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Tina Casey headshot

Low-Cost Solar Replaces Expensive, Dirty, Dangerous Kerosene in Africa


ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson promotes petroleum as the only solution to "energy poverty" in developing nations, but affordable solar power is on the verge of completely undercutting his argument, at least when it comes to household lighting. In Africa, for example, the company Off Grid Electric is offering a soup-to-nuts solar lighting system aimed squarely at replacing kerosene.

Off Grid Electric has been introducing its solar model in Tanzania, and with a new round of $70 million in financing, it is set up for a major expansion.

The end of kerosene

Relieving households from the health and safety hazards of burning kerosene indoors is the key advantage of solar power.

A paper prepared for the 2013 Off-Grid Lighting Conference identified the following risks from kerosene lighting:

"... burns caused by a wide variety of factors, indoor air pollution, non-intentional ingestion of kerosene fuel by children, suppressed visual health, and compromised health services and outcomes in facilities lit with fuel-based light. Each risk factor results in illness, and most in mortalities. Lighting is the dominant and sometimes only use of kerosene (referred to as paraffin in some parts of the world) in rural areas ..."

That's just the summary. The statistics cited in the report make it clear that adding more kerosene to emerging markets is literally adding fuel to the fire. Beyond fire risks and exposure to dangerous levels of airborne pollutants, that includes poisoning (accidental ingestion of kerosene is "the leading cause of child poisoning in developing countries") and vision problems related to habitual use of insufficient lighting.

Regardless of Mr. Tillerson's point of view, clearly kerosene needs to be replaced with a safer, healthier alternative.

The solar advantage

That's where Off Grid Electric comes in. This year, the company has accumulated a $70 million pool of solar financing that will enable it to expand its lease-based distributed solar model in Africa.

The lease model enables kerosene users to acquire solar power within their existing energy budget. Consumers with no formal credit record can use the platform to establish a credit record, too.

Over the next three years, Off Grid Electric will leverage its partnership with the Tanzanian Investment Center to provide off-grid solar electricity to 1 million households. In addition to providing solar power for lighting, the system also enables users to power small appliances and recharge cell phones.

The U.S. Agency for International Development contributed $5 million to the $70 million solar pot with this observation:

"In Tanzania, approximately 40 million people lack access to electricity. Off Grid Electric currently provides affordable, reliable light and energy services to 10,000 new households per month to families faced with an expensive grid, an unreliable grid, or no grid access at all.

"Off Grid Electric borrows from the telecom industry's business model: rather than purchasing costly solar systems, customers pre-pay for electrical services using "mobile money" and are able to access small-scale, radically efficient solar home systems with integrated appliances."

The U.S. oil export ban

As a distributed solar provider, Off Grid Electric complements the Power Africa initiative, aimed at adding 30,000 megawatts of "new and cleaner" power generation to the continent, to bring 60 million new electricity connections to the grid.

Power Africa also includes biodigestion and other off grid electricity solutions that leverage local and scavenge-able resources.

Renewable energy is also challenging Africa's petroleum dependency in the cookstove field, where solar power is among the alternative sources edging into the marketplace.

With all this activity in mind, if petroleum fans were hoping that the newly-lifted U.S. oil export ban would expand the market in Africa and other developing regions, there may be some disappointment in store.

Image credit: Off Grid Electric, used with permission

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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