Renewable Minigrids Should Be the End Goal for Rural Poor

The percentage of population with grid access declined in many of the 20 least-electrified nations between 2010 & 2012. Image: SE4ALL

Distributed energy solutions, such as rooftop solar, should be the electrification solution for the 1.1 billion people who are not plugged into a national power grid, not just a stopgap measure. That is the message from a new global industry group, Power for All, launched in New York City this week amidst the latest gathering of the United Nations’ universal energy access program.

Power For All brings together businesses and not-for-profit organizations that distribute off-grid solutions, including solar-LED lights and home power systems. Founding members include San Francisco-based d.light; Arusha, Tanzania-based Off Grid Electric; and London-based NGO SolarAid—owner of solar-LED light global market leader SunnyMoney, which sold 650,000 lights last year.

Their message is that bottom-up distributed energy solutions should be thepreferred solution for assuring universal access to electricity because they are faster, cleaner, and cheaper than extending power grids to rugged or sparsely-populated regions.

Figures released this week by the joint UN-World Bank energy access program—Sustainable Energy for All—lend credence to Power for All’s argument. SE4ALL’s report on energy access trends compares progress during the 2010-2012 period with energy access trends of the previous two decades. From 2010 to 2012 some 222 million people—more than the population of Brazil—gained grid access for the first time. The growth outpaced global population growth almost 2 to 1, thus trimming the number not yet connected from 1.2 billion to 1.1 billion.

Those figures make electrification a bright spot. Little progress was detected in access to cleaner cooking fuels. Some 2.9 billion people were still cooking with biomass fuels such as wood and dung in 2012.

Even the progress in electrification was problematic. It was uneven, and, according to SE4ALL’s trend trackers, likely overstated.

Grid access expanded mainly in urban areas, and fully one-quarter of the growth was in India. In Sub-Saharan Africa — the region with the highest energy access deficits — electrification just barely outpaced population growth; electrification trailed demographic growth in half of the world’s 20 least electrified countries [see graph].

The problem is that building grid extensions is simply too costly according to Charlie Miller, Head of Policy & Programme Funding at SolarAid. “In places like Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo there’s no business case or government or consumer willingness to pay for the grid.” Bottom line according to Miller: “Policies that are grid-focused will not meet the needs of the worst off.”

In contrast, he says, the organizations behind Power for All are building businesses that are enjoying strong customer demand. “We’re advocating a subsidy-free energy solution that is aligned with people’s willingness to pay,” says Miller.

Solar-LED lighting is selling because a $10 solar light pays for itself in 10 weeks thanks to avoided kerosene and candles and, according to Miller, it will save its owner $200-340 over its 3-5 year lifetime. He says a solar light that also charges cell phones—a $25 investment—pays off in both dollars saved and by expanding its owner’s access to market opportunities and phone-based banking.

Miller says much of the commercial investment to Power for All’s segment is going to firms like Off Grid Electric that sell solar as a service, charging something like $15 up front and $2 a week. “You pay indefinitely, just like a utility bill,” says Miller. He says Off Grid Electric is scaling up rapidly in Tanzania, and cites competitors in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda who are growing fast using the same model.

Technology improvements and better management means that equipment is cheaper and lasts longer. The sector has come a long way from even a decade ago, when well-meaning programs with under-engineered products and minimal customer service came up short (such as the village lighting program in the Bolivian Andes that IEEE Spectrum featured in 2004).

Various efforts are underway today to backstop quality, including a quality assurance program for isolated mini-grids operated by the Global Lighting and Energy Access Partnership (Global LEAP), a global energy access initiative hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy.

At the same time ultra-efficient devices such as USB-powered televisions are squeezing more value out of every watt that remote solar panels deliver. Global LEAP issued a study last week asserting that high-efficiency appliances running on direct-current (DC) can cut the total cost of providing off-grid energy services in half.

SE4ALL’s report adds that grid access is not all that it’s cut out to be. In the developing world brownouts and blackouts can be a daily affair. As its U.N.-World Bank authors put it: “The presence of an electricity connection is a prerequisite for receiving electricity supply, but does not guarantee it.”

The report makes this case through a recent study of electricity access in Kinshasa. Close to 90 percent of residents in the DRC’s capitol have access to electricity through grid connections. But in practice extensive limitations in hours of service, unscheduled blackouts and voltage fluctuations degrade access. “The reality is that the streets of Kinshasa are dark on most nights and that few households can actually use the electrical appliances they own,” according to the report.

This year SE4ALL is launching a new global survey of electrification based on a multi-tier measurement to replace the currently binary “yes/no” grid access surveys. Under the tiered scheme Kinshasa’s electrification rating drops from 90 to 30.

Might that emperor of electricity, the power grid, have no clothes?

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate