Off-Grid Solar Is Filling The Void For The Power Deprived
Wednesday, Feb 10 2016
We’ve come a long way in electricity distribution, and we say that quite literally. Stretching hundreds of miles over state and country boundaries, power lines act like arteries streaming energy from the plant into your home.
But there are still 1.1 billion people without access to electricity, either too far or too poor to connect to the grid. Whether subsistence farmers in Africa or indigenous communities in America, these individuals face substandard living conditions that impinge on their health, education and economic advancement.
Another 3 billion people living off-the-grid resort to polluting biomass—such as wood and animal waste—to light, heat and cook in their homes. This causes dangerous chemicals to circulate indoors, killing an estimated 4.3 million people each year.
To address this injustice, the solar industry developed a solution that is affordable, safe and environmentally sound: small-scale, off-the-grid solar electricity.
Already a burgeoning industry in Africa, solar “packages”—usually comprised of a solar panel, battery, inverter, LED lights and cables to connect to appliances—give small business owners the ability to stay open after dark, and enable students to study well into the night, all-the-while offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-based fuels.
While Africa may be most beleaguered by electricity deprivation, the threat is chronic in pockets of the United States as well.
On the Navajo Reservation, residents are spread out over 27,000 square miles of variegated desert strewn with mountains and canyons, causing the price of infrastructure and power line installations to soar. In fact, to extend the electric grid by just one mile can cost up to $50,000.
These high costs bog down further development and have left 40 percent of Navajo households without electricity.
Off-the-grid solar is filling this void.
“The more people who became familiar with this availability and how it worked, the greater the increase in demand,” said Deenise Becenti, public affairs supervisor for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), the primary utility service provider for the reservation.
The NTUA has installed 219 off-grid solar systems for families on tribal land, many in just the last two years after they upgraded to panels with greater solar capacity.
“The most difficult part of living without electricity was refrigeration,” Becenti said. “Some families drove daily, over 20 miles, for ice they could put in a cooler to keep food fresh. Refrigeration is what families have been most grateful for.”
Helping the NTUA bring electricity to the Navajo Nation is GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that provides solar technologies to low-income communities (43 percent of Navajo live below the poverty line).
“When paired with training in installation and maintenance for the local community, off-grid systems can provide much needed energy access to families in areas of the Navajo Nation where the electrical grid is unavailable,” said Tim Willink, director of GRID Alternative’s Tribal Programs.
The solar electricity also replaces the need for kerosene lanterns, well-documented for causing serious fire and health risks, which are still commonly used on the reservation, according to Willink.
Both Becenti and Willink see off-the-grid solar electricity as an integral part of the Navajo Nation’s energy future. “This is part of our expansion plan,” said Becenti. “We must continue to meet the needs of Navajo families living in remote areas.”
The world’s mushrooming population, coupled with climate change, globalization and international development, is creating an energy frenzy that cannot be comprehensively addressed by erecting more power poles. Off-the grid solar is stepping in to finish the task, and the outlook is bright.