Editorial Feature

The Role of Photovoltaics (PVs) in Rural Electrification

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It is estimated that 1.6 billion people in the world, which amounts to approximately 30% of the world’s population, currently live in rural areas that do not have access to electricity. Without the ability to access electricity in their homes, many of these families must resort to utilizing charcoal, firewood, and disposable batteries as their energy sources to satisfy their daily cooking and heating needs.

Goals of Rural Electrification

The indoor air pollution caused by utilizing traditional energy sources needed to power biomass stoves has been estimated to cause 1.6 million deaths each year, many of which affect young children and mothers. Eliminating the use of these energy resources through rural electrification, a process that involves the installation of electrical distribution systems to serve rural communities, could therefore significantly reduce this environmental and health impact.

Rural electrification has also been shown to enhance the overall quality of life of rural communities by providing people with the ability to use light at night, listen to radios, utilize small appliances and even watch television. Furthermore, the use of tools and machines powered by electricity can also improve economic sustainability for local workers. For example, farmers in rural areas are now able to prevent the spoilage of fresh produce to ultimately sell more food in local markets by storing their products in refrigerators powered by solar energy. By satisfying the energy needs of people in rural areas, communities have been brought together by the ability to grow their local economies, dramatically improve education rates and experience life-changing health and social benefits.

Challenges of Rural Electrification

Despite the grand promise of rural electrification, the reality of achieving this goal faces several challenges, of which include an inefficient energy infrastructure within these areas and a growing electricity demand that many developing countries are unable to meet. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that it would cost developing countries an investment of approximately $300 billion each year to meet these electricity demands. As a result of the limitations associated with installing conventional electrical grid schemes, developing countries have instead turned to the possibility of renewable energy technologies.

Photovoltaics and Rural Electrification

There are numerous factors supporting the development of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in developing countries that are in need of rural electrification. These factors include:

  • Most developing nations exist in areas that are considered to be “high solar insolation levels,” which are ideal for solar energy acquisition
  • PV systems can be installed to provide power to a single home, a group of homes or even an entire village
  • Increased convenience
  • Safer energy source
  • Improved indoor air quality
  • Higher quality of light as compared to kerosene lamps

PV systems are flexible energy sources that can be applied to rural areas in developing countries in a wide variety of ways. To this end, small PV systems, such as the Solar Pico Systems (SPS), can be used to replace kerosene lamps for small applications, whereas middle-scale PV systems, like the Solar Home Systems (SHS), can be used to provide as much as 250 watts of energy for several different applications. For example, SHS can be used to power several fluorescent lamps, radio or television, and several small appliances. PV systems also show promise for large-scale projects like powering a hospital or an entire community.

Rural Photovoltaic Technology

Prior to constructing a PV system in a rural area, it is imperative that the system is designed to meet the actual energy demand of the family or community. To this end, the size of electrical cables plays a crucial role, as cables that exhibit undersized cross-sections have been shown to increase internal resistance and ultimately lead to a greater amount of energy losses.

Additional PV system components that would be involved in a typical rural electrification project include:

  • Solar Panels
  • Lead-acid batteries
  • Charge controllers
  • Inverters
  • Electrical wires/cables

To ensure that PV systems are working adequately following their installation, local workers should be trained on how to manage the energy stored in PV batteries, prevent the misuse of batteries and assist in other tasks related to the overall maintenance of these systems. When PV systems are designed and used correctly, they are expected to last for up to 20 years, with the battery life reaching a minimum of 5 years.

Challenges

One of the major challenges developing countries face when attempting to integrate PVs into their rural electrification projects is associated with the limited strength of these countries’ formal institutions. Flaws within the formal institutions of developing countries can include a lack of regulations or standards capable of enforcing these entities that can ultimately prevent rural electrification efforts from achieving sustainability. This lack of formal institutional stability has caused PV systems to be installed without any prior consideration on current or future needs of the affected population. As a result, the potential for this new energy source to be capable of benefiting these communities is significantly hindered. Researchers have found that the development of regulatory standards, particularly those involving the election of a rural electrification agency within the government that is responsible for maintaining these projects, supports the success of PVs in these areas.

Sources and Further Reading

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Benedette Cuffari

Written by

Benedette Cuffari

After completing her Bachelor of Science in Toxicology with two minors in Spanish and Chemistry in 2016, Benedette continued her studies to complete her Master of Science in Toxicology in May of 2018. During graduate school, Benedette investigated the dermatotoxicity of mechlorethamine and bendamustine; two nitrogen mustard alkylating agents that are used in anticancer therapy.

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