1.2 billion people in the world are currently without access to electricity. That’s 19% of the world’s population. The lack of universal access to clean, decentralized energy devastates a country’s chances for economic development, frames people’s life choices, oppresses women, and imprisons millions in severe poverty.
Even in communities that have recently acquired low-cost, high-value energy, the resultant emissions have been the primary driver of climate change. Centrally planned energy sources with high carbon intensity have increased usage of fuels with low efficiency. We need to explore innovative approaches that address the needs of people who currently do not have access to electricity while also transitioning to a decarbonized energy system.
What Is Life Like When You Don’t Have Access to Clean, Decentralized Energy for Electricity?
Life without assured access to clean decentralized energy for electricity means cooking with traditional fuels like wood and dung, which produce smoke and fumes that result in over 4 million deaths per year, mainly among women and children. Children without domestic lighting struggle to do their homework in the evening. No electricity means no cell phones, which have become an essential interpersonal and entrepreneurial tool. Inconsistent energy sources leave health centers with refrigerators that compromise the safe storage of vaccines and medicines. Many businesses must run diesel generators to keep their operations functioning, which cost 3–4 times the amount of everyday fuel.
None of these scenarios presents opportunities for freedom, choice, or self-actualization. Access to electricity is linked with improvements in human development including productivity, health and safety, gender equality, and education.
What are Barriers to Electrification?
A working group for the World Bank Group Energy Sector Strategy identified a number of reasons why closing the electricity access gap remains an unfinished agenda. They include:
- High costs of supplying rural and peri-urban households. Traditional energy source suppliers become dismayed by the high costs of providing power to communities with a low population density and a significant percentage of poor households.
- Demand for electricity. Residential and some agricultural consumers may be the sole candidates in some areas for electricity, and many of those consume less than 30 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month. These factors combine for high costs of supply for each unit of electricity supplied.
- Lack of appropriate incentives. Attracting investment in rural electrification requires a system of tariffs and subsidies that ensures sustainable cost recovery while minimizing price distortions. Such a revenue-generation structure is absent in many countries.
- Weak implementing capacity. Adequate design and effective implementation of a rural electrification program requires technical and managerial skills and an initial period of strategy development and capacity building.
- Electricity generation shortage. An obstacle to rural electrification in many countries with low access rates is insufficient generation capacity of the main electricity system. Off-grid electrification has the advantage of not being affected by this capacity constraint.
- Population growth. A further challenge in certain countries is the growth of their rural population. In low-income countries, rural population will increase in number to 2040 (UNPD 2007).
A sustainable approach to electrification, as a result, requires commitment of the government to supporting electrification as a priority development objective. It must be financially viable for investors. Arrangements and procedures that maximize efficiency in the design and implementation of policies, strategies, and programs aimed at expanding access are necessary. So, too, are actions to improve the existing tariff systems and subsidization schemes. Moreover, defining and enforcing a framework consistent with the country’s strengths and the nature of the problems faced can draw upon limited resources available and do so in an efficient manner.
Hope for Clean Decentralized Energy for the World’s Poor from Power for All
The persistence of widespread energy poverty and intensifying human-driven climate disruption are crises definitively linked through the technology systems that underlie them. Kammen, Alstone, and Gershenson argue that the implications for power system development can contribute to achieving universal access. They describe how using strategies that improve both human development and climate impacts from the energy sector can provide the effective support of networks for energy access.
That expansion of energy access is essentially a process of networks forming and extending with support from associated systems of capital, institutions, and information. Indeed, access to clean, decentralized energy for the world’s poor is now a step closer. Power for All is a global education and advocacy campaign that is dedicated to promoting solutions as the fastest, most cost-effective, and sustainable approach to universal energy access. To date, Power for All has enlisted 125 partners who, in turn, have the capacity to reach 62% of the world’s energy poor.
By signing the Power for All Declaration, these partners commit to moving beyond a mere vision to acting upon the idea that universal energy access is attainable using renewable, affordable, and faster solutions. By creating a unified voice, they create global momentum and a call for change for the world’s energy impoverished citizens.
Power for All includes active engagement by the off-grid clean energy sector, which represents decentralized solutions to energy poverty that do not rely on grid extension. “By focusing on key accelerators that will help leapfrog ‘business as usual’ energy delivery — just as mobile phones leapfrogged landlines in the developing world — we believe that we can achieve universal energy access in half the time for a fraction of the anticipated costs,” said Kristina Skierka, Campaign Director for Power for All.
The organization has three approaches:
- Unify the voice of the “beyond the grid” companies and organizations to advocate for specific supportive financial and policy enablers;
- Mobilize the broader sector—manufacturers, distributors, consumers—to de-position fossil-fuel-centric “business as usual” approaches to addressing energy access; and,
- Proactively position renewable, decentralized energy as premium-quality, climate-resilient products and services that enable a wide-range of productive uses for the global community.
Advocacy for Clean Decentralized Energy Awareness and Action
The Power for All campaign advocates globally for better policies, assistance, and access to capital in support of proposed solutions. It creates a positive perception of distributed renewable energy (DRE), its impact, and potential. By doing so, it raises awareness and can change preconceived notions about the central grid as essential to electrification. A central grid is a cost-effective solution for powering highly populated regions, but the cost of extending the grid to extreme remote and low population density areas is too high.
Power for All works toward clean decentralized renewable energy to enable millions of families and businesses to access electricity at a price they can afford and to provide the flexibility to grow with demand. It also activates national markets by catalyzing an environment where rapid deployment to accelerate clean energy access becomes the norm.
A paper in Nature Climate Change points to ways that on-grid and off-grid technologies are not distinct choices but a continuum, a ladder of energy access, everything from consistent grid access to partial grid access to mini- or micro-grids to home solar systems. The paper also reinforces how even the first few steps up that ladder can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Power for All functions as a viable mechanism to assist energy-impoverished countries to join a contemporary continuum of off- and micro-grid electricity systems that do not require the same supporting networks as centralized power generation and can overcome energy isolation barriers.
Reaching Households with Modern Energy Services in Weeks or Months
The desire for a greater stability, expanded service provision, reduced locational marginal costs, and opportunities for investment and international collaboration are key factors in universal access to clean decentralized energy for electricity for the world’s poor. Decentralized renewables provide a faster way to empower non-electrified communities, and Power for All supports leading companies that can reach households with clean energy services in weeks or months. They advocate for decentralized renewables in energy policy, capital for the entire value chain, a focus on market-building and policy grantmaking, higher quality and efficiency, and renewable, distributed, democratic power.
Universal energy access is attainable, but it can only happen by uniting behind a global voice for the sector. Power for All, with its emphasis on modern, clean technology, can now leapfrog slow, inefficient and centralized systems.
Photo Credit: Power for All Infographics