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Out of darkness: Solar power sheds a little light on powerless communities

Anna Begay lives on a remote plot of land in the Navajo reservation. To reach her home, you drive through twisting, unmarked trails of dust and mud along the edge of Coalmine Canyon, in northwest Arizona. A grandmother in her late 80s, Begay lives alone in a traditional, eight-sided house called a hogan. She raises sheep with the help of a nephew and a couple of fast sheepdogs. When the dogs bark,

Anna Begay lives on a remote plot of land in the Navajo reservation. To reach her home, you drive through twisting, unmarked trails of dust and mud along the edge of Coalmine Canyon, in northwest Arizona.

A grandmother in her late 80s, Begay lives alone in a traditional, eight-sided house called a hogan. She raises sheep with the help of a nephew and a couple of fast sheepdogs. When the dogs bark, it’s the only sound you will hear for miles.

This far out, it’s too expensive to connect her home to the electric grid. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have electricity.

When the sun sets she can switch on a solar-powered battery to light up her room. The solar panel was installed last spring, and now she wants to get more of them to light her way from the front of her door to the outhouse, about 200 feet away.

"Without having the light, I couldn’t see," Begay said through a translator — she speaks only Navajo. "It got really, really dark and I would be running into things, bumping into things. It did help to have the moon. Sometimes, when the moon’s out, that would illuminate the way for me."

Throughout the Navajo reservation — and much of the developing world — this scene is repeated again and again. Many families here use gasoline generators and kerosene for electricity and light, but fuel is expensive and dirty. Solar power might not replace all electrical needs, but as solar becomes cheaper, it’s quickly becoming one of the best solutions for the 1.2 billion people in the world who lack access to electricity.

On the reservation, access to power is limited by geography and a history of border disputes between the Navajo and Hopi tribes. Eagle Energy, a Denver-based non-profit, donates and installs small solar panels on off-grid houses. While these set-ups can't power heating or cooling, or even a small refrigerator, they do charge cellphones and laptops.

When it comes to the low-cost kits, “the falling cost of solar panels certainly made these small-scale products possible,” says Doug Vilsack, Eagle Energy's founder. 

A mix of market forces are driving down prices for solar panels. Though prices have recently leveled off, they are at a historically low point, according to Shyam Mehta, an analyst at GTM Research. A combination of large subsidies in Europe and a boom in production in China have increased both supply and demand globally.

Jenny Chase at Bloomberg New Energy Finance says that she expects solar prices to stay where they are for a few years, “before resuming their long-term downwards trajectory.”

Another reason for a sudden availability of solar lighting is the decreasing cost of efficient, long-lasting LED bulbs. "It is hard to exaggerate how quickly LED performance is going up and price is going down," said Arne Jacobson, an environmental resource engineer at Humboldt State University in California, who is involved in a program to improve lighting access in the developing world.

Since 2009, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation have run the Lighting Africa program to develop the market for solar-powered lights, which expanded to Asia in 2012.

Yet while the demand for alternatives to kerosene lighting is high and the technology exists to manufacture affordable, reliable, solar-powered lights, quality assurance is still a big hurdle. Dozens of companies manufacture and sell low-cost solar lanterns hoping to make a fortune. Some of them make bad products, which can spoil the market, especially in countries where consumer protection programs are nonexistent.

"If you buy a bad quality solar product in most countries, it is just tough luck," Jacobson said. "You can't return it; even if the manufacturer says there is a warranty, a lot of times that doesn't work very well for people."

To prevent market spoilage, Lighting Africa developed quality standards and runs consumer awareness programs — such as taking out ads in local newspapers — to highlight the lights that pass muster and those that don't.

Among the market leaders is d.light solar, a California based-company that has been designing affordable solar lighting systems since 2007 and now sells them in 45 countries through more than 10,000 distribution outlets. Systems range from $8 desk lamps to $150 set ups that include a handful of lights and outlets to charge several mobile phones. Each comes with a three-year warranty.

The Lighting Africa and Lighting Asia programs also help grow the availability of solar lighting by guaranteeing loans of banks that lend into the sector, allowing a distributor, for example, to order a ship-container full of lights to keep vendors' shelves stocked with quality-assured lights.

Eagle Energy, the non-profit that installs free solar power on the Navajo reservation runs a similar program in Namibia, with a few subtle differences. For one thing, their African efforts are called Elephant Energy. More importantly, the lights aren’t donated; they’re sold through a team of local entrepreneurs.

Instead of installing solar panels and wiring up off-grid homes, Doug Vilsack’s team offers a solar lamp called the Sun King Pro. “People buy these lamps in Africa because they charge cellphones.” Once they bring it home, Vilsack says, they realize that they can use it to save money on fuel for lighting.

Despite price drops, the light kits cost about $40, far too high a price to sell in Namibia. To make up the difference, organizations like Vilsack’s are developing “pay as you go” systems, to pay off the lamp over time. 

Vilsack says that his team is in the process of identifying and training entrepreneurs on the Navajo reservation, to mimic the progress that’s been made in Namibia. “The end game is really to just have what started as a non-profit transition to a for-profit” where Eagle Energy is no longer the middleman. 

Jacobson, the environmental resource engineer, said the best place for non-profit organizations in this market is on the micro-finance side of the equation, providing loans to families to purchase lights with below-market interest rates, rather than giving away lights for free.

"When you give something away, you've taken away agency on the side of the person to decide which one they want," he said.

And what people really want, according to d.light CEO Donn Tice, "is power, reliable, affordable power." The solar lanterns that his and other companies sell provide this power in the form of lighting and mobile phone chargers to be controlled and used by individuals in homes far from the reach of the electric grid.

"Where the need is greatest and where the market is developing the fastest, the grid won't go. It will take too long, it is too expensive, it is too risky, it is too slow," he said. "So, decentralized distributed solutions that people can take into their own hands ... that's what we think is the future."

Anna Begay, the Navajo woman with the small solar panel, would agree. Though the small solar kits aren’t strong enough to provide warmth, Begay has used the extra hours of light to plan for the cold winter. She says she stays up as late as eleven o’clock at night, working on the wool from her sheep, converting it into yarn. She recently completed a pair of warm socks for herself.

“So when it’s cold and there’s snow, my legs don’t freeze. It’s good.”

Matt Rivera is a senior producer for NBC News Digital Group. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. John Roach writes about environment and innovation for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.