A Message from the Director

AJ headshot 3I spent much of the month of March traveling for project-related work. The travel included time in Africa (Ethiopia), Europe (Germany), and Asia (India and Bangladesh). Much of my attention during this time was on projects that have a strong solar energy dimension. I therefore would like to use this column to reflect on a few revealing trends and numbers related to the solar energy sector in these places and here at home in California.

I will start in Sub Saharan Africa, where sales of quality assured pico-solar products (i.e. off-grid solar products with a solar module smaller than 10 peak watts) have exceeded 7.5 million units over the past five years. Although we do not have detailed data for sales elsewhere in the world, the limited information that we do have about sales in Asia makes it clear that global sales during this period were well above 10 million units. While the adoption rates represented by these sales numbers still constitute only a small fraction of the over one billion people globally who do not have access to grid electricity, they do indicate that pico-solar systems are beginning to represent a real alternative for providing services such as electric lighting and mobile phone charging.

The rapid growth of pico-solar use for lighting and mobile phone charging has been enabled by a few key trends. On the technology front, declining prices and rising efficiency (or, more properly, rising lumen efficacy) for light emitting diodes (LEDs) have helped reduce the cost and improve the performance of pico-solar lighting systems. Falling prices for solar modules and lithium iron phosphate batteries have also been important, along with innovative business strategies for distribution and sales of pico-solar products. In addition, measures taken to support market development and to ensure product quality by programs such as Lighting Africa, Lighting Asia, and Lighting Global have helped enable expanded use of pico-solar technology.

In Bangladesh, pico-solar use is still at an early stage, but the market for larger solar home systems, most of which have solar modules ranging from about 20 to 60 peak watts, is the largest in the world. Over the past decade, over 3.5 million solar home systems have been sold in Bangladesh through the Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL) program. In 2014, sales through the IDCOL framework averaged sixty thousand systems per month. This innovative and successful program builds on Bangladesh’s existing micro-lending financial institutions to enable sales of household solar systems to rural families under reasonably favorable loan terms. Going forward, solar home systems markets in Bangladesh and elsewhere stand to benefit from increased availability of super-efficient direct current (DC) appliances and sales models that utilize mobile banking and other forms of information and communication technology to help make solar systems more affordable.

SERC continues to contribute to development of the off-grid solar sector by leading implementation of the Lighting Global quality assurance program. As noted in Meg Harper’s article, we are currently collaborating with colleagues from the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Germany to expand the existing quality assurance framework, which focuses on pico-solar products, to include larger solar home system kits (i.e. systems with solar modules rated at up to 100 peak watts). While the focus of our visit to Germany was on off-grid solar, the topic of grid-based solar use came up regularly. Germany has been a leader in solar photovoltaic (PV) technology adoption, in large part due to aggressive government policies in support of the sector. In 2014, Germany generated 6.9% of its electricity from solar PV systems, and on a few particular days more than 50% of its electricity came from solar power. However, in the last few years, Germany has reduced its support for adoption of solar PV, and sales have dropped rapidly from their peak of 7.6 GW of installed capacity in 2012 to about 3 GW in 2014. Nonetheless, we all owe Germany for their leadership in generating demand for solar and therefore in helping to reduce the cost of PV modules and associated equipment. The precipitous decline in solar module prices over the past decade is due in no small part to Germany’s aggressive pro-PV policies during that period.

Back at home in California, solar PV utilization continues to grow. In 2014, solar technology accounted for over 5% of electricity generation, up sharply from about 2% in 2013. As we work to support continued development of the solar industry across all of these countries, we should seek to ensure a positive and stable regulatory and market environment wherever possible.

Goodbye until next time.