Solar power still untapped

Posted: 3 February 2001

Selective use of solar energy could significantly improve the livelihood of millions of people in rural areas in developing countries, according to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Solar photovoltaic technology is currently mainly used in homes for lighting, radio and television, however, the report urges: "The time is ripe now to advance towards a new phase of solar energy beyond the light bulb. We should not only use solar systems for household lighting, but also for pumping drinking water, irrigation, cattle watering, small cottage and agro-industries, facilitating educational radio and TVprogrammes and health services."

Almost two billion people in developing countries are still without access to electricity. Their energy problems will not be resolved by solar power in the home alone, says the report. "It is realised that the most disadvantaged, subsistence farmers will generally not be able to afford solar systems. Solar systems do, however, provide some particular advantages that make them interesting for basic social services such as water supply and vaccine refrigeration, as well as for several niche-applications. With lower prices, the size and number of niches will grow," FAO said.

The report cites many examples of growing solar energy application in agriculture. Solar pumping is suitable for drip irrigation of horticultural and other high value crops. Solar systems are also often the most economic solutions to supply water for people and their livestock in remote, unelectrified areas. Water pumping is one of the major rural photovoltaic markets in developing countries while solar electric powered fences are also widely sold.

Small solar systems also help develop other productive activities in many countries, such as restaurants, bars, cinemas, telephone shops, technical and artisanal workshops by providing light and powering small tools such as drills, blenders, mobile phones and television sets. Installing and maintaining solar systems and selling photovoltaic electricity helps to create jobs in rural areas.

However, the introduction of photovoltaics still faces several barriers such as high investment costs, lack of financing and infrastructure, low volumes of sales, lack of political commitment and policies, FAO said. However, financial schemes such as revolving funds, soft loans to farmer cooperatives and equipment leasing arrangements are opening new opportunities.