphones, and this is largely because companies that design and manufacture solar lights realize that this is the main feature that will increase the sales of solar lights in off-grid communities. Not only that, but the cellphone charging feature presents a new source of income as well--many solar light customers who are also small shopkeepers now offer cellphone charging services in their shops.
Paying for Solar is Much Easier With Cellphones (After They're Charged)
A big challenge for companies that sell solar products with financing plans or as a service is how to get paid by households that live in remote areas. The administrative cost of traveling to remote villages and collecting payments is high and unsustainable for any business. However, many developing countries have robust mobile money platforms, like M-PESA in Kenya, that allow easy money transfers with cellphones. This keeps administrative costs for companies low, and it makes paying for solar as easy as sending a text message for the customers. Check out this video of Fenix International's ReadyPay solar kits to see just how easy mobile payments are.
These three factors combined together are the main reasons why solar is poised to leapfrog the electricity grid in many developing countries and deliver sustainable energy access for all. And right now, you can support the off-grid solar companies that are making it happen on SunFunder. SunFunder is a solar investment platform for both private and crowd investors and it loans capital to help scale solar companies in emerging markets. I am part of the SunFunder team, and we are doing this because we think energy access is a human right.
Photo of ReadyPay by Fenix International
ecoATM, a new strategic partner with The Green Living Guy is taking recycling to you more than any other company has offered. With a no-excuses approach and 800-plus kiosks located in shopping malls and retailers near you and across the USA, recycling electronic devices has never been more accessible.
What Electronics Does ecoATM Accept?
This ATM will recycle consumer electronics including:
and MP3 players
By using the ATM, you will ensuring that the devices are kept out of landfills. Best part, you get cash in return. Customers can also donate a portion or all of their cash payment to a number of charity partners. If it's too old, the ATM will ask you to donate $1 to your charity of choice by recycling the device.
It's been reported that many consumers use the cash they get from ecoATM to support their local economies. They usually spend the money in the mall or retail outlet where they recycled their devices.
“More people across the country are realizing the hidden value in the phones and devices they’ve been tossing into junk drawers for years, and with only 20 percent of cell phones being recycled today, there is incredible potential for millions of Americans,” said Mark Bowles, ecoATM’s founder and Chief Marketing Officer. “Our goal is to offer consumers an opportunity to convert their clutter into cash while doing the right thing for the environment by keeping tons of toxic waste out of our nation’s landfills.”
The two million devices recycled means 500,000 pounds of devices not in landfills. This is equal to:
1. three space shuttles worth of plastics, metals and potentially toxic materials
2. 70,000 pounds of copper – enough to create a second Statue of Liberty (made of 62,000 pounds of copper) and still have
3. extra 1,544 pounds of silver – enough to create 22,540 American Eagle silver dollar coins (made of .0685 pounds of silver)
For respect and creds, ecoATM holds both Responsible Recycling (R2) and ISO14001 certification, confirming the company’s commitment to maintaining the highest standards of electronics recycling, as well as ISO27001 certification for information and personal data security.
Sources: See "How it Works" (ecoATM) for a video of how an ecoATM kiosk works, visit www.ecoATM.com and for more information about Outerwall Inc, the Parent company, please visit www.outerwall.com.
ecoATM, the nationwide network of automated electronics recycling kiosks, has officially recycled more than two million phones and devices in its four-year history. ecoATM's more than 800 kiosks, which are located in shopping malls and retailers, recycle consumer electronics and provide cash payments as an incentive for consumers to recycle. (PRNewsFoto/ecoATM)
Photo by ECOATM
As the price of solar panels drops and homeowners take advantage of government incentives to use solar power, utility companies are taking a stance against the rise of distributed solar energy. The difference between power generation and distributed solar power is that distributed solar produces electricity off the grid, giving homeowners substantially lower energy costs. Under current regulations, utility companies pay retail prices for distributed solar power fed into the grid during peak hours.
Not everyone has the means or access to take advantage of distributed solar energy. Apartment renters, for example, must pay utility prices for electricity unless their landlords install panels on their rooftops. The current situation creates a two-tier system, separating moderately wealthy homeowners from people with more modest means. Solar companies are doing their part by making solar panel installations accessible to average homeowners the option to rent solar panels. Solar power use is increasing. So how will that affect you?
Utility Companies Fighting Back
Utility companies argue that they should pay wholesale prices for solar power generated during peak hours. Even though distributed solar only accounts for about 0.11 percent of electricity, current regulations forcing power companies to pay retail prices for solar energy hurt established utility companies. The regulation applies to the concept of net metering, which allows homeowners to sell the generated solar energy they don't use to power companies. This practice reduces energy costs for homeowners even further than simply installing solar panels.
Utility companies are lobbying lawmakers in response. So far, their efforts haven't been all that effective, but they hope to add government-mandated fees to solar power users in the amount of $5 to $120 per month. According to a survey conducted by CNBC, solar installations have increased nearly tenfold over the last four years. In 2010, installations numbered in the hundreds, but by 2012, they had reached thousands of installations per quarter. In 2013, 90,000 homeowners installed solar panels, bringing the total number of solar users in the country to 300,000. The trend is predicted to continue as the previously unaffordable investment continues to receive support from entrepreneurs and lawmakers.
What Opposition to Net Metering Means to Consumers
Over the last six years, solar panels have become 75 percent more affordable, leading to more mainstream commercial and residential use. Wall Street investors spent approximately $13 billion on the technology in 2013, up from just $1.3 billion in 2007. Even though utility companies feel threatened by the growth, many of them are also investing in distributed solar power for residential users and businesses. However, not all utility companies are joining the trend, and some remain opposed to renewable solar energy.
In California, Arizona and Colorado, utility providers succeeded in lobbying state governments to reduce subsidies and credits to homeowners who generate their own solar electricity. As more people install photovoltaic panels on their rooftops, the dramatic reduction in energy costs are being normalized. California's Public Utility Commission reasoned that homeowners who aren't using solar power will be forced to pay higher rates to utility companies to offset the imbalance created by distributed solar energy. By 2017, the state will have regulations in place to prevent this two-tier energy structure.
As more customers turn to solar panels in Arizona, lawmakers are supporting an additional charge of $5 per month to even out the competition. While this amount could dissuade some people from investing in solar power, it's far less than the $600 per year initially sought by utility companies.
Net metering in Colorado is under threat as well since utility companies have lobbied the state government to reduce payments by 50 percent. This regulation would mean that solar power users in Colorado would receive half as much money from utility companies for the solar energy they feed into the grid.
Solar Energy Prices Continue to Fall
Through improved technology, solar companies like Vivint and SolarCity are now leasing new home packages that include photovoltaic panels at significantly reduced prices. Solar use has continued to increase throughout 2013 and is expected to continue. Eventually, the price difference could mean everyone has the option to choose distributed solar energy over non-renewable fossil fuels. Lease agreements, in particular, make solar power an immediate option for people who otherwise couldn't afford an installation. With solar prices falling, there is likely to be more heated debates between solar and utility companies.
The solar cell had its birth in 1873, as bars of selenium. When two British scientists, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day, in 1876, exposed the bars to candlelight they discovered something totally new: that light, not heat, could directly generate electricity in certain materials such as selenium. Adams and Day called the current produced this way, “photoelectric.” But try as they may, no one could increase selenium’s low conversion of sunlight into electricity and scientists concluded that to realize the vision of solar cells powering the world would require finding a new photovoltaic material.
That came when the collaborative effort of Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson at Bell Laboratories developed a photovoltaic device capable of converting enough sunlight directly into electricity to generate useful amounts of power. Their public display at Bell’s press conference on April 25, 1954 of a 21-inch Ferris wheel spinning round and round powered by the first watt of silicon solar cells presented to the world one of the most significant breakthroughs ever recorded in the history of solar energy and of electricity. The New York Times realized the importance of what its reporters saw, stating on its front page that the invention of the Bell silicon solar cell marked “the beginning of a new era, eventually leading to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams – the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.” US News and World Report speculated that the new solar cell “may provide more power than all the world’s coal, oil and uranium…[its] future is limitless.”
At the time of the Bell announcement in 1954, all the solar cells in the world delivered about one watt. Today, more than 100 billion watts of generating capacity of photovoltaics have been installed worldwide. This year not only marks the 60th anniversary of the silicon solar cell but also the beginning of reaching the Holy Grail solar scientists had only previously dreamed of – entering the Era of Grid Parity, where solar panels generate power at costs equal to or less than electricity produced by fossil fuels and nuclear. With the phenomenal growth of solar pv in the last several years and its future even brighter, the time is ripe to celebrate the founding of a technology that led Science magazine almost forty years ago to declare, “If there is a dream solar technology, it is photovoltaics - solar cells...a space-age electronic marvel at once the most sophisticated solar technology and the simplest, most environmentally benign source of electricity yet conceived.”
Join us to celebrate the 60th birthday of practical photovoltaics and the great growth in solar electricity it has sired.
The material for the blog and upcoming world-wide celebration comes from John Perlin’s recently published book, Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy. For more information on the book, see the Renewable Energy Blog post "Let It Shine." The celebration will kick off in Palo Alto, California on April 18, 2014, where guests will get to meet some of the great remaining original solar pioneers and hear from the Mayor of Palo Alto how the city is procuring all its power from solar and other renewables. For more details, go to PV60.org.)
The increased use of glass during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reawakened the awareness of its ability to trap solar heat. That no one ever thought of finding out just how much solar heat glass could trap surprised the Swiss polymath Horace B. de Saussure. He therefore built in 1767 a rectangular box from wood, insulated with black cork and covered the top with three sheets of glass. When he tilted the box toward the sun, the temperature inside the solar hot box rose above the boiling point of water. Because of the large amount of solar heat the device retained, it became known as a solar hot box. Saussure cooked inside the hot box the first recorded solar meal. The solar hot box became popular among experimental scientists in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
Samuel Pierpoint Langley, head of the Smithsonian in the latter part of the nineteenth century, built a solar hot box and took it with him on an expedition to Mount Whitney. He melted snow inside the box for drinking water despite freezing temperatures outside. Renowned English astronomer Sir John Herschel amused passersby in South Africa by cooking meals in his solar hot box. “On one occasion,” he wrote, “a very respectable stew was prepared and eaten with no small relish by the entertained bystanders.” Reading Herschel’s account led fellow nineteenth-century astronomer Jacques Babinet wonder why, “In countries in which the atmosphere is always clear, as in Egypt, Arabia and Persia, where fuel is scarce and dear, people have never thought of utilizing the concentrated rays of the sun under glass for tasks where heat is needed, such as cooking.”
The solar hot box design became the prototype for solar thermal collectors used to heat water and homes.
Saussure’s solar hot box also models with amazing precision the dynamics of global-warming. . In the early 19th century, the French physicist Joseph Fourier was the first to notice the similarity between de Saussure’s hot box and what might happen should the atmosphere somehow lose its transparency to heat generated by solar radiation after reaching the earth, as most climate scientists suspect it does as humans emit greater amounts of greenhouse gases.
Fourier suggested that, like the glass covers, our atmosphere allows the short wave radiation of sunlight to easily pass through. But when the sunrays hit the earth, just as they do at the bottom of the hot box, they turn into longer heat waves, which cannot easily escape through the glass or a carbon-saturated sky, causing the heat to accumulate inside the box and on a planetary scale in the lower levels of the atmosphere. The clouds of carbon dioxide surrounding Venus provide us with a living example of the ultimate solar hot box where temperatures at the planet’s surface hover at around 890 degrees Fahrenheit.
This post summarizes the author’s Chapter 6 of Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy.
Photo from Smithsonian Institution Archives
Before the adjective “green” was used to describe the modern environmentalist movement, the color had a more monetary association. Hey, green may be the color of nature, but it’s also the color of money, and for your average person, the later plays a more significant day-to-day role than the former. But that doesn’t mean that the two are mutually exclusive! Take solar power, for example. It’s a clean, renewable, and—for all intents and purposes—inexhaustible energy source that can also just happen to save you loads of cash. In essence, solar power can help you go green, no matter which definition you happen to find more important. Here’s how:
Reduced Energy Costs
In 2009, the U.S. Energy Information Administration released a Residential Energy Consumption Survey. In it, they identified that the average United States homeowner ends up spending approximately $2,000 on home energy costs. Of course, those figures were gathered half a decade ago, so you can bet that the cost has only gone up since then. The point is, there’s probably a few things that come to mind when you consider what you could do with an extra $2,000 every year. The reason energy costs so much is that it’s difficult and expensive to generate. 44% of U.S. electricity comes from -burning plants (which also happen to be the biggest cause of air pollution in the country), with the other 36% divided between wind power, geothermal power, hydroelectric power, etc. All of these methods require resources, maintenance, and scores of employees to be able to function, and the person who gets to pay for it all is you. But, by switching over to home mounted-solar paneling, you effectively eliminate (or at least substantially reduce) your dependence on the city grid. Of course, the panels themselves are still somewhat expensive to purchase, which is why many individuals are taking a different approach. Vivint, Solarcity, and other major solar companies are now offering rentable solar panels. These companies are leasing solar power to customers for a fraction of what it would cost to get energy from the city.
Believe it or not, the government is just as interested in preserving the planet as anyone (you could say that they have a vested interest in it). As such, they’re currently willing to offer monetary incentives to help motivate the American population into using clean energy sources. These incentives often take the form of tax credits, which allow a recipient to reduce the total amount of taxes that need to be paid. Tax credits may be offered by both the federal government, as well as state government, and can make a big difference to your bank account once April 15th rolls around. So, if you decide to throw your hat in with solar power, you might be able to keep a bit more of your hard-earned cash come tax season.
Improved Home Value
Anything that you do to your home will affect its overall worth, and solar panels are no exception. However, the question is this: Is the increased value enough to offset the initial installation costs? Well, it’s impossible to say for sure, given that much of it depends on what potential home buyers are willing to pay, but the outlook is pretty good. A report by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that (especially in more liberal states), homeowners can recuperate up to 97% of their initial solar investment costs, and that doesn’t account for the other associated energy savings that come with solar power. This means that whether you want to sell your home or live in it for the rest of your life, you’ll be well rewarded if you’re willing to invest in solar power.
So, whether you’re more interested in keeping the planet green, or in lining your wallet with green, solar power is the way to go. Of course, you may have to spend a bit of green upfront, but just consider it an investment in the future—both for your bank account and for your planet.
This winter, I’ve been corresponding with a Cuban colleague who works for Cuba Energia, an energy information center in Cuba. He tells me that the Government has decided to introduce modern, efficient induction cooking to the country by offering 125,000 units for sale to residents countrywide. So, why should we be interested in what Cuba is doing?
Cuba’s Sustainable Living Practices
People who live on islands tend to have a better handle on the concept of finite resources in general. But after the collapse of Soviet Union, their main trade ally, and due to the ever intensifying US blockade, Cubans had to learn how to produce basic requirements such as food, medicines, and energy, both locally and sustainably. In the spring of 2011 I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba with a group of energy professionals to see first-hand how they were managing these efforts. Read more about this in The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook.
Due to the hardships endured, the Cuban people were able to reduce their energy consumption by about 50 percent over a four year period. This was not necessarily an altruistic goal, but one of necessity, and ultimately an effort that brought the island nation together as a large community. They learned some hard lessons that the rest of us can use to our advantage. The Cuban government made efficient products available to everyone for free or at much reduced prices, including lights, refrigerators, pressure cookers, and bicycles. And now, possibly, induction cook stoves.
How Induction Cooking Works
Induction cook stoves have no heating element and so do not get hot. They work by generating a high frequency (20 to 60 kilohertz) electric current, and inducing a magnetic field into the cookware itself. The metallic cookware receiving this induced energy is essentially the second “conductor” in this electromagnetic “circuit”, and the internal resistance of the cookware is what creates the heat. The type of pots and pans you use will have an effect on efficiency, and only cookware with iron in it will work with today’s induction cook tops. If in doubt, check the pot or pan in question with a magnet. If it’s magnetic, it should work well with induction cooking.
Pros and Cons of Induction Cooking
The lack of a conventional and relatively inefficient heating element or burner makes kitchens safer and cooler. Users report faster heating times, and because the cookware itself becomes the source of heat for the food it contains, more even heating can be expected. Other benefits include easy to clean surfaces, precision temperature control, and very low temperature settings. If you use a pressure cooker, beware that using an induction cook top requires some modifications to your approach.
Induction cook stoves are still relatively expensive and so not yet very popular except in high end home and commercial kitchens. Finding good energy use information is difficult, as I’ve not yet seen any high quality studies on energy consumption comparisons; perhaps the first will come from Cuba. Anecdotal evidence from users suggests that they are quite fast at heating, but the induction elements have the same power requirements as conventional electric ranges. This combination suggests higher efficiency and lower cooking costs, but one older study indicates marginal efficiency improvements over conventional electric stoves (84% vs 74% energy transfer efficiency). Savings estimates may be further reduced due to standby loads that will vary with the type and brand. Commercial kitchens may enjoy the benefit of much reduced space cooling requirements, something no chef or restaurant accountant would complain about!
Possible Health Concerns
One concern that does not seem to be resolved yet is the potential health risk of stray magnetic fields which can occur if the pot does not completely cover the induction unit. The risk can range from interference with pacemakers to exceeding human EMF exposure limits.
I’ll be keeping in touch with Cuba Energia, and hope to report back in the future as to the outcome of Cuba’s efficient cooking program.
Paul Scheckel is the author of The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook, your guide to getting off the grid”.
Photo from Newsroom.Electrolux.com