Solar Lanterns Are Not Sexy – But They Are Popular for a Good Reason
by Johannes Urpelainen
Solar lanterns lack the kind of sex appeal other distributed energy technologies tend to have. When we imagine the future of energy, we have in mind solar home systems and mini-grids that offer everything the conventional grid has to offer – except at a lower cost and without climate change. Mini-grids excite the engineer within us with their mobile pay-as-you-go systems, sophisticated pricing mechanisms, cloud-based data management, and demand-side management. The idea of “leapfrogging” those dirty fossil fuels remains irresistible.
In reality, mini-grids are often not a realistic solution to the poorest of the poor – the people who need energy access the most. Mini-grids are never the most affordable solution, as they contain the same technologies as a standard grid system, except in miniature form. Solar panels, batteries, wiring, controllers, and energy meters add up to relatively high capital costs.
If the community is remote and the grid nowhere to be seen, a mini-grid may of course be the least expensive comprehensive solution to rural electrification. But for a very poor rural household, the notion of a “least-cost solution” is cold comfort. Theoretically, the very poor rural household would now be able to power a wide range of electric appliances at a lower cost than under a conventional grid extension model. In reality, the cost of the mini-grid service remains too expensive and the household remains in the dark.
The solar lantern, which offers one LED light and often a mobile charger, offers a far more affordable basic lighting solution. A wide range of products, many of which are quality-certified, are now available. A very poor household can reach the first rung of the modern energy ladder with these products at a low cost.
In India, the Clean Energy Access Network (CLEAN) found that lanterns and similar “pico” products are by far the most popular distributed solar product sold by CLEAN members, with 3.6 million sales in the 2016-2017 financial year alone. Compare this number to only 92,000 solar home systems and only 206 mini-grids and micro-grids. While grid extension continues at a brisk pace, solar lanterns fill the gaps among those who cannot afford to pay for grid connections or their electricity bills.
The solar lantern is a far cry from modern energy access, and it would be a grave injustice if the world’s energy-poor had to meet their needs with solar lanterns alone in perpetuity. As a temporary solution, however, the solar lantern remains an affordable and popular product. While micro-grid and mini-grid business models remain at early stages of their development, solar lanterns have already conquered the world. They are popular for a good reason.