Here, Andrew Scott and Leah Worrall of the Overseas Development Institute discuss how off-grid solar contributes to resilience. This blog post accompanies their recently published working paper on off-grid solar and resilience.
The world’s off-grid solar industry convenes in Hong Kong this week, for the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum and Expo. The location seems appropriate, as most of the world’s solar lights and solar home systems (SHS) are manufactured in China. The largest markets are elsewhere, however, in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
In the first half of 2017, the 65 members that make up the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association (GOGLA) sold a total of 3.7 million solar lights and SHS. That’s over 20,000 each day, roughly half of all sales worldwide. Almost three-quarters were single light devices, up to three watts peak capacity.
Many people buying solar lights and SHS live near or below the poverty line. SolarAid and SunnyMoney, for example, report that 90% of the people who benefited from their products in 2015 were below the poverty line. These people are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as rising average temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, and they must learn to adapt to its uncertain impacts. However, there is a dearth of studies on how solar lights and SHS contribute to the resilience of their users in the face of climate change.
To address this gap, a new ODI Working Paper explores the relationship between households’ use of solar lights and SHS and the resilience of these households to the impacts of climate change. By relating evidence about the impacts of solar lights and SHS to the essential capacities for resilience, this new paper provides insights into how basic access to electricity can contribute to climate resilience.
The paper focuses on the two main energy services provided by solar lights and SHS – lighting and communications – describing how they can have an impact on the anticipatory, adaptive and absorptive capacities essential for resilience.
Solar lighting provides a much better quality of light than kerosene lamps and candles, and extends the number of hours in a day for domestic or productive activities. Research has shown that the number of hours school students spend studying at home is likely to increase; socialising and leisure time may increase; and, in some cases, time spent in income-earning activities can increase.
Education enabled by solar lighting can enhance people’s ability to understand and respond to weather information or warnings (i.e. their anticipatory capacity), respond and react to the challenges of disasters (absorptive capacity) and enhance the acquisition and application of new knowledge (adaptive capacity). People with education cope better during emergencies, and are more likely to adapt their livelihoods to new locations and opportunities.
Using a solar light may reduce household expenditure on lighting, reducing the need to buy kerosene. These financial savings can contribute to absorptive capacities and households’ ability to respond to disasters. Adaptive capacities can also be strengthened through higher incomes and expenditure, and livelihood diversification, made possible by access to solar electricity.
According to the World Health Organization a ‘healthier population will be more resilient to climate change’. Substituting solar lights for kerosene lamps improves peoples’ health by reducing household air pollution, a primary cause of respiratory illness. When the health status of people at risk of climate variability and extremes improves, absorptive and adaptive capacities can improve too.
Solar lights and SHS provide an increased sense of security to households. Personal security (and thus absorptive capacity) can be enhanced using solar lights during disaster recovery. For example, they were a critical factor in reducing gender-based violence in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and Oxfam provided solar lamps to displaced women in South Sudan to provide increase their safety and security during the night.
Mobile phone use is widespread in most developing countries, including in households without access to electricity. Adopting solar lights or SHS that have phone charging outlets can reduce the cost of recharging phone batteries, encouraging more frequent battery charging and increased phone use. In Bangladesh, 95% of SHS users reported improved access to information through mobile phone, TV or radio about general news, health-related issues, weather and natural disasters.
Access to information and communications is a significant factor in household resilience. For example, mobile phones, radio and television can provide early warning of extreme weather events. Resilient households are more likely to obtain advance information, and its availability improves resilience. As well as enabling access to weather information (an element of anticipatory capacity), mobile phones can allow access to medical information and expert advice during and immediately after disasters (absorptive capacity). And in some countries, mobile phones also allow access to bank accounts and financial resources, including savings and insurance, which can be critical for disaster recovery.
The limited empirical evidence available suggests that the principal energy services provided by solar lights and SHS, namely lighting and communications, can contribute to the anticipatory, adaptive and absorptive capacities that are essential for resilience. For policy-makers there are two main conclusions.
- Policy-makers should consider the potential of the growing number of solar lights and SHS already present in vulnerable communities when they formulate strategies and plans for disaster preparedness, including early warning systems, communications during recovery, provision of health care and ensuring safety.
- Policy-makers responsible for electrification should be made aware of the potential for solar lamps and SHS to contribute to the capacities necessary for resilience. This could influence strategies for electrification to vulnerable populations where the risk of disasters is high, strengthening arguments for the promotion of solar lamps and SHS to vulnerable households.
For those assessing the impacts of off-grid electricity, there is a need to consider the links between resilience and the use of solar lights and SHS when undertaking impact assessment studies.