In order to develop as a human being, you need energy. To learn, walk, talk, produce, you need food and water. Not to talk about more complex processes as inventing or creating.
As it works for your body, it works for a human group: a community needs energy in different forms to get prosperous. To cook, to get an education, to access medication, to earn a living, people must have access to electricity.
More than 1 billion of this planet inhabitants – around 14% of the global population – have still no access to electricity (SE4ALL, 2015). At the same time, almost 3 billion people – about half the population in developing countries – live without clean cooking facilities.
The vast majority – approximately 87% – all of these people live in areas characterised by remoteness and sparse population density in sub-Saharan Africa or in Asia-Pacific region (REN21).
URBAN ELECTRIFICATION VS DECENTRALISED ENERGY SOLUTIONS
Traditionally having access to electrical power meant you lived on a reasonable distance to a power grid or, in a remote location, you could rely on polluting fuels, like diesel and kerosene, or on firewood. In rural districts, the extension of national grids can be technically difficult, costly and inefficient.
In contrast, mini-grids and stand-alone systems, as smaller and more local systems. They can provide decentralised electricity generation and distribution in a more competitive solution. They can work independently or combined hybrid (biomass, hydropower, solar and wind) with modular conception. In addition, if there is an energy storage system, they guarantee 24/7 electricity (SE4ALL, 2015).
The urgent fight against climate change, combined with progressive technological advances and significant price reductions, has boosted the process of increasing the affordability, availability and reliability of renewable energy.
HOW FAR FROM UNIVERSAL ACCESS TO ELECTRICITY?
We are still far from reaching universal access to clean electricity. This despite advances in overall global electrification rates from 76% in 1990 to 85 % in 2012. In India, for example, the headline electrification rate improved from 43% in 2000 to 82% in 2016 (REN21). The International Energy Agency (IEA) sees the chance to achieve this goal by 2030 only if mini-grids, or other off-grid decentralised solutions, will provide energy access to at least 60% of the people living in remote unelectrified areas (IEA, 2011).
Distributed renewables for energy access (DREA) systems are the most promising path to close the energy gap in developing countries and lower-income areas. DREA solutions already succeeded at fulfilling the energy needs enabling the livelihoods of millions of people. In particular, people living in remote parts of the world. Between 2012 and 2016, these systems provided about 6% of the new electricity connections worldwide, mainly in remote areas (REN21).
MORE THAN TECHNOLOGY: THE ROLE OF INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION
The rural electrification markets are often immature and face many obstacles to grow in a self-sustainable way. This is where ONGs and other institutions intervention becomes crucial.
Shifting from centralized power distribution towards DREA solutions is more than the mere technical issue of bringing electrical power. It’s a social, cultural, logistic and systemic revolution and needs specialized local professionals.
“To succeed in replacing fossil fuel with renewable energy-powered systems, the designers will not only have to find new technological solutions, but rather trigger processes that bring growth, differentiation and sustainable development”, states Lorenzo Giorgi, Liter of Light European Coordinator and founder of Liter of Light Italy.
Liter Of Light is a project that aims to bring eco-sustainable lighting to populations in a state of energy poverty. Their mission is spreading photovoltaic lighting systems, building them directly at the installation site in developing countries. Liter Of Light program succeeded at being technically and socially sustainable in energy disadvantaged areas of the planet.
From 2011, with offices in 20 countries worldwide, they managed to install approximately more than 850,000 lights distributed in 30 developing countries. Their projects generated a dramatic overall impact: they have affected around 2,500,000 beneficiaries. Furthermore, Liter of Light amplified the campaigns positive impacts with about 15000 training programs for more than 1500 technicians. A program that puts the human being at the center, in an actual triple bottom line approach. People, profit and planet connected in a mutual growth mechanism.
Replacing lighting systems powered by fossil fuels with renewable energy ones is the first step. The second one is installing off-grid plants for productive uses such as irrigation and manufacturing. A multifaced path that will offer social, environmental and economic co-benefits. DREA systems can improve local employment rate. With appropriate training, local engineers and service providers can operate and maintain these small plants. Electrical power availability can reduce chronic and acute health effects, increase school retention and grades for children. At a wider look it can increase income for small and medium-sized businesses and reduce negative impacts on forests.
DREAs TECHNOLOGIES AS A CATALYST TO ACHIEVE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS
Access to energy is not the ultimate goal in itself, but it can become a cornerstone to tackle some of the major challenges the world is currently facing, which are summarized in the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Ensuring universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy would be a catalyst in the process of addressing by 2030 (UN, 2018):
SDG NUMBER 3 – GOOD HEALTH AND WELL-BEING. Damages from using kerosene lighting are comparable to the ones caused by smoking two packets of cigarettes every day. A behavior leading to higher risk from respiratory diseases.
SDG NUMBER 7 – AFFORDABLE AND CLEAN ENERGY. In sub-Saharan Africa or in the Asia-Pacific region, solar power will be affordable and reliable. In 24 countries in the sub-Saharan region, 90% of the population still relied on traditional biomass, coal or kerosene for cooking purposes
SDG NUMBER 9 – INDUSTRY, INNOVATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE. Energy storage and smart grid can cooperate with high-level innovation systems, with the introduction of artificial efficiency and blockchain.
SDG NUMBER 13 – CLIMATE ACTION. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels for electricity generation will help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In 2018, 10 developing countries had successfully completed the first iteration of their national adaptation plans to fight climate change
SDG NUMBER 17 – PARTNERSHIPS FOR THE GOALS. Enabling policies and investment in decentralized renewable energy solutions will be necessary. The goal is to complement grid systems and bring different stakeholders along in the green energy transition.
A LEVERAGE FOR SOCIAL EMPOWERMENT
To date, some developing countries still need to overcome market barriers to reduce their lack of electrification. Many countries continue to subsidise fossil fuels as a way of reducing costs for consumers. In 2013, global investment of public money on fossil fuel was nearly 500 billion euros. This is money that could be shifted towards sustainable development in off-grid markets (Climatescope 2014).
An investment the higher income countries societies should consider doing immediately. They need to act as soon as possible to fight climate change and to mitigate the degradation of natural resources. Also, as importantly, to ensure all people in all places the chance to live in inclusive and open societies.
Enabling and empowering policies are missing, along with the investments. This is the necessary step we need to take in order to involve everyone in the green transition.