17 May 2012 – This year is the UN’s International Year of Sustainable Energy for All). The focus is on providing energy access to the 2.7 billion people worldwide who still rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating, and the 1.4 billion who have no access to electricity.

Every week I hear of yet another low-cost, small-scale renewable energy product, which has come to market and proved itself in a “demonstration” project.

Which begs the question: Why hasn’t it proved itself at scale?

The small-scale solar lamp market is a good case study as to the issues with energy access. There is the camp which says the main issue is that product quality is not up to scratch see this report by GTZ Then there is the camp which says the products are fine, and produces awards each year to say as much (see Lighting Africa the World Bank’s program to develop commercial off-grid lighting markets).

Good Return, the organisation I am working with across Southeast Asia, has seen some success there are a handful of interesting products which have somewhat proven themselves in the market.

Like the Coke-bottle solution featured in The New York Times , which brings light into dark, shuttered homes free of charge.

Then there is Australia’s own Barefoot Power , which produce small solar desk lamps for as little as $15. This has been a clear favourite among the villagers I’ve been surveying here in Indonesia. The lamps will last 2-3 years and can be paid back with the cost of around six months’ worth of kerosene.

The next step up in the small solar scale is Tough Stuff’s overhead lamp. Having been keen enough to see what their product can survive through, the company has thrown it off buildings, into blenders and under trucks. And they’ve got the videos on their website to prove it. In the Philippines we’ve seen their products dropped into buckets of water, bent by kids, walked all over – and still live to see another day.

At the top of the solar lamp pyramid is Sundaya , which industry experts have long lauded as “the best thing on the market.” When I showed it to the Indonesians, they loved the brightness of the lamp, but unfortunately weren’t so enthusiastic about the price.

And in my opinion it is this last statement which may prove the answer to the scale issue. The Indonesian farmers I am working with happily use poor-quality head torches that need to be replaced all the time. The light may be substantially less useful, but the cost per year is half that of the Sundaya lamp. The product is also readily available at the local market and they already effectively pay in “installments,” by purchasing replacement batteries.

The brightness they would gain from the Sundaya lamp just isn’t worth the additional cost and effort for a product they don’t understand.

This is part of a series on the UN’s International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. You can read the first in the series here. You can catch Monique on Twitter (@moniquealfris) or on her blog: https://moniquealfris.com.