Solar Power Doesn’t Always Boost The Fortunes Of Rural Poor

Electricity may be a human right, but a study shows that access isn't a magic fix for poverty

Illustration: Tara Jaoby
May 18, 2017 at 11:54 AM ET

Most experts agree that regular access to electricity would provide be a boon for low-income rural people. That’s what researchers expected to find after they installed solar panels in hundreds of households in India. But a year later, they found that more electricity didn’t improve people’s lives as much as they had hoped.

There are about a billion people on the planet who lack basic access to electricity. It’s often prohibitively expensive to extend the electrical grid to where they live, leaving people to light their homes with kerosene lamps, which can be expensive and detrimental to people’s health. Past studies have found that affordable, reliable electricity for the rural poor has been correlated with less money spent on kerosene, higher household incomes, and children who do better in school. As solar panels have become less expensive, installing them in rural places has become a popular way to boost socioeconomic development.

Except no one really knew if that was working. So a team of political scientists decided to conduct a randomized controlled trial, published Wednesday in Science Advances, to find out. Through a partnership with a solar service provider, the researchers randomly chose half of the 1,200 households to receive solar panels. The other half received nothing. To see the effect, the researchers surveyed the households three times over the course of a year on how much money they spent on fuel, how much light they got and its quality, and general socioeconomic information.

The results were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, families with solar panels had spent less money on kerosene and were less exposed to its potential health hazards. They also had, as you might expect, more access to electricity.

But the researchers also found that solar panels had no effect on a family’s socioeconomic status. “There were no consistent effects on savings, household expenditures, household business creation, time spent in productive work by women, use of lighting for study, or other indicators of socioeconomic development, including female empowerment,” the researchers write. That’s not to say that greater access to solar power can’t have socioeconomic effects, they note—maybe more expensive or reliable systems would do the trick. Or it might work better in areas with more vibrant economies.

There are other examples of communities in which the installation of alternative energy sources was expected to buoy the local economy, but may have even done more harm. In the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, the arrival of wind farms raised the price of goods beyond the means of most locals and forced them to look for work in nearby cities; other communities in India saw inequalities between income levels and castes reinforced when solar power didn’t reach all citizens.

Though access to electricity is increasingly considered a human right, this study indicates the limits of the benefits it can bring to rural communities. Governments and nonprofits considering bringing electricity to these communities can’t assume these interventions will be a panacea for the woes of the rural poor.