Solar energy Starting from scratch

A modern solar cell
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It is sufficient to light two small rooms and to power a mobile-phone charger for seven hours

SUNNY countries are often poor. A shame, then, that solar power is still quite expensive. But it is getting cheaper by the day, and is now cheap enough to be competitive with other forms of energy in places that are not attached to electricity grids. Since 1.6 billion people are still in that unfortunate position, a large potential market for solar energy now exists. The problem is that although sunlight is free, a lot of those 1.6 billion people still cannot afford the cost of the kit in one go, and no one will lend them the money to do so.

Eight19, a British company spun out of Cambridge University, has, however, devised a novel way to get round this. In return for a deposit of around $10 it is supplying poor Kenyan families with a solar cell able to generate 2.5 watts of electricity, a battery that can deliver a three amp current to store this electricity, and a lamp whose bulb is a light-emitting diode. The firm reckons that this system, once the battery is fully charged, is sufficient to light two small rooms and to power a mobile-phone charger for seven hours. Then, next day, it can be put outside and charged back up again.

The trick is that, to be able to use the electricity, the system’s keeper must buy a scratch card—for as little as a dollar—on which is printed a reference number. The keeper sends this reference, plus the serial number of the household solar unit, by SMS to Eight19. The company’s server will respond automatically with an access code to the unit.

Users may consider that they are paying an hourly rate for their electricity. In fact, they are paying off the cost of the unit. After buying around $80 worth of scratch cards—which Eight19 expects would take the average family around 18 months—the user will own it. He will then have the option of continuing to use it for nothing, or of trading it in for a bigger one, perhaps driven by a 10-watt solar cell.

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