Solar energy is a powerful tool for sustainable development. A clean, versatile, and increasingly affordable source of energy, solar can power diverse community needs, all while protecting the planet. But how exactly do we turn the sun’s rays into meaningful global progress? To understand the benefits of solar energy for sustainable development, we need to start with the basics.
What is Sustainable Development?
The United Nations (UN) defines sustainable development as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition serves as the basis for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 objectives to be obtained by 2030. These goals aim to protect the planet while helping everyone in the world live a happy, healthy, prosperous life.
The 17 goals are interdependent, perhaps best exemplified by the issue of energy access. SDG 7 identifies the need for affordable and clean energy, yet expanding energy access is also essential to achieving the other 16 goals. Afterall, how can we improve education while classrooms lack basic lighting? How can we advance healthcare without electricity to run medical equipment?
Renewable energy is capable of powering diverse end uses relevant to the SDGs. Solar energy specifically has proven to be an affordable and dependable form of power, successfully fulfilling a variety of household and community-level needs.
How Solar Energy Works
A whopping 173,000 terawatts of solar energy (that’s 173,000 trillion watts) continuously strikes the Earth, making it the most abundant source of energy available. This energy can be made useful through two primary applications: solar thermal and solar electric.
Solar thermal applications are characterized by the conversion of sunlight into heat energy. Examples of such applications include solar water heating and solar cooking.
Solar electric energy, including photovoltaics (PV), is distinguished by the conversion of sunlight into electricity using solar cells that convert photons of light into electrical current. Because the product is electricity, this type of solar energy can power virtually any community-level or household need.
Solar electricity can be harnessed in on-grid and off-grid environments, both of which are relevant to sustainable development.
Many of us are accustomed to the power lines that connect our homes and institutions. We are the beneficiaries of a functioning and far-reaching grid system. This grid runs largely on fossil fuels, but renewables such as wind and solar can also feed energy into it. The grid centralizes and distributes power, and in the case of the United States and other wealthy nations, provides nearly universal energy access. However, this is not the case everywhere.
As of 2020, over a dozen countries still had electrification rates under 20%. In many cases, extending the power grid to areas outside of urban centers is too costly. This leaves entire regions in the dark, with residents often forced to use expensive, hazardous, and polluting alternatives, such as kerosene lamps to light their homes or diesel generators to provide electric power.
With support, these off-grid communities have another option. Because solar energy is converted to electricity right where the panels are present, standalone solar modules and microgrids can be set up virtually anywhere to provide a reliable source of power, whether deep in the Amazon rainforest or high up in the Himalayas. These systems can be customized to meet the specific energy needs of a given community. Sustainable development initiatives have embraced off-grid solar as a more practical alternative to grid extensions, allowing whole communities to come online at a lower cost.
Before exploring some of the specific applications of solar energy for sustainable development, let’s look at solar in the context of sustainability.
Solar Energy Keeps Development Sustainable
As the global population continues to grow, the demand for energy will grow with it. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects world energy usage to increase nearly 50% by 2050. Fossil fuels remain dominant in the global energy portfolio, but the trajectory of renewables is promising. In 2022, 83% of new power capacity was renewable, with solar energy comprising the biggest segment.
The continued expansion of solar supports the three pillars of sustainability relevant to development initiatives: environmental, social, and economic.
Environmental sustainability is achieved when our natural world can thrive alongside human civilization. From climate change to pollution to biodiversity loss, environmental sustainability considers all pressures humans place on the environment. Solar energy contributes to environmental sustainability by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and habitat destruction. Solar panels do require some resources to produce, but this process is significantly less destructive than continued fossil fuel use.
Social sustainability involves ensuring equity and accessibility. Solar energy projects are socially sustainable when they involve gathering diverse stakeholders, elevating women in decision-making, and providing capacity building to ensure a project’s long-term success. Solar energy is an empowerment tool, especially when made available to marginalized groups.
Economic sustainability concerns the long-term financial viability of a given initiative. Renewables are now the cheapest form of power, and access to energy can create positive benefits for the local economy. Upfront costs can make solar power prohibitively expensive, but financing programs help ease the burden. Solar energy systems are typically warrantied for decades and come with minimal maintenance requirements.
Applications of Solar Energy for Sustainable Development
Countless initiatives have utilized solar energy for sustainable development. Below are just a few examples of solar energy applications and the needs they meet.
Clean water is a cornerstone of healthy communities. Yet today, 844 million people lack access to clean drinking water. Where water isn’t readily available, people (most often women and girls) are forced to gather it (typically on foot) for themselves and their families. This water may or may not be clean, with waterborne illness a constant threat.
Solar-powered water pumps are one practical and affordable solution to improve clean water access and advance sustainable development objectives. Solar panels capture energy from the sun and use it to pump water from below ground, distributing it to community taps. Solar energy can also be used to purify water when needed. These systems can even be designed to work without a battery, which all but eliminates maintenance requirements.
When communities can produce a variety of crops locally, hunger and malnutrition are abated. One critical component of this is having access to irrigation. Farmers need a way to access and distribute water. By combining solar water pumps with drip irrigation systems, farmers can irrigate their crops year-round.
Sustainable development approaches should also consider what happens after harvest: food needs to be stored and prepared. One-third of food is lost or wasted post-harvest, with lack of proper storage a major cause. Solar-powered refrigerators can mitigate this loss, as can solar drying technology (think dried fruit or jerky), improving farmer income and food security. Solar energy can also be useful for cooking the food that is harvested. In a world where 2.4 billion people rely on inefficient and polluting cooking systems, both solar thermal and solar electric technology are helpful tools to improve safe cooking.
Education is a crucial component of sustainable development. According to the UN’s 2022 Sustainable Development Goals Report, 25% of schools lack electricity and 50% lack internet access. This greatly limits education hours and the resources available to teachers and students.
By tapping into a microgrid or standalone system, schools can stay open past dark to accommodate more students, both children and adults. And by combining these systems with wireless connectivity technologies (satellite, Wi-Fi, etc.), students can access the internet and important learning resources.
Globally, 1 in 8 health facilities are unelectrified or under electrified. Energy in this context is, quite literally, a matter of life or death. Where it’s lacking, basic resources like lighting or hand washing stations are unavailable, as well as equipment for routine procedures and emergency interventions. Vaccine storage is also an issue, due to the need for a stable, cold environment to maintain efficacy.
We can look to Burundi, Lesotho, or Rwanda to see what happens when solar energy is added to the mix. Whether for prevention or treatment, solar greatly expands patient care and improves health outcomes within a community.
Solar energy can help overcome systematic disadvantages women and girls face in society. When they no longer need to spend their days gathering water, women are free to pursue employment opportunities and girls have time to go to school. Electrification of clinics enhances maternal healthcare, and solar lighting programs improve women’s safety at night.
Across every sector of society, solar energy can help reverse the trend of discrimination by improving access to the resources women have historically been deprived of.
The renewable energy industry creates new jobs every year, and solar energy has generated the biggest share at 4.3 million jobs. This boom is expected to continue. The benefits of solar energy for sustainable development also manifest across the broader economy. When business owners and entrepreneurs have access to power, they can offer new and expanded services.
Solar-powered micro-enterprise centers offer a viable model for this, in which a multi-room community building is constructed and hooked up to a solar array. Business owners can then rent spaces, similar to a shopping mall, and benefit from electronic appliances, device charging, and internet access. This helps increase profits and gives consumers access to improved goods and services.
The Future of Solar Energy for Sustainable Development
As technology advances and costs drop, we can expect to see more initiatives utilizing solar energy for sustainable development. These trends are encouraging, but more work is needed to meet our sustainable development goals. Climate change continues to worsen and nearly one billion people still lack access to electricity. To bring these communities online—and to avert further climate chaos—will require a global push to make solar power accessible to all.
National and international regulations and incentives must be put in place to encourage the adoption of renewables. Financing needs to be made available to countries and communities unable to fund solar infrastructure. Training and capacity building must be expanded so all people can take part in building a clean energy future.
With a strong global commitment, and a little help from the sun, we can all work together to build a more sustainable world.
SELF is a global leader in the fight against energy poverty. Since 1990, we’ve pioneered unique applications for solar energy, powering progress on food security, health care, education, gender equity, and more.
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