Energy access for all, even the world’s poorest people, is a long-established international development priority and a central pillar of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which call for ‘universalising’ energy access by 2030. The principle was most recently included in the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. But what does access to energy actually mean? And does it necessarily mean extending the reach of electricity networks in developing countries to their most remote or poorest inhabitants?
No it doesn’t. International NGO Practical Action (PA) suggests in a new report that decentralized energy – ‘local generation and distribution through mini-grids’ – is often the least-cost option. The report: Poor people’s energy outlook 2016, says that: ‘decentralized mini-grids were found to be cost-competitive or cheaper than grid extension’ in its case studies within Bangladesh, Kenya and Togo. The report adds that counting the number of new grid connections or megawatts of generating capacity available is a poor way to measure progress on electrification.
But, as well as cost, PA also has something to say about the quality and speed of delivery of new decentralized supplies, which: ‘would provide more reliable power than the national grids currently do, and be deployable in a fraction of the time.’
Unlike national grids in most developed countries, central electricity supplies in developing countries can be erratic – and new mini-grid systems can often do a better job. PA has worked on defining access to energy, including the quality of the electricity supply compared to the needs of the community to be served.
It uses a ‘tier’ system, where the most basic, Tier 1 supply provides up to 50 W and 200 Wh for four hours or more per day, useful for family life; up to Tier 5, which provides kilowatts of power for 23 or more hours per day, with few interruptions. The higher options also provide sufficient power for small-scale productive activities such as employment, and for community facilities such as schools and street lighting.
Electricity delivered from a centralized grid ought to resemble a Tier 5 supply, but in many developing countries grid supplies often only reach Tier 3, says PA, and this matters.
Practical Action is clear: ‘for remote rural electrification, decentralized options are superior to the grid.’ They are cost-competitive or cheaper than grid supplies; often provide more reliable power; and can be deployed much quicker.