Peru and the promise of solar electricity

• Industry turns to developing countries as U.S. government fails to support solar electricity efforts

Solar electric prices continue to decline. Improved solar cell efficiency, increased ease of installing systems, and their use as building roofing and cladding expand the market and lower prices. When the market absorbs the annual production of a 100 MW facility, the price of solar electricity will be competitive with electricity from coal throughout the world.

Whenever the U.S. government support for solar electricity falters, the industry turns to developing countries for survival. Unfulfilled electrical needs of developing countries remain a viable market for solar electricity when appropriate funding exists. If a steady growing market is sustained in developing countries such as Peru, prices will continue to decline, and more sustainable energy practices will spread globally.

Peruvians have lived through some difficult times since their economy began to falter in the mid-1960s. Rapidly increasing population, rising prices, deteriorating natural resources and collapsing job markets in urban areas increased social tensions.

Times were especially difficult from 1980 through 1992. Many desperate rural poor agreed with the message of the Shining Path that a new political system was the route to improving their standard of living. An estimated 25,000 people were killed and another 200,000 displaced from their rural villages due to clashes between guerrillas and military forces. Around 1 million people left the country and continue to send money home to help their families.

After the Shining Path leadership was captured in 1992, political violence dropped dramatically. While some economic improvements occurred under President Fujamori, political scandals led to his ouster in 2000.

Under the leadership of President Toledo, some new initiatives are being taken to improve the living conditions of the rural poor. A 10-year plan has been developed to introduce solar electricity into 5,000 one-room rural schools. Each will have six computers providing new curriculum materials designed to improve the quality of life in rural communities. One component will teach the basic skills needed to troubleshoot a solar electric system and involve students in simple maintenance tasks.

Solar electricity can provide power to pump water, refrigerate medical vaccines, run sewing machines and power amenities such as radios and televisions.

A fuller range of renewable energy technologies can be introduced. Rural people can be educated in their design, construction, maintenance and use. Improving living standards in rural areas is seen as a means to attract youth back to the communities and stem their exodus to urban areas that are unable to generate enough jobs.

If an appropriate technology revolution serving the needs of rural villages in the highlands and the tropical rain forest is to be successful, the universities of Peru will have to initiate such programs, develop more models of what can be done, and train teachers and technicians to implement programs.

During our visit, we agreed to explore the possibilities of setting up a consortium of interested universities and non-government organizations in the United States to match a proposed consortium in Peru being formed between the National University of Engineering, San Marcos University and the National University of Education.

The consortium would primarily address energy needs. However, soil erosion, desertification, water pollution and tropical rainforest decline continue to occur. The need for ecological restoration is widespread and should also be addressed.

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