From the official announcement:
The first annual Zayed Future Energy Prize was awarded on January 19 … to Mr. Dipal Chandra Barua, Founding Managing Director of Grameen Shakti for his visionary efforts to bring renewable energy solutions to the rural population of Bangladesh…
Mr. Barua’s organization, Grameen Shakti (GS), has installed more than 200,000 solar PV systems that currently provide power for more than two million rural people. Under Mr. Barua’s leadership, GS has developed a number of other innovative initiatives, including a biogas technology that converts cow and poultry waste into gas for cooking, lighting and fertilizer. GS has installed more than 6,000 biogas plants and plans to construct 500,000 more by 2012. In addition, GS has trained rural women to be solar technicians hereby enabling green entrepreneurs through a highly successful micro-credit program.
Marc Gunther takes note of the prize announcement to applaud the work of Barua and Grameen Shakti, and quotes from his interview with Barua at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.
Barua told me that about 70% of the 150 million people who live in Bangladesh have no electricity. They typically use polluting kerosene lamps to light their homes at night.
“I tell them that for the cost of kerosene, you can buy a solar system,” he said.
The economics work like this: Total cost of a rooftop solar photovoltaic panel (imported from Japan), a battery and the required electronics is about $350 to $400. Customers typically put 10-15% down and pay the rest in monthly payments for three years. By then, they own a system that should last 20 years, without fuel costs. The panel makes enough electricity to power a few lights, a black-and-white TV and, most important, a cell phone. “Everyone wants a mobile phone,” Barua says.
It looks pretty good to Gunther, but he ends up worrying about the implications for “sustainable development.”
So is this really sustainable development? Up to a point. Of course it’s a good thing for poor people get electricity from solar power. The thing is, the electricity powers a mobile phone or TV that isn’t sustainable, and then one thing then leads to another and, before you know it, Grameen Shakti’s customers will be wanting iPods and dishwashers and cars, just like the rest of us. No wonder sustainable development remains such an elusive goal.
I’m not so sure that we ought to worry too much about the sustainability of development in the way that Gunther does here, at least not if it gives pause to anyone thinking about ways to make the world a better place as viewed by the people affected. No doubt most poor Bangladeshi now benefitting from the efforts of Grameen Shakti would much prefer to be in a world where their biggest problems were deciding between dishwashers and cars, rather than between kerosene and cow dung. To worry about the possibly detrimental implications of these small steps for this abstract idea, sustainable development, seems a little small minded.
(I’m guessing, too, in partial response to Lynne’s question, that for serving the population involved, solar panels are more economical than nuclear power.)