A recent development testifies to solar's lasting appeal, albeit with a controversial twist. Afghan opium poppy growers are among those that have caught on to the increasingly affordable technology, though presumably not with ESG criteria in mind.

An investigation by the BBC into "perhaps the purest example of capitalism on the planet" has revealed that farmers in the Helmand Valley in southern Afghanistan have been making the most of the falling costs of solar panels to irrigate their lush poppy fields (BBC, 7/27).

Afghanistan is the biggest opium producer in the world, supplying more than two-thirds of the world's global illicit opium, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Most of it is refined into heroin. 

The first instance of an Afghan farmer using solar was reported in 2013, and by 2019 there were estimated to be about 67,000 solar arrays in the Helmand Valley alone, according to the BBC investigation.

Poppy cultivation and opium production in Helmand is a major source of funding for the Taliban.

For $5,000 upfront, farmers can purchase solar panels and an electric pump, replacing the diesel generators they previously used to pump groundwater to the surface and ensure that their poppy fields bloom even during droughts.

In February, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan had declined by 28% from 2018 to 2019 due to low opium prices. But in the south west, where solar is being used, opium production actually increased, the BBC reports. 

"There are no subsidies here," writes Justin Rowland, the BBC's chief environment correspondent. "Nobody is thinking about climate change - or any other ethical consideration, for that matter."

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