Every time I tell people about my line of work, they immediately tell me about their idea for a solar powered (insert your gadget here). I know their intentions are good -- generating energy from the sun is a wonderful thing, it's less polluting than harvesting oil and depleting natural resources. However, I question whether or not solar cells are appropriate for the developing world. Yes, I've read a few of the published papers on the benefits of solar and successful solar programs implemented in developing world communities. But if environmentalism is your argument, then you have to consider the full life cycle of the panel and the affect is have on developing world communities. They're likely shipped in from China and once they "break", they're tossed into the street. Almost everything in the developing world is salvaged and re-used for a secondary purpose. Solar panels? Does anyone know what happens to the cheap-o mini panels on store shelves in Africa and India? They're not readily re-used and they're full of toxic materials. There's little to no infrastructure in place to "properly dispose" of used panels. Or anything for that matter.
There's a fine line between looking out for people in the present vs. looking out for future generations. I think there's a middle ground. In the case of solar, it's alternatives like wind-power, human-power generation, micro-hydro, bio-fuels, etc. Many of these renewable technologies are mechanical systems, which are far more favorable for the developing world. For example, a small-scale wind turbine, made of materials that can be sourced and manufactured in the developing world, creates local manufacturing and maintanence jobs. Its worn parts will undoubtedly find a second life. The only toxic materials will be in the battery which: 1) are already in heavy use in the developing world, and 2) are also part of a solar system. Our objective should be to promote solutions that fulfill present needs as well as consider the present and future environmental impact. After all, there are billions of people in the developing world. Environmental impact must be considered.
Our second objective should be incremental change of social behavior. That's not something one can do overnight with a single installation of a solar panel. Successful technologies are sensitive to the cultures they serve.
My message: solar panels and solar cookers are not the answers to all the world's problems! Technology for the sake of technology is not a good thing. History (and the developing world) is littered with these failures -- pushed by people with laudable intentions.
Lastly, I need an education. I welcome success and failures stories related to solar power in the developing world. As well as analysis on economic, environmental, and social impact of solar panels (esp. the mini ones). Particularly since I'm fighting an uphill battle -- I'd like to have more ammunition for future arguments (er, "discussions").
(photo by Mark Hankins)