Solar Cell Phones in India

Having recently returned from a trip to India as part of a team scoping out a role for NRDC in India and taking a close look at energy and health issues, I was intrigued to read about Samsung's introduction of a "low-cost" solar-powered cell phone in India.  India is the world's fastest-growing telecom market, and half of the Indian population, currently 1.15 billion, is expected to own a cell phone by 2020.   India is also subject to chronic energy shortages, and power cuts are a fact of life.  A lot of energy will be needed to power those phones, and over half of India's power comes from coal.  The energy, climate change, and health implications of that coal-generated power are immense. 

A viable, affordable, solar-powered phone could make a dent in India's growing energy demand, while avoiding both climate changing emissions and health impacts (from particulate matter, smog, acid-rain, and other pollution associated with coal).  The solar-powered cell phone is a small but promising step-it can make technology more accessible in the short term while having the potential to curb coal-powered energy consumption in the future.  Over half of the homes in India are not electrified, and where electricity exists, the grid is unreliable.  A solar-powered cell phone is an intuitive way to circumvent these obstacles and allow people without reliable electricity to access the benefits of mobile phone technology, all without putting more pollutants into the atmosphere. 

The jury is still out on whether this particular phone will fulfill the potential of the technology.  One hour of solar charging translates to only five to ten minutes of talk time.  Forty hours of solar charging gets a full battery.  Plus, at a cost of Rs.2,799 (about $59), the phone is beyond the reach of a large part of a population in a country where the average income is Rs.37,490 per year (approximately $795) and cell phones are available at less than half the cost of the solar option.  But . . . while the phone may be out of reach for individuals, a village (or other cooperative group) could share the phone(s), and it could be a whole new option for villages without electricity.  India (and the rest of us) need more thinking along these lines. 

P.S.  The phone is being released simultaneously in other parts of Asia, Europe, and Latin America, but there is no release date set for the US-which begs the question, why are we being left behind?


Kimiko Narita, who is interning in the San Francisco office, co-wrote this piece.