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June 27, 2015

The Solar World: Will Poverty or Power Embrace Progress?

As of 2014, the leading countries in terms of electricity production by solar cells was as follows [1]:

1) Germany 35.5 gigawatts
2) China 18.3 gigawatts
3) Italy 17.6 gigawatts
4) Japan 13.6
5) USA 12
6) Spain 5.6
7) France 4.6
8) Australia 3.3
9) Belgium 3
10) The United Kingdom 2.9
12) India 2.3

But don’t get comfortable with the status quo, because the order on this list is bound to get shaken up by countries like China who increased its solar power production by 60 times in the last 4 years, rising from 8th to 2nd in that same timeframe!  India is also a rising star and countries like Brazil, South Africa, and Nigeria might also become contenders depending on how they carry themselves over the coming years.  Other countries that are on the list now, like Spain, , the USA, Germany, and France might find themselves sinking in ranking as other countries make stronger commitments to renewable energies and as internal political wars against fossil fuel and nuclear electricity producers and their allies stifle further progress.


As amazing as it might sound, “wind and solar accounted for all new (electricity) generating capacity placed in-service in April,” according to the April 2015 Energy Infrastructure Update report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) Office of Energy Projects, in the United States. [2]

And what’s more, this is beginning to be the trend.  Slowly-but-surely, a greater and greater proportion of energy production is coming from renewable sources.  This is true for both the USA and the world at large.

In fact, wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower account for 84.1 percent of the 1,900 MW of new U.S. electrical generating capacity placed into service since the beginning of 2015.  “This includes 1,170 MW of wind (61.5 percent), 362 MW of solar (19.1 percent), 45 MW of geothermal steam  (2.4 percent), and 21 MW of hydropower (1.1 percent). The rest (302 MW) was provided by five units of natural gas.” [2]

The total contribution to electric generation by geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind for 2014 was 1,611 MW, plus 116 MW from biomass.  For the same period in 2014, natural gas added 1,518 MW of new capacity.  Oil added just 1 MW and coal and nuclear provided no new capacity.  Renewable energy sources accounted for half of all new generating capacity added in 2014. [2]

“Renewable energy sources now account for 17.05 percent of total installed operating generating capacity in the U.S.: water - 8.55 percent, wind - 5.74 percent, biomass - 1.38 percent, solar - 1.05 percent, and geothermal steam - 0.33 percent (for comparison, renewables were 13.71 percent of capacity in December 2010).” [2]

Renewable energy capacity is now greater than that of nuclear (9.14 percent) and oil (3.92 percent) combined. In fact, the installed capacity of wind power alone has now surpassed that of oil.  Just recently solar power exceeded the 1% mark, meaning it now accounts for over 1% of total USA energy production. [2]

Note however that generating capacity is not the same as actual generation. Although renewable energy sources in the United States could generate a maximum of 17.05% of all electricity, the actual amount of total electricity generated is about 13.4%. [2] Some reasons for the difference are that solar can’t produce as much electricity on a cloudy day nor at night and for wind power there is no place on Earth where it is always windy and blowing at the same velocity.  Differences in environmental conditions can lead to less output than optimal for solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.


The International Energy Agency has predicted that sub-Saharan Africa would require $300+ billion in investment to achieve universal electricity access by 2030.

In October 2013, President Obama launched the Power Africa Initiative, designed to bring power to the approximately 70% of 800 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa who have no access to electricity.  As part of the initiative the United States government committed $7 billion with nearly three times as much invested by private industry to improve both infrastructure and capacity for electrical generation. [3]

“This initiative is an important step towards dealing with climate change not to mention foreign relations and international development. The initiative gives the U.S. a leadership role in addressing a range of critical regional and global issues – eradicating poverty, improving health and gender equality, opening up economic opportunity and conserving ecosystems and natural resources as well as promoting clean, renewable energy.” [3]

“After just one year, committed Power Africa projects were predicted to provide enough electricity to power more than 5 million African homes, businesses, schools, and clinics — one-quarter of the program's goal. Momentum continues to rise.  Last August President Obama tripled the Power Africa goal to installing an aggregate 30,000 MW of new sustainable generation capacity and expanding access to electricity to at least 60 million households and businesses across all 28 sub-Saharan African nations. In addition, he pledged the U.S. would raise monetary support for Power Africa to $300 million per year.” [3]

The initiative headed by the Obama Administration “is implementing a new model of development in emerging-market countries, one focused on private-sector participation and capacity building.  Too often, low-income countries have been made subservient to more well to do nations through charity.  In the past, the aims and efforts of better-off nations to help disadvantaged nations largely ignored the issue of economic investment to make them self-sufficient.  Rather than helping these disadvantaged nations to grow economically and politically towards self-sufficiency, they only received enough aid to survive, but not to develop.  There was donated aid, but no real investment that could lead to real improvements in circumstance.  Recent efforts such as the Power Africa Initiative reflect a wiser and more informed approach towards helping low-income nations develop, mainly by sharing resources, investing, and filling in gaps in different capacities such as legal, financial, technological, infrastructural, and operational so as to significantly improve overall likelihood of success. [3]

On the private sector side, groups like the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) offer $100,000 grants to African-owned and operated businesses as well as Pay-as-you-go loans to provide batteries, set up solar panels, microgrid access and smart metering. [3]


Electricity consumption in India has been increasing at one of the fastest rates in the world due to population growth and economic development.  With a population near 1.3 billion (yes, that is 4X the size of the USA’s population) that is growing with no sign of plateauing, as can be imagined, India has some major energy needs and concerns.  And while getting electricity to all of these people to improve their quality of life is a goal still not realized, the reliability of electricity provided to those who have it is also sketchy in many areas. 

In fact, “on July 30th and 31st, 2012 the world's largest blackout, The Great Indian Outage, stretching from New Delhi to Kolkata occurred. This blackout, due to failure of the northern power grid, caused nearly 700 million people — twice the population of the United States (or about 10% of the world’s human population) — to be without electricity.” [4]

And besides holding the undesirable record for largest power outage ever recorded, India also has “energy shortages (as much as 15% daily) almost everywhere in the country.” [4]  This is not just bad for the people of India, many of whom live in the dark wilderness of poverty; it is also bad for the economy and India’s prospects of continuing to grow its middle class. 

The area affected by the Great Indian Outage is colored in red in the above image.

India has pledged to grow the amount of electricity produced by solar from the current 2.3 to 20 gigawatts by 2020 (In 2014 India generated about 200 gigawatts of electricity in total).  This would not only be good for the economy and the people, but it would also be good for the environment by reducing pollution, the release of greenhouse gases and demand for fossil fuels in general.  It could reduce pollution by reducing the need for fossil fuel electricity generating plants, but also by increasing the efficacy and economy of electric hybrid cars which outperform gas cars in urban areas.  Also, for a country like India where many people live in rural poor areas as well as urban poor areas, solar offers a decentralized source of electricity that “empowers people at the grassroots level.” [4]  Currently, India has over 289 million people living in poor, remote areas without any electricity who could be producing their own, in their own locales, if only the solar panels were more forthcoming.  India’s government is doing its best to make this happen, both internally and by enlisting international support. [4]

In fact, if India could just harness 10% of the incoming radiation coming from the sun, it could power all of the country’s energy needs.  A similar story can be told for practically any country that isn't living under a cloud or in perpetual night (which is practically every country).


What’s most frustrating about solar power implementation for me is that it has such a slow trajectory which should not be the case considering that solar power is no longer hindered by technological nor economic barriers (solar panels have become ever more efficient, affordable and reliable), rather it is hindered by politics.  The USA, in particular, has no excuse for not working towards a renewable future.  We have the wealth, we just don’t have the will to overcome the standoff with the old guard fossil fuel industry and their corporate cronies.  For sure, as the article started out, renewable energy is starting to take to the market, but solar remains as less than 0.5% of total USA energy production.  

0.5% is a joke for modern times.  Even in Germany, which is the leader for now in solar electricity production, can only claim ~7% of its electricity comes from solar (35% comes from renewables).  For many years the USA has raged a war on terrorism which has sacrificed endless lives and wealth to that cause.  How is holding the future hostage at the behest of those who care more about personal gain than the well-being of the masses any less an act of terrorism?  There are issues of poverty, overpopulation, inequity, pollution, dwindling resources and climate change bearing down on us, but we must act in denial because we have a gun to our heads, held by the jeweled hands of those who insist we keep repeating that all these problems are just dreams.  

In other countries like India, where a significant proportion of the population is living in extreme poverty, with little prospect for fulfilling their human potential, renewable energy could be a real saving grace, but again, corruption and lack of political will on the part of the government leads to the continued suffering of people who wait in the dark. 

The truth is that those with the most to lose by the implementation of renewable energy are a few oligarchic monopolists, while the average-majority stand with a lot to gain.  Solar panels are a threat to fossil fuel companies and their relatives because they will decentralize/democratize economic control of energy production.  The sun doesn’t come from a mine or pump in a certain country in a certain location that can only be bought for top dollar from a privileged owner.  The sun shines on every being on this Earth, irrespective of their standing.

So who will be first to overcome this stagnant era of inertia?  The desperate poor who see progress as the only road to a life that amounts to more than mere survival?  Or will it be the wealthy, who have the resources to invest in change, but who as of yet seem content with the status-unsustainable-quo?  At this point it is near impossible to tell.  But why is it that every option seems so extreme?  How can something as simple as a solar panel be the source of so much petty animosity and resistance to the future?  It isn’t like whether we choose to harvest electricity from solar radiation or not will stop the sun from shining.

-Seth Commichaux


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