Rural power distribution brings with it a specific set of challenges. The length of distribution lines and their susceptibility to harsh weather conditions cause maintenance problems across extensive and often disparate sections of the grid.
Equally, the cost of the infrastructure impacts decisions about powering rural communities, as the higher-voltage lines necessary for this operation are far more expensive than those needed to reach urban communities.
Distributing power to rural communities is a pressing issue for both developed and developing nations, though the challenges differ. The International Energy Agency reported in 2015 that an estimated 1.2 billion people, (or 17% of the global population), did not have access to electricity – with 80% of these people living in rural areas. The report cites Sub-Saharan Africa as the region with the lowest level of rural electrification, where just 17% of the population have access to electricity.
For the utilities that distribute power to rural customers the challenge is balancing the cost of supplying electricity with the value of maintaining permanent infrastructure. The question is whether to rely on temporary or rental power or to invest the time and money in installing expensive power lines.
The main consideration is which solution best prevents widespread power failure and maintains a consistent, reliable power supply to business and residential properties. One of the biggest causes of disruption is unpredictable extreme weather conditions that cause line failures or disruption and damage to critical equipment, which can render rural communities without electricity for weeks at a time.
To deal with these concerns, utility companies are starting to consider the bigger picture. Not only must they look at the economic impact of rural power distribution (or an inability of rural communities to access power) but they must also seek out the most reliable and cost effective means of ensuring a consistent supply of power. This is often not laboriously maintaining lengthy and aging infrastructures.
Reducing both the cost of supply and consequently the cost of electricity consumption is the end game, but looking at the wider implications can also lead to the establishment of entirely new energy markets.
It is essential that utility providers look beyond resources like coal, oil and gas when looking at how to power rural communities. Equally, they must ensure there is a move away from labour intensive forms of energy, such as biofuels which rely on people gathering materials to burn and therefore restrict their ability to contribute in other ways to a local economy.
The World Bank’s energy team has pointed to the importance of renewable energy (particularly solar) in meeting these challenges and bridging the gap. In addition to being a low carbon form of energy, renewables can be generated near the point of use and thereby cut down on distribution infrastructure. The renewables sector is not without its own challenges however and modular on-site power continues to play a vital role, particularly in Sub-Saharan regions where extreme environments can compromise reliability. For example, we help Kenya Electricity Generating Company Limited, the country’s leading utility provider, manage intermittency caused by low rainfall which reduces outputs from its hydroelectric power stations. We provide 140 MW of emergency power to ensure there is a continuous supply of power to the grid by stabilising electricity levels when disruptions occur.
Rural communities play a vital role in societies around the world. In many nations the dearth of power is affecting millions of people and costing the economy greatly. It is imperative that owners of distribution lines and regulators look at the most effective way to counteract aging or a lack of infrastructure and ensure a consistent power supply.
The challenges of powering rural communities can be met in a number of ways – whether that means creating new energy markets through investment, or being prepared to say ‘no’ to repairing old transmission lines and adopting a decentralised energy strategy, is currently unclear. However, what is clear is that innovative thinking will become more important as time goes on to adapt to growing energy demands, increasingly aging infrastructure, more extreme weather conditions and to integrate new, reliable forms of energy to supply rural grids.
 International Energy Agency – World Energy Outlook: http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/resources/energydevelopment/energyaccessdatabase/
 The World Bank - Rural Energy Development: http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTENERGY/Resources/Rural_Energy_Development_Paper_Improving_Energy_Supplies.pdf