Solar-powered LEDs provide safe and cheap alternative to kerosene lamps in rural communities throughout the world
Sunlight is free and safe. That is all Ganpat Jadhav needs to know to sleep soundly in a mud and clay home in an electricity-free village in the Otur region in western India. Until recently, his three children used to study by the faint, flickering flames of a kerosene lamp, inhaling the equivalent of two packages of cigarette smoke over the course of a night.
1.5 billion people in the world use kerosene lamps as their primary source of light in their homes. An estimated 1.6 million people a year die worldwide as a direct result from indoor pollutants caused by such lighting media, according to a recent report by Intermediate Technology Development Group. You don’t even have to play with fire to get burned.
Wood- and dung-burning stoves and lamps are not only dangerous, they are inefficient. Just like Gampat and his children, in rural communities throughout the world, solar-powered LED lights are replacing fuel-burning kerosene lamps, saving workers who used to rely on kerosene up to one month of fuel-related costs in a year. Fuel costs are high for these flame-powered lights, typically 4% of a family’s budget in the poorest areas of the world.
The solar-powered LEDs are less costly, brighter and more efficient than fuel-burning lamps. LED lamps, or, more specifically, white LEDs, are believed to produce nearly 200 times more useful light than a kerosene lamp and almost 50 times the amount of useful light of a conventional bulb.
Environmentally, solar-LEDs can eliminate the 180 tons of biomass per year from primitive wood-burning stoves in rural India alone.
“This technology can light an entire rural village with less energy than that used by a single conventional 100 watt light bulb,” said Dave Irvine-Halliday, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Calgary, Canada and the founder of the NGO Light Up the World Foundation (LUTW).
The poorest rural communities in countries such as Nepal, Bolivia, India, and Sri Lanka, however, often can’t readily access solar LED technology due of manufacturing costs and heavy import tariffs that balloon a solar-powered LED lamp to an average of $55, a hefty price for a new technology for laborers who make $1 – 2 a day. Through donations and fundraisers, organizations such as LUTW help lower the costs of purchasing the lamps, even eliminating time-intensive burden of a long-distance journey often required to obtain the lights.
One solution may, says Irvine-Halliday, is to extend micro-credit loans to poor families. In Tembisa, a shanty town near Johannesburg, South Africa, a family spends $60 a year in candles and paraffin. ‘These families can afford to purchase a solid state lighting system in just over a year of paying per week what they would normally spend on candles and paraffin – if they have access to micro-credit,” said Irvine-Halliday. A micro-credit facility currently proposed by LUTW would enable more than 4 million homes in South Africa would be able to afford the LED lighting systems.
Another long-term solution to solar LEDs’ high costs in poor areas is to manufacture the lights locally, bringing the costs for a lamp to $22 for rural worker, according to Grameen Survya Bijili Foundation (GSBF), Bombay-based NGO that is committed to bringing light to rural India. However, building a factory costs approximately $5 million, investment capital that is difficult to find.
What does the future hold for solar-powered LEDs? Perhaps advances in solar LED technology will allow entire villages to be lit at night for free after the initial infrastructure, reducing pollution and creating safer pathways to school or the next town. Or in areas riddled with dangerous predators, every child can have a handheld LED so bright that it can disorientate an animal long enough for the child to flee. All thanks to LED and the sun.
Photos Courtesy of RenewableEnergyWorld.com.