In any country, delivery of rural electrification by extension of a national grid becomes less cost effective with each added kilometre of transmission. In those developing countries where access to electricity is most deficient, grid economics is further challenged by the low price tariff that poor rural communities can afford.
Financial expediency in poorer countries therefore limits plans for refurbishing and extending national grids to urban centres and their peripheries. The International Energy Agency has suggested that no more than 30% of rural areas of low income countries are suitable for access by grid extension.
Beyond the reach of national grids lie new opportunities for energy production, ideally through mini-grids which serve small regions or single communities. Small hydropower installations typically feature in this context, alongside other renewable sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass. Less than 1% of geothermal potential in Africa has been exploited.
Subject to appropriate local management capacity, mini-grids can be built and operated in a distributed model, independent of central government or national utility companies.
For the remotest villages, there may be no alternative to off-grid energy solutions, for which solar is the lead technology. Sunlight is plentiful in most countries of high energy poverty.
The cheapest household solar power systems deliver little more than basic lighting, not even sufficient to meet the minimum “Tier 1” requirement that counts as “access” for the purpose of the Sustainable Development Goal for energy. Nevertheless, the transition from dirty and expensive kerosene lamps represents a milestone in family life for the 136 million people estimated to have acquired these household systems by 2018.
Such basic energy systems lack the capacity to replace traditional cooking facilities. Research has therefore concentrated on an intermediate solution – efficient modern versions of traditional biomass cookstoves.
These greatly enhance heat transfer, reducing wood fuel consumption and emissions that cause global warming. Safe ventilation of smoke reduces the risk of lung disease.
Modern biogas stoves are increasingly popular alternatives to biomass. Although they are more expensive, these stoves open the way to self-sufficiency in a household which owns livestock. In urban areas, LPG stoves are the preferred option.
In common with other development initiatives which impact directly on household behaviours, modern cookstoves will not succeed without recognition of the potential cultural barriers to proper use. Likewise, local communities dependent on the charcoal industry may understandably resist the new technology.
There are encouraging signs that these traditional solutions to energy poverty are being superseded by rapid improvements in energy and battery technologies, in parallel with falling costs and enhanced efficiency of household appliances. Innovative combinations of renewable technologies in mini-grid or household configurations are increasing affordable capacity.
This reshaping of supply and demand opens up the potential for homes to invest in small-scale electric cookers, the ultimate solution to dirty stoves. Rural schools and health centres can be transformed by reliable power supplies. The operation of pumps or other mechanised tools, enables modernisation of agriculture and local trades, boosting economic activity.
The Kenya Off-Grid Solar Access Project (KOSAP) illustrates how investment beyond the national grid can deliver impact comparable to a conventional grid extension. A blend of connected mini-grids and standalone solar systems, this is a flagship programme to deliver Kenya’s goal of universal access to energy as soon as 2022.
It is therefore the task of governments, in sub-Saharan Africa in particular, to devise national energy policies that encourage innovative rural solutions beyond the national grid, exploiting Africa’s vast renewable energy potential. Such models could pioneer the global clean energy revolution that the 21st century must deliver.