Communication Perspective Is it Attractive

The communication perspective demands that we enquire more deeply into how customers perceive the risks and benefits of buying a solar system, and ask whether overall they find it an attractive proposition.

There is no doubt that households in emerging markets value electricity. However, a demand for electricity does not necessarily translate into a demand for solar. From the household's perspective, electricity from a reliable grid is often preferable in terms of service.1 Take the example of the Government anti-poverty programme in Mexico, where rural households initially rejected solar systems on the grounds that they were being subjected to yet another experiment by bureaucrats in the cities.2 Similar reactions were recorded in Sri Lanka, where 'overcoming perceptions of both the government and the public that PV is inferior to the grid has been a barrier', especially given the Government's high profile campaign which 'had the public believing that everybody would be linked to the grid by the year 2000'.3

The perception that the grid is just around the corner can indeed be a negative perception that weighs on customer adoption of solar. Whether due to wishful thinking or genuine belief, households will be wary of making the investment in solar when they feel that the grid is coming soon, or even when they feel it is coming within the next year or two. In Indonesia, before the economic crisis of the late 1990s, sales of solar were strong. But they would nonetheless dry up in areas where PLN (the electricity utility), with the blessings of the Government, dropped poles by the side of the road prior to elections to raise expectations of the grid's imminent arrival. On the other hand, in other countries some analysts also found that rural households were starting to wise up. In Sri Lanka, for instance, households were said to have come to the realization, after years of failed promises, 'that the grid will not reach them in the short term and PV will meet their immediate needs'.4

Although the grid is by and large preferred by all, we also need to remember that not all grids function as well as they do in the industrialized countries. In Kenya, for instance, where rural households regularly suffer blackouts, a survey found that 50 per cent of adopters saw 'reliability' as an advantage of solar compared to the grid.5 India provides the classic case of the grid being perceived to be highly unreliable and solar to be an increasingly reliable backup, as we will discuss in more detail later in the book.

In the absence of the grid, or a reliable grid, rural households have the option of using a petrol, kerosene or diesel genset. A small petrol genset supplies 13-22 times the rated wattage of an average 50-watt solar system; it is thus considered by some to be more appealing to the rural households, offering 'considerably more flexibility'. And since it is cheaper on a dollar per kWh basis, it frees up resources for 'greater increases in the standard of living'.6 But as prescribed by the communication perspective described in Chapter 2, this is a classic case of why it is important to understand the customers' perceptions of the economics and not just the economics themselves.

First of all, because many rural households have limited electricity requirements, they do not focus on the extra 'flexibility' of a genset, which will by and large remain unused. Rather they focus on the recurring cost of having excess capacity in the generator, and the fact that fuel prices in rural areas generally go up and not down. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the same critics of solar quoted earlier also found that because agricultural income is seasonal, farmers were even selling their generator sets in order to buy solar, where the fuel costs are all paid up-front. Furthermore, they concluded that where there is insecurity about future price rises in fuel 'the $/kWh economic advantage [of the genset] is less important'.7

In Kenya, rural customers were found to 'relish the idea' that, once the panel was bought, electricity costs were minimal: two-thirds of all respondents in a questionnaire cited 'free electricity' as an advantage of solar.8 Furthermore, in Kenya the same authors found that customers perceived not only that solar was less costly, but that it was more convenient to turn on and off, was less vulnerable to fuel price fluctuations, saved journeys, and was far less hazardous.

Compared to other alternatives, such as kerosene for lighting and battery charging for radio and television, we find that the perceptions in favour of solar are stronger still. The primary use of electricity by formerly unelectrified homes is lighting and entertainment (see, for example, the findings from Indonesia in Table 3.1).

Table 3.1 Appliance use in households with electricity: The case of Indonesia

Activity

Low income

Middle income

High income

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