What If the Rich Were off the Grid?

04/16/2011 01:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2011

Redwood City, CA -- It's intriguing to look at the debate about clean, low-carbon electricity through the lens of health, especially with a guide whose challenge to the conventional wisdom is as sharply honed as anthropologist, physician, and Partners In Health co-founder Paul Farmer's.

Here at the Global Philanthropy Forum, Farmer has provided his usual blunt assessment. Somehow, he says, anything that is intended to serve the poor is assumed to be too expensive to do well. We are told that we lack the expertise. Don't have the infrastructure. The capital cost is too high. The technology really won't meet the challenge. And the costs of inaction never get tallied.

Farmer calls this the "failure of imagination."

To prod our imagination, he meticulously lays out the flaws in each of these arguments -- and points out that no one ever has similar objections to health interventions that serve the prosperous.

Listening to him, I am reminded that for the world's poorest 1.5 billion people (those who are off the grid) solar and wind are already much cheaper sources of light than the kerosene they use instead. And the arguments that Farmer cites from public health officials who, through a failure of imagination, argued that the world could never afford to treat HIV in Africa are eerily similar to those we hear about why wind, solar, and other clean-energy technologies can't meet the growth needs of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Expense and lack of reliability are the two big ones, just as they were for why HIV couldn't be treated in Africa. But, lumen for lumen, solar power is now perhaps ten times cheaper than kerosene, and wind power is twenty times cheaper. And that gap grows each month. As for reliability, anyone who has spent much time in a village on the grid in rural India or Africa knows that grid-power is at best a sometime thing. Indeed, the original business model for India's Suzlon, the world's fourth biggest wind company, was based on wind power being more reliable for pumping energy in oil fields than grid power.

The cost of inaction? For all the discussion about how urgent it is to electrify India's villages, it remains the case that almost all of the proposed investment in the country's Jawaharlal Nehru Solar Mission is utility-scale solar intended for already electrified cities -- only 10 percent is aimed at unserved villages.

So I idly wonder what the conversation would be like if it were the rich and prosperous who did not yet have power from the grid? Would we still be hearing that solar is "too expensive and unreliable"? And I realize that we already know the answer to that question -- because in Europe and the U.S., it is the prosperous who are investing in roof-top solar, and their willingness to do so is sufficiently great that in virtually every state the private utilities have lobbied to keep it illegal for roof-top installations to feed the grid. Why? Because they are afraid of the competition from their own customers. Even in California you aren't allowed to generate "too much" clean solar energy on your roof.

So the next time someone tells you that solar and wind are too expensive and unreliable, help them overcome their failure of imagination. Remind them that for at least a quarter -- and probably half of the world -- solar and wind are already dirt cheap and highly reliable, compared to what poor people get by with now. And remind them, too, of how quickly we brought down the cost of drugs to treat HIV simply by putting them into the hands of the people who needed them the most -- the poor.