The World Bank estimates about 1.06 billion people do not have access to electricity and more than 3 billion still use fuels like wood, charcoal, coal and dung for cooking and heating.
This is a big challenge to solve for many national governments and the issue is normally in rural areas of developing countries that do not have access to the grid.
Due to the scattered nature of rural households in developing countries, there is no critical mass of people to be connected to the grid. This makes it very uneconomical for the private sector to make energy investments in rural areas when it comes to connecting households and institutions to the grid. As a result, rural electrification is not attractive for the private sector; national governments continue to rely on donors or public funds to assist in rural electrification.
Rural electrification is mainly expensive because of the need to extend grid. Grid expansion is expensive in these areas because of scattered households or institutions and hence can take a long time before such an investment can pay for itself.
However, off-grid solar systems are designed to work on-site without the need for a grid and can be great solution for helping millions or even billions to have a source of clean energy while switching away from traditional fuels that affect the health of many people in the developing world. For instance, switching to solar PV or implementing solar PV can help to connect millions of sub-Saharan Africans with solar power. Please see this article for how solar packaged solutions can be used to solve the energy problem in Africa.
Off-grid solar systems: is it the solution to access to clean energy?
Yes, but it depends. In my opinion, the challenge to access to energy in many countries in the developing countries can be solved using decentralized renewable energy systems such as off-grid solar systems, wind power systems etc.
However, solar energy will be the best option for access to energy because of its abundance and availability in many places of the world. Because of the abundance nature of the solar resource in many developing countries, off-grid solar has a great potential to be a viable solution that can be relied upon. Also since the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) continue to go down every year, solar energy stands out as one of the best solutions for future energy. On the hand, wind energy resource is limited because not all places have a wind potential to generate power, but you can tap a lot of solar energy anywhere there is sunlight.
The approach taken to implement off-grid solar systems really matters to make it happen
The implementation of these technologies may need the private sector to take a leading role while the government and international donors taking a facilitation role (technical assistance)
The technical assistance provided by the government and donors will be in the form of research studies to identify potential sites with a great amount of renewable resources and the right technologies, for example off-grid solar systems that can be used to tap these resources. The government and the private sector can partner to provide technical assistance for supporting local entrepreneurs develop renewable energy businesses that help to electrify remote areas.
Private sector driven electrification using decentralized renewable energy systems can help to solve the challenge to energy access.
Also, the government and financing institutions supported by donors can target local entrepreneurs to built their capacity when it comes to project origination, project development & project financing.
The private sector can learn from their successes and failures to continue to improve on their business acumen. I think having local entrepreneurs implementing these projects will enhance accountability and commitment to working in these projects to help reduce losses and working towards making a profit. This will ensure entrepreneurs are properly trained to build quality projects so that they can recoup a return on their investment.
Implementing a profit driven approach to access to energy in remote areas may help to accelerate it, but the government will still need to create an enabling environment (policies and regulations) to make it happen. Quality standards will help to improve implementation of different technologies while environmental and safety standards will protect communities and villagers affected by the technology adopted.
Technology transfer and partnerships
Not all developing countries may have the renewable technologies to electrify these areas and hence technology transfer with the development of mutual partnerships will help to create or transfer the right technology to these countries. Technology transfer can be in the form of hardware (technological equipment) or software (specialized skills and knowledge).
On the other hand, partnerships could be South—South cooperation or North—South cooperation to enable technology transfer and implementation of renewable energy systems at the village level or community level where it is needed to help transform communities to be productive (businesses) and obtain social services (churches, hospitals, schools etc) in an efficient manner.
Implementation of off-grid solar systems
Off-grid solar systems can take the form of mini-grid or micro-grids that could be hybrid or stand-alone. This solar powered mini-grid or micro-grids are sustainable and affordable AC power solution compared to power supplied only from diesel generators. These off-grid solar systems will reduce dependence on the ever-increasing cost of diesel fuel.
There are so many companies that offer these solutions for powering rural areas and when implemented by locals and in cooperation with international technology providers, rural electrification can be accelerated. With off-grid solar systems there is no need to invest in the expansion of the existing grid. Switching to solar PV is great option for access to energy in rural areas of the developing world. Solar PV packaged with the latest storage (battery) technologies offer a great technological solution to power homes or communities that are currently relying on traditional biomass (wood) or charcoal, dung etc. Off-grid solar systems are also good to mitigate climate change.
Uses of Off-grid solar systems
When it comes to energy access, off-grid solar systems can be used in the following areas:
- Off-grid solar systems can be used for agro-based businesses mainly found in rural areas. For example: solar water pumps for irrigation and livestock; solar and solar hybrid solutions for processing and distribution of crops e.g. through milling, drying, chilling, freezing etc.
- Solar power systems for electrifying public institutions, schools, healthcare centers and other community institutions. Such institutions will enable people to work longer and efficiently. Power can be used to power fridges or freezers (for preserving food, vaccines, medicines), computers or other medical equipment found in hospitals.
- Off-grid solar systems can be used to power rural communities and enable various services for the villagers such as pumping of drinking water, powering radios &TVs;, computers, cellphones, refrigerators etc