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Why mobile is driving off-the-grid solar in the developing world

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When we think about off-the-grid solar, we tend to picture environmentally conscious homeowners and corporations trying to make an incremental difference in greenhouse gas emissions by installing PV panels on rooftops. But for the 1.4 billion people on the globe who don’t have access to electricity, solar’s potential is less about fighting global warming than it is about accessing electricity where there isn’t even an electric grid to be “off of.”

The dream of electrifying rural areas in the developing world has long existed, but the proliferation of the mobile phone is driving many of the newer efforts to provide simple solar solutions to these parts of the world. Mobile phones, after all, are the original “off-the-grid” solution, in that their introduction has suddenly made it possible to provide phone service without installing extensive wired telephone infrastructure. But even cell phones need power.

There have been several attempts to build solar-powered mobile phones. One is Samsung’s E1107, which allows 10 minutes of talk time for every hour left in the sun. But increasingly, the wireless carriers themselves have decided to allocate resources to getting solar power to villages.

Zimbabwe’s richest man, Strive Masiyiwa, who made his fortune by founding top African wireless carrier Econet Wireless in 1993, recently announced the Econet Home Power Station. That system provides electricity for basic lighting and cell phone charging. The solar station comes with an embedded SIM card, and it will connect with Econet’s mobile network so that users can presumably enter prepaid codes to periodically top up their power station and get more solar-powered electricity, similar to what mobile phone users do with prepaid cell phones. Being on Econet’s network simplifies the billing process.

There is activity at the startup level, too. For example, Eight19 (8 minutes and 19 seconds is the time it takes sunlight to reach planet Earth), a spin-off of a Cambridge University solar plastic lab, is deploying a solar pack product in Sudan, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia. Eight19’s IndiGo technology allows villagers to buy scratchers with codes that can be punched into the solar pack for $1 of electricity. Cost competitive with kerosene, the prepaid model appears to be the billing model of choice for off-the-grid solar as companies employ a billing system for solar packs that worked for mobile.

From a corporate perspective, both of these devices share a common challenge: Companies can’t subsidize hardware costs through long-term contracts and have to produce inexpensive devices that can be monetized with incremental purchases over the long term.

And it is not just consumers that need power from the wireless providers. The unreliability of power grids in the developing world has spurred many carriers to generate their own power for critical cell phone towers.

Telecom operator Airtel Nigeria reports that 70 percent of its downtime is because of intermittency in grid power, which results in poor quality of service (QoS). The company is investing in “dual-generating sets,” which essentially add a solar-power source to complement the traditional diesel-powered generators that often can be found by cell towers in the developing world. India’s largest mobile phone operator, Bharti Airtel, recently said that due to the declining cost of solar, it is beginning to swap out its diesel generators for solar PV modules.

That mobile carriers in the developing world are poking their feet in the solar waters for business reasons, not philanthropic ones, is a good sign. In the past, there often have been isolated projects where NGOs deployed off-the-grid solar on a small scale or even small startups launched pilot projects. But things are changing: Large-scale deployment from leading wireless carriers like Econet suggests that companies see a viable business model here and that we are starting to reach a tipping point where rural dwellers can afford a moderate up-front cost of a solar pack that can be monetized incrementally via a prepay electricity model. The reach of a wireless carrier, already skilled in deploying products to customers, is a magnitude greater than even an African government or an international aid organization could hope to achieve.

For wireless carriers, these are essentially infrastructure decisions: Deploy solar so that customers can charge phones and thus drive mobile revenue down the line. That a family in rural Zambia will get a light to read under in the evening and a mobile phone to call a relative makes it all the better.

Question of the week

How successful will off-the-grid solar be in the developing world?