One of the largest reasons that solar panels have seen such a dramatic upsurge in these areas has been the plummeting cost of LED lights. In the past, homes and businesses would need to buy solar panels capable of generating 20 to 30 watts of energy to light conventional incandescent light bulbs, which were the only ones available. Now, with lower cost and much higher-efficiency LED lights, they can buy solar panels that only need to generate 2 or 3 watts of power. One of the most common uses of these new cheaper solar panels, however, is to charge cell phones. Cell phones have become ubiquitous in Africa over the previous decade, and many individuals who previously had to rent a charger can purchase a small solar panel, which will pay for itself in a matter of months.
As Kevin Bullis of Technology Review notes, there are roughly 1.3 billion people without access to grid electricity. However, even though the majority of them are very poor, they often end up paying far more than those of us in developed nations in the form of expensive kerosene for light and heat. These newer, cheaper solar panels have opened up a massive new market in the last couple of years, and manufacturers and retailers are flooding in to take advantage of it. Richenda Van Leeuwen of the United Nations’ Energy and Climate team told TR that, “this sector has exploded.” However, although the potential for widespread sales to the very poor is huge, the market has not necessarily opened up the market. Although people spend nearly twice as much for kerosene, the cost is spread out over time. However, to purchase a solar panel and small LED light set, it’s still just under $50, a little too much for many people to afford up front. That said, the system will pay for itself in two years.