A decade ago we were building solar power stations in Tibet, where access to electricity is limited. There was no television, no access to outside news, not even any lights. Children had to rely on candles and kerosene lamps to read and write.
When our solar power stations started generating electricity, I witnessed the moment Tibet’s children first saw lights and the TV. The excitement in their eyes was unforgettable. It demonstrated just how big an impact the energy industry can have on society.
Worldwide, there are still 1.4 billion people lacking access to electricity. This is mostly in Western China, African countries, India and other developing regions with remote areas the grid cannot reach.
In these regions, I believe we can leapfrog the traditional energy development process and supply power directly from renewable energy sources, such as off-grid solar power stations. There is now a lot of evidence to show that the cost of solar power generation is lower in these remote areas than generation using diesel or other traditional fuels.
The Chinese telecommunications industry is a successful example of such “leapfrog development”. In the 1980s, the Chinese landline telephone system was still underdeveloped. I remember during my university days having to wait half an hour in a post office queue just to call home.
In the 1990s, however, China leapfrogged traditional copper-wire, fixed line technology and enthusiastically adopted wireless communications instead. Today, China is one of the world’s largest manufacturers and users of mobile phones.
This leapfrogging could also happen in the energy industry. Providing access to energy through renewable sources, such as solar, will attract investment and create jobs. Living standards of the people in these remote areas will rise.
In Africa, for example, around 1.5 million deaths in 2010 were related to the use of kerosene lamps. The move to solar powered lanterns, which is thankfully spreading throughout the continent, is saving lives, reducing pollution, and lowering costs.
There is clearly a global demand for clean energy. By working together and embracing the use of renewables, the energy industry and society can help to alleviate energy poverty, spark economic development in underdeveloped nations, and move towards a more sustainable energy supply.
It is time to embrace “leapfrog development”.
Gao Jifan is chairman and chief executive officer of Trina Solar Ltd, a founding signatory to the Energy for Society Initiative of the World Economic Forum.