Empowering Communities with Sustainable Energy

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Russell Watkins/DFID
A woman in Bariadi, Tanznia displays her solar lighting kit.

Of all the global challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, two seem likely to overshadow the rest: persistent, widespread energy poverty (and associated lost economic opportunities), and rapid disruption of the global climate. These crises are inexorably linked. A lack of modern energy services impacts every aspect of life, and the legacy and future of fossil-fuel use threatens the climate for everyone, but the poor most immediately and most acutely, since they are the most vulnerable to environmental disruptions. Recent advances in clean energy technologies and market innovation to support clean energy dissemination have resulted in reduced planning for universal, clean energy access even while many hurdles still stand in the way of our implementing this future.

 

Mini-grids and products for individual user end-use of energy, such as solar home systems and pay-as-you-go solar energy products, have benefitted from dramatic price falls and advances in the performance of solid state electronics, cellular communications technologies, and electronic banking as well as a sharp decline in solar energy costs.1 This mix of technological and market innovation is contributing to a vibrant new energy services sector that, in many nations, is outpacing the growth of traditional centralized electricity grids.

 

Around the world, access to electricity is strongly linked to a wide range of social goods. When people have access to electricity, their gross national income, life expectancy, educational attainment, gender equality in educational opportunity, and the percentage of students who reach key milestones goes up while the proportion of people who are poor or affected by childhood mortality both decline (Figure 1).2

Per_Kammen_Figure2
Alstone, P., D. Gershenson, and D.K. Kammen
Figure 1. The Human Development Index (HDI) and various other metrics of quality of life plotted against the percentage of the population with electricity access. Each data point is derived from country-level data at a specific point in time. Today, roughly 1.5 billion people go without access to electricity.

Grid expansion has roughly kept pace with the increase in global population, but has not significantly decreased the persistent gap. About 1.5 billion people in 2013 were completely off-grid, mostly in rural areas and underserved city fringes. The electricity-poor rely mostly on kerosene and traditional biomass, including dung and agricultural residues.

 

But, even as grids expand and the population grows, this access gap persists. Traditional grid extension programs will be too slow to reach these communities, relegating a very large number of people in the neediest countries to lives with substantially fewer options for self-development. Even in the developed world, many connected people experience significant power outages from 20 to 200 or more days per year, and current forecasts suggest this number could remain roughly unchanged until the year 2030.

 

One opportunity to cut into the large numbers of people who have no access, and to improve the reliability of the current and emerging grids, is to take greater advantage of the decreased cost and increased functions possible with the new generation of communication technologies and the data capacity of modern information systems.

 

Off-Grid Electricity is Surging

 

Lately, new, off-grid electricity systems have emerged that do not rely on the same infrastructure as traditional, centralized power generation. As previously noted, this is as much due to advances in information technology and reduced solar energy costs as it is to innovations in energy.

 

The traditional model of central-station energy systems is being replaced by a new wave of distributed energy providers. Traditional dynamo generators and arc lighting perform best at large scale, and indeed have become the mainstay of large-scale electric utilities. The classic utility model of a one-way flow of energy from a power plant to consumers is now rapidly changing. The combination of low-cost solar, micro-hydro, and other generation technologies with the electronics needed to manage small-scale power grids has changed village energy. High-performance, low-cost solar generation paired with advanced batteries and controllers provide scalable systems across much larger power ranges than central generation, from megawatts down to fractions of a watt.3

Per_Kammen_Figure3
Daniel M. Kammen
Figure 2. A village micro-grid energy and telecommunications system in the Crocker Highlands of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The system provides household energy services for communications via satellite, water pumping for fishponds (center) and for refrigeration. The diversified supply includes micro-hydro and solar generation. One small panel is shown here while others are distributed on rooftops.

Rapid improvements in the efficiency of lighting, televisions, refrigeration, fans, and integrated information and communication technology (ICT, as seen in Figure 2) systems have culminated in a super-efficiency trend. The fast technological pace is set to continue, driving advances in clean energy both on- and off-grid. This process has been particularly important for households and villages where solar power and mini-grids are increasingly a reality, as well as for individual users.4,5

 

Diversified Energy Solutions for the Unelectrified

 

Armed with an array of modern small-scale technologies, aid organizations, governments, academia, and the private sector are working to close the gap between the electrical haves and have-nots. One such effort has been the introduction of low-cost, highly efficient “pico-lighting” devices powered by very small solar panels. Together with solar home systems and community-scale micro- and mini-grids, the devices are already making a difference.

 

Decentralized energy is not a complete substitute for a reliable grid connection, but it represents a good platform on which to establish more distributed energy services. Meeting peoples’ basic lighting and communication needs is an important first step on the modern electricity service ladder.6 Eliminating kerosene lighting from a household improves the occupants’ health and safety while providing more and better lighting. In Africa alone, fuel-based lighting is a USD$20 billion industry and big opportunities exist to reduce energy costs for the poor and improve quality of service. Charging a rural or village mobile or cell phone can cost USD$5 to $10 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) at a pay-for-service charging station, but less than USD$0.50/kWh via an off-grid product or mini-grid. This frees income and often leads to greater usage of mobile phones and other small devices.

 

Overall, efficient end-uses deliver better health, education, and poverty reduction in a given household. Decentralized power can also make possible a wide range of services, such as television, refrigeration, fans, heating, and air-conditioning (power-level, service quality, and end-use efficiency depending).

 

Experience with the people who are off-grid confirms the exceptional value derived from the first increment of energy service. For example, only tiny amounts of energy equivalent to 0.2 to 1 Wh (which on grid would cost only USD$0.10 to $1.00) per day are needed for mobile phone charging or the first 100 lumen-hours of light. This is little more than the energy draw of traditional light-bulbs. Given the cost and energy service levels that fuel-based lighting and fee-based mobile phone charging offer as a baseline, simply shifting this expenditure to a range of modern energy solutions could yield a much better service or significant cost savings over the lifetime of a lighting product (typically three to five years).

Per_Kammen_Figure5
Russell Watkins/DFID
A woman and her daughter use a solar lighting kit to study at night in Bariadi, Tanzania.

Mirroring the early development of electric utilities, improvements in the underlying technology for decentralized power are also being combined with new business models, institutional and regulatory support, and integrated information technology systems.7,8 Historically, non-technical barriers have been impediments to widespread adoption of off-grid electricity, and in some cases they still are. A lack of investment capital hampers the establishment and expansion of private sector initiatives. Further, complex policy environments can impair the entry of new, clean technologies and entrench old, dirty ones. Subsidies for liquid fuels for lighting can undermine the incentive to adopt electric lighting. The prevalence of imperfect or inaccurate information about quality or performance can lead to market spoiling,9 confusing consumers or simply keeping them in the dark about alternatives. In this regard, laboratories that test and rate the quality of lighting products and disseminate the results can prove invaluable. The Lighting Global program is one example of an effort that began as an industry watchdog and has now become an important provider of market insights and quality assurance for modern, off-grid lighting devices and systems, as well as a promoter of sustainability via partnerships with industry.10,11

 

Where to from Here? An Action Agenda for Global Access to Clean Energy

 

Demand for reliable, low-cost energy is booming—generated by the sheer diversity of new energy services available together with a rapidly rising demand for information, communications, water, health, and entertainment in villages worldwide. Once seen in diametric opposition to one another, soaring demand is actually proving to be a driver of clean energy uptake. How, then, can we leverage this momentum?

 

  1. Establish clear goals at the local level. Universal energy access is the global goal by 2030,12 but establishing more near-term goals that encompass meaningful steps now will help by showing what is possible and how. Cities and villages have begun audits of energy services, costs, and environmental impacts. A number of tools are often cited as excellent starting points, including the Cool Climate Network’s assessment tools and the HOMER software package used by many groups to design both local mini-grids and to plan and cost off-grid energy options.13,14
  2. Empower villages as both designers and consumers of localized power. Circumstances vary greatly with geography, but village-level strategies can be tailored using experience and instruments now available. Training and tools exist to help locals assess their clean energy resources, infrastructure needs, and, often the most neglected, but most important point, their social needs. Once an assessment is complete, communities are eager to get underway.15
  3. Make equity a central design consideration. Community energy solutions have the potential to liberate women entrepreneurs and disadvantaged ethnic minorities by tailoring user-materials and energy plans to meet particular cultural and linguistic needs. National programs often overlook local business specialties, local cooking customs, and other home energy needs. Thinking explicitly about this is both good business, and makes the solutions much more likely to be adopted.

 

We need goals that bridge the gap between local and global, ensuring local ownership of local energy problems and solutions, and embedding fairness in energy systems designs, not simply because it is right, but because it is smart. Add to these goals a willingness to embrace diversified clean energy systems and we are on our way to lifting hundreds of millions out of energy poverty and unlocking enormous human potential.

 

Acknowledgements

This contribution is based on deliberations in the session ‘Energy in a resource constrained economy’ at the IARU Sustainability Science Congress 2014.

 

References

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  10. Lighting Global [online] (2016) https://www.lightingglobal.org.
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