From magnifying glasses to steam engines, scientists through the centuries have found innovative ways to harness the power of the sun. Converting more solar power into electricity is high on the political agenda in many countries, amid the push to find domestic energy sources that are less polluting than fossil fuels.
From Lenin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 20th-century political leaders made the provision of universal electricity a centerpiece of their programs and oratory. “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,” one slogan went.
In this century, the United Nations has updated the concept in addressing the problem that 1.4 billion people in the world are living without electricity. The buzz phrase is “Sustainable Energy for All” but the approach is very different, given that the vast majority of the unconnected live near the equator, where the sun is at its zenith, small scale solar powered equipment is becoming increasingly popular.
The drawback to solar power on a large scale is that it is expensive to produce: generating power from photovoltaic panels costs more than four times as much as coal, and more than twice what wind power costs and at the end of the day, would still not reach communities that are not yet on the power grid. Solar panels produce no energy at night, but that is not a significant problem because the electricity is often most needed in the daytime, when consumers turn on lights, electronics and machinery.
However, necessity as always, has borne interesting scientific solutions. Today, there are so many different targeted applications to help people solve problems on a daily basis. Like a solar-powered lantern that a midwife can hang above the bed so that both of her hands are free, or solar powered laptops for the “One Laptop Per Child” campaign or solar powered drip irrigation systems being used in Benin, or solar-powered lights for voting booths in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In Rwanda, rural clinics are using solar powered microscopes, blood analysis machines, centrifuges, portable x-ray machines, sterilization devices as well LED lighting in patient wards.
A lot of this would not have been as possible a decade or two ago, when solar power technologies were less robust and electrical lighting usually required energy-hungry incandescent bulbs. Now, advances in light-emitting diodes, which provide more light with less energy, and in small-scale solar power technology are spawning a new generation of devices for people who lack access to a grid.
In 2007, the biggest solar power plant in Africa that generates 250KW of power was inaugurated. However, this is still less than 1 percent of the total power generated. Considering that Rwanda is a country, where land is at a premium, it’s becoming obvious that solar powered applications at an individual level is an expedient way to raise the electricity penetration to more that 50 percent in the next few years. Solar powered communication equipment will also take Rwanda a step ahead towards being the region’s ICT hub.