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Opium: The unlikely poster child for renewable energy

On 27 July 2020, Justin Rowlatt, Chief Environmental Correspondent of BBC News, published an article with the headline: What the heroin industry can teach us about solar power.

I missed that, but a month later found it reported in an issue of Zac and Jesse’s amusing and informative blog called “Now You Know.” about issues related to electromobility and renewable energy. This particular episode of the blog was called: Solar Panels: Proof is in the Poppies where they highlighted the findings reported by Justin Rowlatt.

Solar Panels for sale in Afghanistan: stacked three stories high. Image courtesy BBC News

So what’s the story here?

In 2013, the first Afghan farmer used solar panels to power a pump that brought water up to the surface from 100 meters below ground. Prior to that, his only alternative had been diesel pumps. Pumps ran on dirty diesel that fouled his motors and caused frequent breakdowns, in addition to intermittent supply. Running on solar power was clean and free, the pumps worked reliably, and the farmer was able to grow 2 or even 3 crops a year, in addition to increased yields per crop. The following year, a few panels were available for sale in local markets. Since then, the sale of solar panels has taken off in the province, with 67,000 arrays counted in Helmand Valley alone in 2019. The negative effect of this bounty is that opium output has more than doubled in the intervening years.

If only we could see that kind of exponential growth of renewables in rich countries, the world’s environmental outlook would not be the bleak picture it is today. But there is a surprising amount of misinformation in the educated, industrialised world. This is partly due to the existence of powerfully entrenched corporations that jealously guard their own turf and discourage innovation. The second negative factor is the advertising industry that has spent decades fine-tuning their ability to spread the message of their paymasters, however detrimental to the planet. Time to take a leaf from an Afghan farmer’s book on energy, if not for choice of crops.