BY BEN SCHILLER for FastCompany

A few years ago, Bill Gates annoyed some people in the renewables industry by saying that solar and wind were effectively expensive luxuries that only richer countries could afford. In the developing world, he said, dirtier forms of power might have to take priority, even if it meant exacerbating climate change (especially as most emissions come from advanced economies anyway). Expanding energy access was too important to worry about exactly what form that access might take.

solar tanzaniaIn mid-2017, that dilemma–between electricity access and climate change–is starting to look like a false one. Prices for solar and wind are coming down dramatically, putting such technologies within reach of some of the poorest people in the world. At the same time, basic household lighting and appliances are growing more efficient, meaning the same small solar systems are gaining in usefulness.

“That tension that was definitely there a few years ago has dissipated and people are seeing [renewables] as a positive opportunity,” says Vivien Foster, an energy economist at the World Bank, in an interview with Fast Company. “The cost of clean energy has come down so much that it no longer looks unaffordable and more like commonplace self-interest.” She says a 40 watt home solar system that five years ago would have powered a lightbulb and charged only a phone can today run three lightbulbs, a phone charger, a radio, a small TV, and a digital fan. The cost of a home solar panel system, plus battery and standard appliances (like a TV, radio, fan) has fallen by up to three-quarters since 2009, World Bank statistics show.

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