A fresh look at achieving universal access to electricity

Hot off the press!  Or, if this weren't the internet that might be true.
Along with my colleagues Dimitry Gershenson and Dan Kammen, I'm happy to announce publication of a new paper in the academic press (at Nature Climate Change) that I hope is valuable for the LuminaNet community.  Our paper, Decentralized energy systems for clean electricity access, reviews the state of knowledge on a continuum of on- to off-grid electricity technology systems, using a combination of historical and applied systems analysis to datasets we curated across scales.  
Pervasive deprivation from electricity for the off-grid poor has (too) long been recognized as a critical issue for development policy.  When we combined archival data with modern tracking we found that there are nearly as many people off the grid today as there were when Thomas Edison started selling electricity in 1882 -- over a billion.  While extending connections to the grid provides low priced, high power, and often reliable electricity, overcoming the cost and investment barrier for extensions and new connections has proven difficult, particularly for the poor.  
Based on our best available estimates, off-grid households burning fuel for light end up contributing 10x the greenhouse gas emissions levels of those with electricity.  A shift to off-grid power that is scalable and more easily deployed than the grid could eliminate this greenhouse gas (and the health and safety risks that go along with it) and result in dramatic improvements in service.  As we know here, and the broader world is learning, this is indeed what is happening, with millions of households worldwide now served by a range of pico-solar and household solar home systems. These have been distributed through a range of public, private, and hybrid approaches and there is good momentum towards building off-grid power into a sustainable sector for electricity.  
Rooftop pico solar in Ethiopia powers these rural households. (Alstone 2015)
One of the critical needs for accelerating progress on off-grid electrification is financing for the systems.  The reality we identify in the data is that many households are spending enough on kerosene or batteries and phone charging that simply turning that spending stream into loan repayments, depending on the interest rate, means they can afford a roughly $50-200 system without any increase in overall cost.  The hurdle here is overcoming first-cost and trust barriers. 
A promising new application for providing consumer finance to overcome off-grid power barriers is "pay-as-you-go" solar.  These Pay-go approaches leverage mobile data and mobile money systems to collect and enforce small loans for systems that have embedded hardware for verifying payments.  Getting consumer-level finance into the hands of the off-grid poor, with supporting environments of good policy and access to capital for the businesses that need to grow to meet market needs, could be transformative.  Putting it together, accelerated deployment of off-grid power helps meet targets for universal access to basic energy service while simultaneously making progress on the climate.  
For some of you on LuminaNet, a lot of this might sound like old news.  What we tried to do with this paper is pull together a coherent and complete view of where the off-grid power sector is today and where it is heading in the next 20 years, based on the best available data and science.  The off-grid lighting community has a compelling story for motivating the policy, finance, and innovation that will be needed to achieve universal access to electricity.
You can read the full paper online here:


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Comment by Victoria Arch on April 2, 2015 at 9:26am

This is a terrific contribution! Thanks Peter (and Dimitry!)!

Comment by Salvatore Chester on April 2, 2015 at 3:17am

Quite relevant for Africa, Ethiopia in particular.  Keep it up! Peter. 


Comment by Gary Zhang on April 1, 2015 at 8:41pm

nice and motivated topic

Comment by Matthew Jordan on March 26, 2015 at 12:03pm

Nice work, Peter. Looking forward to reading (and citing!).



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