Climate

How Indoor Air Pollution Kills Millions — And How Solar Could Help Save Them

CREDIT: Shutterstock

A small solar array providing power to a rural area in Africa.

Indoor air pollution kills more people around the world every year than HIV and malaria combined — but solar power might be the key to solving the problem.

As Brad Plumer reported Monday at Vox, a recent report by the Lancet Respiratory Medicine shows that around 3 billion people — mainly in impoverished areas of Africa and Asia — still rely on coal, charcoal, kerosene, dung, wood, and more to heat their homes, provide lighting, and cook. The emissions from burning those fuels come with all sorts of health ailments, resulting in 3.5 to 4.3 million deaths every year. (HIV/AIDS kills 1.6 million per year and malaria kills 627,000.) Poor people are particularly likely to be affected because they lack access to electricity and cheaper homes often lack chimneys. Meanwhile, women and children also bear the brunt of the effects.

The problem is lack of access to a grid that brings electricity and/or natural gas to a home — a privilege people in the United States take for granted. But fixing that problem is also a huge infrastructural lift: hundreds of millions of people throughout Asia and Africa remain unconnected to the electricity grid. In total, one-third of the South Asian population and two-thirds of the African population lack access. Globally, it’s 19 percent of the population.

That’s where solar power comes in. Driven by that same overwhelming need and lack of grid access, distributed solar power has been popping up throughout both continents; bringing electricity right into homes from their own roof, or from a communally owned solar array, and allowing people to bypass the electrical grid almost entirely.

Lighting is the low-hanging fruit. Programs across Africa and India are already off the ground to either subsidize purchases of home solar arrays for people in poor communities, to set up pay-as-you-go financing systems for those same arrays, or to set up community arrays from which people can buy power as they need it using their cell phones. Combined with the spread of efficient LED lighting, the development is providing poor people an alternative to kerosene. The fossil fuel is cheaper to buy in individual units, compared to the upfront cost of the solar arrays. But the latter is a one-off purchase, while the kerosene has to be bought in perpetuity, and can take up 25 to 30 percent of a poor family’s income by the end of a given year.

Cooking is a bit trickier. But, as Plumer noted, there are already studies looking into providing people solar-powered electric stoves. The hurdles are that stoves don’t provide the same precise control over cooking, and storage technology will also need to be part of the systems so people can cook at night. Heating is probably the hardest part of the equation. It almost always requires the burning of some form of fuel — in the United States, it’s natural gas — and even in advanced economies the use of solar heating at either the individual or utility scale is still getting off the ground. But solar heating systems are beginning to break into the market in Africa.

The International Energy Agency estimates that small off-grid solar systems will make up 20 percent of the new electricity the world will need by 2030. Renewable energy investment in Africa and the Middle East has grown by 200 percent since 2011. This year, SolarCity, the biggest solar company in the United States and a major provider of distributed solar, invested about $7 million to begin moving into the same services in the African market.

In October of 2013, the Chinese government announced plans to expand its total capacity for distributed solar by 20 gigawatts by 2015 — including six new gigawatts in 2014 — with the specific aim of reducing strain on its major grids by increasing electricity distribution over short distances. In July of this year, the government also took steps to lessen the tax burden and streamline the purchasing process for distributed solar between customers and power providers.

Back in May, the newly-elected government in India said it intended to bring electricity to the 400 million of its residents who still lack access by 2019, using a project that relies on 20 gigawatts of additional grid-based solar and two gigawatts of distributed solar coming online by 2022. That country is in particular need of an alternative to fossil-fuel-provided electricity, as its aging and overstretched grid has suffered massive blackouts in the last few years, and cheap coal is getting harder to come by. India is also looking to take 26 million fossil-fuel-powered pumps that farmers around the country use for irrigation, and swap them for solar-powered versions.