Llegó La Luz: a case study of the impacts of solar photovoltaic electricity in Las Balsas, Ecuador
In this thesis I study the impact of electrification using solar photovoltaic panels in the rural Ecuadorian community of Las Balsas. Many large-scale development organizations like the World Bank promote small-scale renewable energy technologies like solar photovoltaics as being crucial in helping poor rural communities generate more income. My research however, both in the field and in the literature, shows income generation from these projects tends to be minimal. I find that the introduction of solar electrification is most important for social applications like music, movies, cell phones, and lighting.
FEDETA, the NGO that installed the solar photovoltaics, promotes the development project not as a neoliberal market-based income-generation project, but rather as a humanistic improvement in the “quality of life” of local residents. I analyze this goal of the project in light of the development theories developed over the past few decades. I question how well solar photovoltaics fits into the “small is beautiful” appropriate technology sector.
While solar photovoltaic systems have the potential to build small-scale islands of autonomous electricity production in a more environmentally sustainable manner than grid electricity based on fossil fuels, I caution that this is not necessarily the most equitable way to provide electricity to the rural poor in developing countries. While solar home systems have much potential to provide (often minimal amounts of) electricity to extremely rural areas, the service provided is in many cases inferior to grid electricity.
While solar photovoltaic technology does provide many potential benefits in areas not reached by grid electricity, NGOs and policy makers should be wary of seeing the technology as a panacea for sustainable development. Solar photovoltaics as a technology has a long way to go to provide energy services comparable to that offered by most grid systems. As with any technology its actual use is not predetermined, but rather is influenced by the local social and cultural contexts.