Off-Grid LED Lighting: Cleanleaping to a brighter future…with job creation into the bargain

Image: LED Street lighting Uttar Pradesh, India

Moving to a cleaner, more sustainable world brings with it enormous potential for the creation of new jobs and economies. Indeed, these positive consequences - themselves fostering positive-spirals of knock-on effects — are a critical driver for sustainable transitions. 

This situation is made abundantly clear in research indicating that the transition to sustainable lighting systems in the form of off-grid solar LEDs in developing regions may create some two million new jobs. 

The study surrounding the forecast comes from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the United States and was published in the journal Energy for Sustainable Development (study available here).

It’s an encouraging conclusion that provides important insight in the context of addressing so-called lighting poverty. Lead author of the study, Dr. Evan Mills, explains: “A sixth of humanity spends upwards of $40bn (USD) per year on lighting (20% of the total energy spend for lighting), yet enjoys only 0.1% as much illumination as does the electrified world. Looked at another way, the unelectrified poor spend 100- to 1,000-times as much per unit of light as do people on the grid,” (The Guardian, 2015).

For vast populations of developing regions, typical lighting techniques include kerosene (the dominant method), diesel, propane, candles, grass and wood, and battery powered flashlights amongst other, more unrefined, methods. 

The greenhouse-gas emissions associated with these practices are equivalent to those of 30 million American cars according to Mills.

These lighting solutions, applied over all manner of circumstances — from education at school and homework, night street-markets, farming, night fishing, and refugee camps — carry grave consequences for health, safety and well-being, contributing to pollution and ill health as well as limiting productivity of people working under such lighting, not to mention their toll on the environment.

To note just one consequence, poor lighting has significant impacts on education: levels of classroom lighting as low as 2% that of western standards are reported by Mills; a circumstance that limits performance and lowers literacy through effects in schools and homes where children undertake homework. 

Mills writes in an article, “Fuel-based lighting is an example of how the hyper-inefficient use of energy plays a role in trapping people in poverty with a negative environmental impact affecting everyone. The specter of fuel-based lighting extends far beyond its energy use, hampering health and safety, impeding better livelihoods and saddling governments with crippling energy subsidies,” (The Guardian, 2015).

Fortunately, sustainable lighting solutions are now available in large part to light-emitting diodes (LEDs) becoming ever more financially accessible to developing regions.
The merits of LEDs are numerous: clean and pollution free, highly efficient with long life spans, operating at low voltage, portable and durable, and requiring little servicing. notable too, LEDs are highly adaptable to multiple applications from torches and lamps to room lighting, thereby opening up a wide range of product to suit endless specific needs.

When combined with solar energy generation systems for power, LEDs represent a comprehensive, clean solution; one that avoids reliance on grid connections and electrification, whilst enabling massive cost savings. 

Study Findings

Greentech Media quote a statement from Mills explaining the thought behind the study: “People like to talk about making jobs with solar energy, but it’s rare that the flip side of the question is asked -- how many people will lose jobs who are selling the fuels that solar will replace? We set out to quantify the net job creation. The good news is, we found that we will see many more jobs created than we lose,” (Greentech Media, July 2016).

The study considered major solar LED companies and found that for every 10,000 people living off-grid for whom stand-alone solar-LED lights are suitable, about 38 clean lighting jobs are created. It should be noted this figure doesn’t include manufacturing of LED components or their assembly; instead, it reflects in-country sales and distribution.

In the same statement, Mills says,

The transition away from kerosene and other fuel-based lighting in developing countries is now irreversibly underway. The transition will create more than 10 times more jobs than it displaces.

These are encouraging findings, because the supply and distribution of traditional lighting, often informally, provides means of employment for many people. Displacing these lines of employment through new technologies would be disruptive. However, the nature of LED lighting solutions lend themselves to replacing traditional lighting wears being sold, rather than making their retail altogether redundant. 

Moreover, returning to the positive-spirals of clean transitions mentioned earlier, the consequences of clean lighting are far reaching. Aside from superior lighting and less pollution, savings on lighting means more income to spend or save. 

Greentech Media report that: “In the Philippines, for example, one study found homeowners saved about 5% of income when switching from kerosene to LEDs. For every 20 households, that is equal to the income attained via a full-time job. In aggregate, the savings from switching to LEDs would roughly equal the income of an additional 6 million jobs.”

Mills himself has conducted considerable research in this context, much of which is undertaken through the Lumina Project — a stakeholder social network committed to ‘cultivating technologies and markets for affordable low-carbon off-grid lighting in the developing world’ — which he founded. Many of his papers detail valuable insights on advantages of LEDs applied over varying case studies — see here
Aptly concluding one of his articles he said: “When the sun goes down each day, lighting stands among the most basic human needs. It is encouraging that the emergent affordable alternatives have made such great strides in a relatively brief time. Thanks to technology innovation and ingenious business models, lighting poverty is slowly but surely on the wane,” (Mills, 2015, The Guardian).

For more insights on the topic of clean lighting for developing regions, be sure to have a look at the Off-grid LED lighting project, part of The Climate Group's LED Scale-up project. For quick insights on the role of LED lighting in a more global context, check out their ‘Lighting the clean revolution’ infographic.