An American NGO, the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), has just begun the 2-village pilot phase of a novel solar electrification project in the Kalalé district of rural Benin. Each of the 44 villages in the district will eventually benefit from a solar intervention consisting of two parts: (a) solar-powered drip-irrigation systems, allowing women to grow vegetables and generate income during the 6-month dry season; and (b) village-level electrification of public spaces, including schools, community centers, street lights, and water pumps. SELF has partnered with the Program on Food Security and the Environment to monitor and evaluate the economic, agricultural, environmental, health, and organizational impacts of this project.
Our research team will conduct an economic and environmental assessment of this multi-sectoral intervention, beginning with the pilot phase. Building on a research design in which the villages receiving the technology are selected at random, we will survey treatment and control villages to isolate the effects of rural solar electrification on incomes, health, and environmental well-being. More broadly, this study will help us quantitatively and qualitatively understand the potential of solar electrification in improving rural livelihoods relative to other possible interventions, in the context of the poor, agriculturally dependent communities that define rural Africa.
While we seek to shed light on the potential for solar-based development, we also hope that this project will provide a model for increasing interaction and collaboration between academia and development. Thorough evaluation tends to be too expensive, both in time and in resources, for development organizations to undertake alone; proper study and analysis of project impact, however, will improve the conception, implementation, and success rate of future technology-based development work.
One third of the world's population currently lives in poverty, with roughly 75% of the poor residing in rural areas (IFAD 2001). Most lack access to clean water, energy, and health services, either because the costs of extending these services are high, the motivation to do so is low, or both. As such, rural poor seeking access to these services and their accompanying opportunities face a choice between abandoning rural life (usually migrating to urban/peri-urban slums, where conditions are often no better) or making do with local alternatives.
Unfortunately, in rural areas where the traditional grid cannot easily be extended, the main energy alternative for electricity generation and water pumping is the diesel generator, which can harm both local air quality and the global climate (e.g., Bradsher 2007). Other more environmentally-friendly generation options are largely dismissed out-of-hand as economically unfeasible (e.g., Modi 2004). Under this model, the environmental impacts of energy provision to the world's poor are quite grim. Must poverty be eradicated at the expense of the environment? Can alternative energy be implemented in the development context in a cost-competitive and scaleable manner?
The Sudan-Sahel region of Africa is a place where a small amount of electricity could pay huge dividends. The largely agriculture-dependent populations of these agro-ecological regions are some of the poorest on earth, facing erratic seasonal rains split by long dry periods in which crops cannot be grown, local food prices rise, and malnutrition typically intensifies. Surface water sources for irrigation are few, and irrigation with groundwater is typically infeasible due to a deep water table combined with a lack of power for pumping. Both water and food scarcity problems will likely only worsen with the predicted decline in Sahelian rainfall and temperature rise under global climate change (Held et. al. 2005, Lobell et. al. 2008).
In June 2007, the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF, a US-based NGO), in collaboration with local organizations, initiated a project to electrify the entire Kalalé district of northern Benin with photovoltaic (PV) solar systems. The electrification of each village will consist of two parts: (a) installation of solar-powered community pumps for drip agriculture, allowing local stakeholders to grow crops for home consumption and market sale during the dry season; and (b) electrification of public spaces, including schools, clinics, community centers with communications technologies, and streets. Furthermore, and of particular use to academia, SELF has agreed to randomize the selection order of "treatment" villages (i.e. the first set of villages will be drawn at random from the district), allowing for a controlled study of project outcomes.
From a technical perspective, photovoltaic (PV) solar systems are thought to be an appealing energy choice for rural communities in regions of high isolation. Previous studies suggest that small PV systems offer a viable alternative to diesel generators as a way to power water pumps, street and building lights, communications technologies, and small refrigerators (e.g., Foster et.al. 1998). PV systems are also modular and thus easily expandable, and with the increased global production capacity of PV cells and panels, the price of such systems has recently become competitive over the lifetime of the system for locations far from the grid (e.g., Kohle et.al. 2002).
Despite its apparent promise, a PV-based electrification strategy for poor agricultural communities has not been rigorously tested vis-à-vis other technologies for its impact on development and the environment. Thanks to the randomized, single-treatment project design (villages are chosen randomly, and the impact of a single intervention rather than a set of interventions can be isolated), the Kalalé project provides an ideal laboratory and rare opportunity for comprehensive, rigorous testing of the economic, environmental, and sociopolitical impacts of solar electrification. With support from the EVP, we are undertaking a multidisciplinary study of SELF's Kalalé project. Combining technical measurement equipment with cross-sectional and longitudinal household surveys, we will quantify the project's impact on the local environment, household and community income, resident nutrition and health, and community organization surrounding the provision and maintenance of public goods. Ultimately, we aim to quantify the overall sustainability of the project on these axes and to understand the potential for regional and global project replication.
Sources and Suggestions
Solar Electric Light Fund, "Benin Solar Irrigation Project Profile." [.pdf]
Lipschultz, David. "Solar Power is Reaching Where Wires Can't," The New York Times, 9 September 2001. [.pdf]
International Fund for Agricultural Development Rural Poverty Report 2001 (summary). [.pdf]
Bradsher, Keith. "Paying in Pollution for Energy Hunger," The New York Times, 9 January 2007. [.pdf]
Modi, Vijay. "Energy Services for the Poor," Commissioned paper for Millennium Project Task Force 1. 14 December 2004. [.pdf]
Freling, Robert and Jeff Lahl, "Renewable Energy Technology: Optimizing Energy Sources for the Development of Millenium Project Villages," Solar Electric Light Fund White Paper, 8 July 2005. [.pdf]
Held, IM, et. al., "Simulation of Sahel drought in the 20th and 21st centuries," PNAS, v.102 n.50, 12 December 2005. [.pdf]
Lobell, David, et. al. "Prioritizing Climate Change Adaptation needs for Food Security in 2030," Science, v.319 n.607, 1 February 2008. [.pdf]
Foster, M., et. al. "Life-cycle cost analysis for photovoltaic water pumping systems in Mexico," 2nd World Conference on Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conversion, 6-10 July 1998 (Vienna, Austria). [.pdf]
Kolhe M., et. al. "Economic viability of stand-alone photovoltaic systems in comparison with diesel-powered systems for India," Energy Economics, 24, 2002. [.pdf]