This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at: john.weeks@sdsu.edu

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Solar Power for the World's Poor

Electricity was discovered scarcely more than a century ago. It was introduced first into the cities of the U.S. and Europe, and spread from there. It is hard for us now to imagine what life was like before electricity. We get a glimpse during power outages, but the entire world is a different and more "luxurious" place because of electricity. To be sure, it has been less than half a century since most of the farms in the US were finally hooked up to the grid. And therein lies the problem--the grid. It is expensive to build power plants and string up the power lines to electrify rural households. It is expensive not just in terms of monetary investment, but also in terms of the environmental damage created by fossil-fuel based (especially coal) power plants. It is hard to imagine the environmental cost of getting coal-fired electricity to the 1.2 billion people on the planet who don't have it. This is where the sun comes in.

About one in four of those in the world without electricity live in rural India and, as a story in today's NYTimes details, there is a company trying to get solar power to these folks.
A few years ago, the hundred or so residents of Paradeshappanamatha, a secluded hamlet in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, gathered along the central pathway between their 22 densely clustered homes, and watched as government workers hoisted a solar-powered streetlamp. As the first display of electricity in the town, it was an object of mild interest, but, being outside, the light didn’t help anyone cook or study, and only attracted moths.
Still, when B. Prasad arrived two years later to encourage people here to abandon kerosene lighting for solar-powered home systems, people had some idea what he was talking about. What sounded preposterous to the village residents was the price. Mr. Prasad, an agent for Solar Electric Light Company, or Selco, was selling a panel and battery that would power three lights and an attached socket for phone charging for approximately 12,800 rupees, or $192.
“There was no way we could afford that,” P. C. Kalayya remembers thinking. He and his neighbors rise early in the morning to walk miles along a nearly impassable dirt road to work on coffee, pepper and betel nut plantations. Mr. Kalayya earns $3 a day — he’d been earning $2.25 until a raise came through this year — and half his wage is withheld by his employer as repayment for various loans.
And yet, despite what seemed on its face an impossibly high cost, Selco agents succeeded in persuading Mr. Kalayya and 10 other village households to make the switch. Now, his wife can better see how much spice she is putting in as she cooks, and Pratima, their 18-year-old daughter, can study long after dark.
This is exactly the direction the world needs be going--improving people's lives without threatening the sustainability of life on the planet. A few months ago I discussed a new book by Lester Brown suggesting that solar power was the future, and it is very encouraging to see these ideas work in practice.

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