Over a billion people are currently living without electricity, mostly in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Providing universal energy access could help lift them out of poverty, and promote their social and economic development, writes Anna Seppälä.
Take a moment to think about the last time your smartphone run out of battery. Many of us can share the pain of a nightmarish 30-minute commute home from work with nothing to do. What about the last time you experienced a power outage? You couldn’t go on the Internet for hours and your ice-cream melted in the freezer before the lights came back on.
We take countless things within our society for granted, but probably the most overlooked of all is electricity. We only think about it when it’s not there, yet we feel utterly helpless without it. At the same time we forget the vast number of people living out of reach of any energy services from Internet access to mobile phones, refrigerators or even something as mundane as lighting. Imagine your day ending at six p.m. when the sun goes down. Short days are everyday life for about 1.3 billion people.
17 per cent of the world's population live without energy.
Energy access is key for socio-economic growth
Energy access is not just about social connectivity or preserving food. With modern cooking systems people can avoid inhaling smoke and harmful toxins when preparing meals. Electric pumps allow farmers to irrigate and grow crop even in the dry season, promoting food security and the local economy. With electricity, hospitals can take better care of those in need, children are able to study in the evening and women can take on jobs instead of spending their days looking for firewood or water. In short, energy plays a major role in all aspects of life.
Green energy as a bottom-up solution
The majority of the energy poor reside in rural areas, where the national electricity grid is unreliable or completely unavailable. Due to the high costs of grid extension to such areas combined with the local communities’ low ability to pay for energy services, there is usually very little government interest in providing connections.
Small off-grid systems show great potential in solving this problem because they provide a flexible, easy-to-install power source with very little money compared to extending the public grid system. Traditionally, diesel generators have been used in electrification projects but they have massive averse health and environmental effects at a larger scale. Thus using renewable energy such as solar, wind or hydro is absolutely necessary to minimise the negative impact of energy access, and to decrease communities’ dependence on the price fluctuations of fossil fuels.
Thanks to small hydro-power plants, rural families in Nepal can charge mobile phones and stay connected. Photo by Sudhir Jha
Technology is not the only problem
Countless rural electrification projects have been launched in the past, and while some have succeeded, many more have failed miserably. The reasons for failure vary from technical to financial, administrative and even cultural. In the poorest areas off-grid schemes often fail because the communities cannot afford paying for maintenance. And without technical training, simple tasks like cleaning solar panels or adding water to batteries are neglected, leading to system failure. Misconduct, corruption and energy theft are frequent nuisances if energy usage and payment schemes are not in place.
To avoid these pitfalls, the ongoing involvement of the system donor is vital for the success of electrification schemes. Unfortunately, in many cases the communities are left to their own devices after installation. In such drop-and-forget projects, the villagers have no one to turn to in case of problems.
Universal energy access is gaining momentum
Despite the many unsolved problems in providing energy access, more and more research is being done on the subject, and many initiatives exist. Ensuring universal access to affordable and sustainable energy has been declared as one of the U.N. sustainable development goals for 2030, and for instance the government of India is determined to electrify all its villages by 2019. Although there’s still a long way to go and it seems like a daunting task, there’s literally light at the end of the tunnel.
If you’re interested in reading more about rural electrification and sustainable development, here are some good links:
Anna Seppälä is a Ph.D. student at the Technical University of Munich, and with a three-year grant from Nessling she is designing renewable energy systems for developing countries. Location-wise her main focus lies in India