Solar Power at $1/Watt Opens Up the Rest of the World to Cheap IT

Solar power is no longer a dream. China is cranking out solar modules, huge solar panel assemblies and inverters to bring electrification to more of the world. This has important consequences for lighting, communication and IT. Now, even some of the poorest regions on the planet can afford IT. The simple fact that businesses can operate after sundown will raise the GDP of much of the world enough they can afford small cheap computers with FLOSS on ARM.

2011 saw explosive growth of smart phones but they were far too expensive for much of the world. That keeps changing. After the early-adopters have been saturated, OEMs will produce products affordable by all. Several effects come together to bridge the digital divide:

  • solar power is now affordable,
  • ARMed equipment is an order of magnitude less expensive than x86,
  • Moore’s Law works for ARM, too,
  • the move to solar power and wireless communication means emerging markets can skip expensive cabling projects in sparsely populated/poorer regions, and
  • post-colonialism brings stability to many regions.

Wintel with its mantra of “upselling” has no place in this new world order. Wintel cannot compete against FLOSS/Android/GNU/Linux on ARM. Leaner OEMs will supply the needed hardware. Local businesses rather than global monopolies will supply IT both hardware, software, and infrastructure. The consequences for government, education, business, and productivity are immense and possibly a force for good in the world. People in poorer regions of the world need to get organized to take charge of their own destinies. Cheaper IT will help them do that. The next few years will have huge rates of change in IT globally. This will likely be one of the biggest stories of 2012 as M$ attempts to get in on the action but fails miserably to compete on price/performance which is critical in such markets.

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
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12 Responses to Solar Power at $1/Watt Opens Up the Rest of the World to Cheap IT

  1. Dr Loser wrote, “Don’t you think that your local power company, even in Manitoba, would have switched over to Solar if the benefits were this obvious? Of course they would.”

    Manitoba hydro invested in a wind farm which does run 24×7.

  2. Dr Loser says:


    May I meekly point out that nowhere did you mention that the $1/watt was a capital cost? In which case, of course, your argument makes a lot more sense.

    But still not much, I’m afraid.

    Something rated at a wattage output does not necessarily mean a continuous output at that rate. I’m highly dubious about these figures. But let’s assume they are correct. Let’s further assume the unlikely assumption that no maintenance is required.

    Let’s posit someone in the Third World who invests $1000 in one of these things. (Actually they’d have to pool, because the figure only works on a bulk discount, but this is a quibble.) Now we’re back to kW/h, which I’m afraid I’m going to insist on, because it’s valuable for purposes of comparison.

    Let’s further assume a usable 10 hours of sunlight, year round.

    That’s actually not bad. We’re looking at roughly 3,500 kW/h, which on earlier estimates at 20-25 cents per comes out at break-even in a year and a half or less …

    … except, except, it doesn’t really, does it? Because it isn’t available on demand. There is no means of storage factored in. You would essentially have to draw down the entire output between the hours of eight in the morning and six at night in order to make sense of this, and you would have to fight off the wife who wants to watch Bollywood movies on the TV, and so on and so forth.

    In fact, if you’re that dedicated, then there’s no particular reason to buy a “small thingie” at all. You might as well buy a “big thingie.” It’s a shame to waste all that power.

    See, there’s a reason we in the West are charged 20-25c per kW/h, and it is very much because it is per kW/h. Don’t you think that your local power company, even in Manitoba, would have switched over to Solar if the benefits were this obvious? Of course they would. And they’d gouge you and make huge profits, but on your figures it would still be worth it.

    People want energy on demand. And occasionally in huge bursts. I’m with you in hoping that solar tech will bring us to the promised land (’cause wind tech sure ain’t gonna do it), but this idea of massive capital expenditure in the Third World for something that actually doesn’t provide a tangible benefit is pie in the sky.

    Or, to put it another way. If I was a farmer in India and I could afford a capital cost of $1,000 to set up my kW/h production plant, and it was going to last twenty years, do you know what I’d do with it?

    I wouldn’t be running a small thingie.

    I’d bore an artesian well and use the sodding thing to power-irrigate my fields.

  3. OMG

    Let’s beat a dead horse with explicit wording and definitions. A KWH is a unit of energy. I pay a few cents per KWH here for hydroelectric power off the grid. A KW is a unit of power, the rate of production/consumption of energy. To obtain a power-plant of a certain capability to produce power there is a capital cost. With solar the capital cost is about ~$1 per watt. You can keep getting that watt for many years as long as the sun shines for no extra expenditure, so, over time, the price of the energy (watt-hours) from it is less. With inverter and battery the cost is higher, of course but it is still of that order of magnitude and available in fairly small sizes as the links show. What poor people everywhere lack is capital, a stash of money, and cashflow a stream of cash or income with which to buy stuff, power-generating capacity or energy. Both are now becoming affordable. With developed markets somewhat flush with solar power capacity and in a cash crunch, the world is awash with photovoltaic equipment making this stuff very affordable. Its long life makes it a very good investment in just about any place that’s not trashing its infrastructure in civil war or rampant crime.

  4. “JinkoSolar will donate modules for inclusion in a 2.5kW rooftop system to power lighting and the computer lab for the school. In addition to providing the modules used in the system, members of the JinkoSolar team will serve as volunteers to help educate the local community on the benefits of solar, paving the way for a wider understanding of renewable energy in Tanzania. The system will be installed in July 2012 by a team of volunteers from the US solar industry as well as by employees of JinkoSolar.”

    see JinkoSolar Enables Solar Power for a Secondary School in Tanzania

    What will a few donations leverage? A more educated workforce able to support similar technology. It works.

  5. Even a modest battery will store a charge for a smart thingy for a few days. Even a scrap car battery can likely do the job. They are discarded when they can no longer start a car (~1KW). Around here they cost $5. Many tiny entrepreneurs could afford to import NiCd cells from China (20pcs AA 1000mAh for $18.99 or less in bulk). Every third-world country can recycle broken electronics to recover batteries. It’s low tech. and labour is cheap.

  6. oiaohm says:

    Really this solar tech does not interesting me too much cheaper yes but its missing something critical.

    Does not answer one key problem batteries? Answer how to store the problem them we are in business. I see as better tech. Batteries and cells in one.

    There are many ways to make power but the most critical thing is storage.

  7. Dr Loser says:

    Incidentally, I’m keen on this pooling thing. I’m even open to atrociously expensive power.

    Can we set up this solar-powered small salvation in, say, a relatively stable and progressive country in Africa like Tanzania, and deal with the lead time of about ten years before the infrastructure is paid off (as Ray points out: a bit of a problem).

    I’m genuinely all for this. But I don’t want bleating. I’m expecting action, Robert.

  8. Dr Loser says:

    OK, Robert, perhaps I don’t understand the way that Canadian English works.

    Does your local electricity provider deal with watts per dollar? I’ll accept that a kW/h is not in the ISU lexicon, since they deal with seconds rather than hours, but it’s a fairly convenient charging mechanism.

    Also a universally recognized measure of comparison.

    Let’s be absolutely honest about this. One teeny little watt on its own is no good for measuring anything but voltage multiplied by amperage. It will barely warm your capacitors up.

    And we could argue about definitions all day long, but I’m still coming back to the Inconvenient Fact that you side-stepped, which is:

    “I’d reckon 25c per kW/h as a decent base.”

    I was being generous. Ray is less so.

    A dollar for a kW/h doesn’t even work in a developed country, does it? Let alone the Third World.

  9. Ray says:

    Problem – you need infrastructure to deliver solar power, and they’re too expensive compared to other forms of electricity at 20 cents/kW-hour

  10. Dr Loser seems not to know physics or English. $1/W is the cost of the solar power capacity. With 30W of solar power one can run a lamp at night for hours or a tablet for hours or both. These gadgets might use 300 Watt-hours per day for years and the cost is the capital cost of the equipment at $1/W, say $30. If the equipment lasts 25 years and produces 300 W-h per day that’s 25x365x300/1000 = 2737 KWH for $30, about one cent/KWH. That’s a good deal.

    $30 is a lot of money but some can afford it and some communities can pool their resources to get what they need. The point is they can function off of the nonexistant grid in remote/poor regions of the planet. If the little woman had not nixed the idea, my roof would be covered with PV panels and there would be a rack of nickel-iron cells in my garage so that I could run my house from sunlight for the rest of my life. We do have cheap hydroelectric power here but I would be OK living in a shack in the bush if I had Internet access and local electrical power.

  11. Dr Loser says:

    Now, about that Physics degree of yours again, Robert…

    As little as $1/watt, eh? Do I get to pull that watt out of my pocket and use it whenever I want to? Can I use it at least a thousand times an hour?

    I’d better be able to do so, because otherwise I’m being cheated out of my dollar.

    It’s surprisingly hard to find a reference for this (without pulling down my electricity bill and doing a bit of division), but I’d reckon 25c per kW/h as a decent base.

    Yup, I’m going to be relying on Chinese solar panels here in my Third World country just off the coast of France real soon now.

    On a more serious note, whatever happened to nuclear fusion?

  12. oe says:

    OLPC no longer looks so silly… so many in WinTel were poo-pooing it back 5-6 years ago…now looks like Negraponte was forward-looking.

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