Kerry Adler speaks with the passion of an activist and the bluntness of a CEO.
His mission: to light the world with cheap solar as quickly as possible. And he'll do it any way he can -- including giving away millions of free solar systems.
"We want to bring solar to the people who need it most," said Adler. "That's our mission."
But Adler's mission may be more quixotic than visionary, say detractors. Worse, they argue, it may be damaging to the burgeoning off-grid solar market.
Professionals in the off-grid community grew concerned last July when Adler's company, Toronto-based SkyPower, announced a plan to hand out 2 million free solar lighting and charging kits to Kenyan schools, hospitals and households without access to the grid. The giveaway was part of a bigger deal that SkyPower signed with the Kenyan government to develop $2.2 billion worth of grid-connected solar projects in the country.
It didn't take long for the criticism to start rolling in.
"We are urging SkyPower to rethink their plans to donate 2 million home kits. It will undoubtedly destabilize a very promising market, damaging the prospects of many solar enterprises and potentially ruining trust in the technology," wrote Jeremy Leggett, the founder of the nonprofit SolarAid, in a blog post a few weeks after the announcement.
A decade ago, a proposal to serve millions of Kenyans with free solar kits would likely have been celebrated. That was before a real market emerged for pay-as-you-go off-grid solar supported by an increasingly diverse set of profit-seeking investors.
Leggett's organization is called SolarAid. But traditional solar aid is dying, he argued.
"[W]e don’t believe that the quickest way to fix a problem is always the best. Instead, we believe in kick-starting markets. We believe in setting up roots in local communities. And we believe in creating opportunities through enterprise," he wrote.
When asked by GTM to provide more detail on how SkyPower's giveaway could impact that activity, Leggett was blunt: "Kill it. And all the work of everyone who has tried to build sustainable markets."
That sentiment was echoed by eight other professionals financing and installing off-grid solar who were interviewed by GTM. Most spoke only on background out of fear of legal action from SkyPower, who they worried would use threats of lawsuits to quiet criticism.
Leggett said he received a "lengthy and insulting" cease-and-desist letter after publishing his blog post in August. No legal action was taken, however.
Adler dismissed those characterizations. He said that competitors are protecting their turf rather than working to spread solar as quickly as possible to those in need.
"I'm not sure why [critics] would be interested in stopping a solution that would address energy poverty," said Adler. "There are still more than a billion people without access to basic energy services, and they're worried about protecting themselves."
The for-profit companies selling solar in the developing world have fought hard to build their sales, distribution and financing infrastructure from scratch. They are just now getting serious recognition from governments and large financial institutions. They are underdogs.
But are they engaged in protectionism all the same?
The off-grid industry is indeed protecting its turf. But not for selfish reasons, say critics of SkyPower's proposed giveaway.
Instead, they're trying to preserve a budding for-profit solar market that helps people without access to the financial system build credit through micropayments, while also helping deliver incremental energy services to those without access to the grid.
"We're no longer operating with an aid-based mentality, in a lot of ways," said a CEO of a prominent off-grid solar provider operating in Africa. "Everything I've seen is that a mass giveaway would have market-destroying properties."
That executive -- who runs a company serving thousands of new customers each month -- is now questioning an expansion into Kenya. "It’s actually prevented other companies from going there," he said.
He's not alone in that assessment.
Russell Sturm, head of the International Finance Corporation's (IFC) climate change advisory, confirmed that the SkyPower announcement is having a material impact on the Kenyan market.
"We are seeing a ripple effect in the investor community as the fear of swamping the market with free products has led investors to pull back from plans to support the vibrant Kenyan solar market, including the homegrown Kenya pay-as-you-go solar industry that is enabling the poorest people to access modern energy services by accessing credit and paying for service delivered over time," said Sturm.
IFC invests billions in energy projects across the globe. While distributed solar is still a small part of its overall portfolio, the lender has ramped up its investments in the sector, injecting millions directly into some of the most promising installers and assisting with follow-on financing.
Kenya is one of the most promising off-grid solar markets in the world. According to Sturm, the country is home to the largest concentration of off-grid solar providers in sub-Saharan Africa -- serving 3 million households, many through mobile payment systems. It is a model that other energy-poor countries should follow, he said.
But that model could fall apart if millions of free solar lighting systems flood the country.
"Dumping free products on top of the fully functioning Kenyan market could destroy the commercial underpinnings of the domestic solar industry and undercut the investments of hundreds of Kenyan companies who have built this market and whose livelihoods depend on the services they provide to satisfied customers," said Sturm.
Spooked investors and lost sales aren't the only consequences. Critics also worry about the long-term consequences for operations and maintenance -- broken systems without anyone to fix them, or a lost opportunity to build up energy services over time.
"You need to invest in these markets to deliver maintenance after sales and allow customers to graduate to new energy services over time. You can't just set up shop and be in business," said the founder of another top off-grid solar vendor, who also spoke on background.
Just a month before SkyPower unveiled its plan last summer, members of the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association (GOGLA) agreed to strong language about giving away free products.
The organization -- which is made up of a broad group of local vendors, global lighting companies and multinational financiers -- urged against giveaways under most non-emergency circumstances.
"Systematic reductions on retail prices, and especially free giveaways, signal to consumers that they do not need to pay full retail price -- or pay at all -- for these goods, and consumers will accordingly hold out for reduced-cost or free goods in the future, regardless of whether they will ever come. While there may be a short-term benefit for selected users, these reductions or giveaways will result in such adoption being less likely to be sustained and broader adoption of solar off-grid lighting being significantly hampered," wrote the organization.
As one CEO put it in an interview: "If you don’t build a market, then you can’t just have a market overnight."
In Kenya, where 30 percent of the off-grid population has experience with solar lighting, consumers are coming back to solar providers for more services. According to a February report commissioned by the World Bank Group, the for-profit model is the reason Kenya's market is so sophisticated.
"Savvier customers are coming for additions, upgrades and replacements. [...] Once customers know what they are looking for, they will shop around for better deals. This boosts competition," wrote the authors.
Adler isn't convinced. Three-quarters of households in the country still rely on kerosene for lighting. "We need to do this faster," he said.
Adler also insisted that SkyPower has a well-crafted five-year plan to distribute the solar lighting systems. In December, the company put out a press release explaining that distribution "will be done carefully and with consideration of local needs."
SkyPower is planning to build community volunteer teams to help distribute and maintain the systems in partnership with the Canadian nonprofit Plan International, said Adler.
"Solar management and monitoring teams will also be created -- [made up of] youth from the local community -- and they will speak to their neighbors about how the solar kits are working, and undertake any maintenance or repairs or hot swaps that may be needed," wrote SkyPower and Plan Canada in a press release.
Those vague assurances haven't quelled the fears of off-grid solar providers and financiers operating in Africa.
Neither SkyPower nor Plan International have said how they will pay for the giveaway, which would cost tens of millions of dollars. The lack of details on financing also worries critics.
"These solar systems need to be paid for somehow. Who pays for this giveaway? Will it be billed to the Kenyan ratepayer?" asked the worried CEO of an off-grid solar company.
SkyPower likely doesn't have the resources to pay for the solar systems off its balance sheet.
The company bills itself as "the largest and one of the most successful" developers of solar projects globally, and claims to have a portfolio of 25 gigawatts of projects around the world. However, it only lists seven projects on its site -- all of them co-built with other developers in Ontario under lucrative feed-in tariff contracts, according to a source who worked directly on the projects.
SkyPower was recently awarded contracts for hundreds of megawatts' worth of PV in India and Kenya, but those projects have not yet been built. In press releases, it claims to have acquired many more gigawatts -- but none are mentioned in its list of operating projects.
No one is sure how seriously to take the solar giveaway. SkyPower and Plan International have been quiet since December.
While some investors and companies have been spooked by the proposal, Kenya continues to function as a model market for localized clean energy services, said IFC's Sturm.
"The Kenya solar industry has proven to be a tremendous economic development engine that has propelled millions of Kenyans up the energy ladder. The market’s commercial foundation has proven to be robust and sustainable, innovative and impactful," he said.
Solar entrepreneurs and lenders hope to keep it that way.