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, firstly through mini-grids which serve small regions or single communities. Small hydropower installations are expected to 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 energy 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. They lack the capacity to replace traditional cooking facilities; nor can they directly contribute to economic activity, such as the operation of pumps or other mechanised tools. Nevertheless, the transition from dirty and expensive kerosene lamps represents a milestone in family life.
The national energy plans of most African countries envisage a very significant contribution from a mix of available solutions beyond the national grid. These countries therefore find themselves in the vanguard of the global clean energy revolution that the 21st century must deliver.
Modest prospects for grid-based energy supplies in rural areas of poorer countries rule out the widespread introduction of electric or gas cookers familiar in developed countries. 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.