Solar Aid – Sally Struthers, Is That You?

Solar Aid has embarked upon an Internet ad campaign to raise donations to provide solar power devices to impoverished nations in parts of Africa. They lead off with “Imagine a world where everyone has access to affordable, clean, renewable power.” Alongside the text is a picture of a young black boy, shading his eyes with his hand, while looking up at the sun. Below is the suggestion that we “Give the gift of light this Christmas” by buying a solar lantern. The price? A mere $60 dollars.

Watching their video, one could almost be moved and convinced. Like an email from a Nigerian scammer, a few small flaws give us pause: Supposedly 1.2 million people die of smoke related deaths each year — one every 20 seconds. We question that statistic, as it seems unlikely for a number of reasons. They also show their campaign teaching people to convert their lamps to solar with LEDs, florescent bulbs, and solar panels. Its a simple electronics lab project, easily taught in an afternoon, but they’re promising to teach this skill to 250 people this year, and 500 next year. Thinking about it, that doesn’t seem like a very productive schedule.

I’d certainly like to be able to imagine even a COUNTRY (this one, for starters) where everyone has access to affordable, clean, renewable power. That would be a good start. Maybe it would be easier to bring the African continent up on solar since grid electricity isn’t as thoroughly entrenched there as it is here. I’ll give them that much… but charity still begins at home. Moreover, technology advancements will be far greater here than those achieved in a “developing” nation, and can then be handed across to them to utilize. When the U.S. and the rest of the Western World aren’t yet on board with that affordable, clean, renewable power, it’s a bit much to ask us to dig deep and give Africa money to get it.

The site goes on to show that Gwyn Roberts is driving a 1989 Landcruiser from London to Cape Town, hoping to raise £20,000 for them. The tie-in? He’s going to use solar panels on the vehicle, supposedly to increase MPG. Then there’s the 5k run. There’s a long laundry list of corporate donors and sponsors, including utility companies. It LOOKS like a valid cause… but are looks deceiving?

$60 is a fairly good chunk of change. On a wholesale basis, $60 buys a LOT more than one solar lamp. That much can buy a solar panel that can give lights to several LED lamps. Not sure? Think about those solar lamps for the yards. They have a couple off-brand AA rechargeable batteries in them, a very small solar cell, and they can provide light to read by. Such lamps retail in the stores in the States for well under $10 each. Where is the rest of the money going? Administration? New Landcruisers? And what about all of those corporate sponsors?

We agree with the sentiment, and the goal. But the numbers don’t add up, and that’s really too bad. Africa’s people ARE poor, and they could use solar technologies. But this program brings to mind a bloated Sally Struthers dolefully pleading for starving children while wearing a $1500 wardrobe. Cate Blanchette and the rest of the cast and crew may have the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean they’re not being fleeced. It’s a myth that solar must be expensive — especially when we’re talking about solar lanterns. We’d be happy to pass along good news about a worthy solar charity. This just isn’t one of them, in my opinion.

VIDEO: Solar Aid Needs Your Money NOW!