Solutions

Although so many people have no access to energy today, the goal of universal access can be attained, even in the most remote areas. This is the good news based on today’s technologies.

Contexts, needs and resources differ widely around the world, consequently there is no single solution that can make access to energy effective and sustainable in the long term anywhere.

An efficient energy access strategy must inevitably be the result of a mix of different appropriate policies and technologies introduced and maintained by a variety of players with different roles and responsibilities.

This section presents a variety of solutions and examines their use of different energy sources, technologies and business models and also the importance of capacity building and education.

Energy resources

The energy supplies in the world today are the outcome of past choices. Historically, combustion of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) has been dominant and fossil fuel technology is very advanced and widely available today. Yet the use of fossil fuels has to be reduced drastically because they contribute heavily to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and to the consequent risk of climate change.

The general focus today is increasingly on clean renewable energy sources because of their environmental sustainability. The use of renewable sources often shows the further advantage of local availability, adaptability to isolated communities and lower investment requirements.

Even renewable sources, though, must be checked for appropriateness to the different contexts. In some cases they too can generate undesirable environmental impacts. In general, it would be inappropriate to employ the models prevailing in industrialized economies to provide access to energy elsewhere.

Solar energy

Solar energy is the most abundant of renewable energies sources. This source of energy is particularly attractive in most developing countries because of the latitudes at which they are located and the consequent abundance of solar radiation (for example, in the East Africa the mean value is 2,500 kWh/m2 compared with 1,400 – 2,300 kWh/m2 in Europe and the USA).

Solar radiation is converted into electricity by using Solar PhotoVoltaic (SPV or simply PV) generators, which are usually made of monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon. The power output of a solar panel normally ranges between 80 and 200 watts, with an energy conversion efficiency of 15% to 18 %. SPV systems need batteries, inverters, electric connection wiring and cables. The advantages of this technology are high reliability, long lifetime and an absence of moving parts.

Solar photovoltaic systems have innumerable applications in developing rural areas. SPV generators can be used to provide light and electricity in home installations and in schools, health centres and factories in community-based systems or they can be connected to micro-grid systems.

SPV generators are not the only way to exploit solar radiation in rural areas: solar cooking is another option that can be used to replace inefficient cooking stoves or open fires in developing countries.

Wind power

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global wind power generation is now present in 100 countries and it satisfies more than 6% of the demand for electricity worldwide.

Wind energy is captured by turbines in a generator that converts it into electricity with an efficiency rate of around 35%. Rural areas, where wind speed is generally higher than in urban areas, are particularly suitable for this technology.

Small turbines (pico or micro turbines with a power output of a few kilowatts) are very simple. They can be manufactured and maintained by local artisans for use in households to provide lighting, charge cell phones, power radios, etc. Wind turbines can also be connected to a utility power grid or combined with a solar photovoltaic system.

Once a system is in place, operating costs are practically nil, consisting of just general cleaning and lubrication.

Hydro energy

Hydropower generation is the most mature renewable energy technology and according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) provides 19% of global power demand and it has a conversion efficiency of up to 90%. Hydropower systems convert the potential energy of water into mechanical energy by using hydraulic turbines. Mechanical power can be used to drive machinery or it can be transformed into electricity by using an electric generator.

Small hydropower systems, normally used in rural contexts, can generate power for homes, hospitals and schools. They can be home based, community based or connected to micro grids. The power output of a micro hydropower system can range from just a few kilowatts to megawatts. Small hydro technology is an important energy option, which can promote job creation and the use of energy for production that can generate income and the social development of communities. This technology normally requires canalization infrastructures and buildings to protect the generator but it requires low maintenance.

Biomass energy

The term “biomass” is used to refer to all organic matter that has stored solar energy through photosynthesis. Biomass can be used to generate electricity, heat and biofuels.

A number of processes can be used to exploit different types of biomass including combustion, gasification, pyrolysis, liquefaction, anaerobic digestion, fermentation and esterification. One example of biomass use is to generate biogas. Millions of biogas systems are currently in use today in rural areas. The costs of this technology are relatively low. Household waste, human waste and cattle manure can be used to generate biogas that can then be used as fuel for cooking or lighting in individual households or small communities.

Biomass is considered as having “zero CO2 emissions” because, if the production chain is properly managed, CO2 emissions are compensated by the growth of new biomass.

Fossil fuels

Fossil fuels are considered non-renewable sources because their life cycle dates back millions of years and are therefore available in limited amounts. They include all energy generation based on coal, petroleum and natural gas. The most commonly used fossil fuel technology in rural areas is diesel-powered generators. It is a simple and mature technology that can meet rural power demand relatively easily, although it requires considerable maintenance and has high fuel costs (including transportation).

Emissions of GreenHouse Gases (GHGs) from the combustion of fossil fuels largely contribute to the danger of climate change. Different fossil fuels have different effects: the same amount of electricity causes emissions 2.5 times higher if generated by coal rather than by natural gas. Diesel stands in between.

In off-grid or mini-grid systems, diesel generators can be coupled to renewable energy sources in a hybrid configuration to achieve high reliability and to improve the continuity of supply. Fossils fuels can also be used for clean cooking if burnt in efficient cooking stoves.

Large quantities of natural gas come to the surface when oil is extracted from fields where gas is associated with oil. Traditionally the gas has been burnt in the atmosphere (gas flaring) where exploitation was not economically rewarding. An effort is under way in many areas of the world to use this gas and eliminate flaring.

Technologies

Technology plays a major role in the energy access challenge, not only in generating electricity or in cooking and heating (see the section “energy resources”), but also in transporting and distributing electricity. New technologies can improve performance and reliability, and reduce costs.

Electricity can be dispatched to the end users through networks where smart grid technologies can provide new solutions. In remote communities it can be locally provided via isolated mini-grids or stand-alone systems, and there smart technologies also apply. Metering technologies are useful in controlling consumption and easing new payment systems. Storage and hybrid systems allow flexibility and adaptability. Development of smart energy technologies will benefit emerging energy markets as well as mature ones. Energy technologies may also be used to help satisfy basic water and food needs.

Increasing the energy efficiency of end-user appliances is also crucial to solving the problem of energy scarcity, especially in mini-grid and isolated systems. Technologies have to meet the requirements of end users and be socially and environmentally appropriate. The introduction of a new technology often has to be calibrated to match the end user’s absorption capacity and be matched by an educational (capacity building) strategy, in order to make the infrastructure useful and sustainable in the long run.

technologies for Networks and for generation 

High, medium and low voltage transmission and distribution networks dispatch electricity from generation sites to end consumers. Generating units may be powered by fossil, nuclear or renewable sources and may be large or small in size. The vast majority of the electricity systems in the world today have powerful generators and large networks.

The present challenge is to reach the twin goals of reducing the negative impact of CO2 emissions on the environment and of meeting a rising energy demand, which includes the task of expanding access to make it universal. A vast array of technologies is available, with differing costs, environmental impacts and flexibility in terms of size and system balancing.

The development of new networks is a priority in any developing country, as are increasing interconnections between countries. A highly interconnected system is generally more stable than an isolated one. In some cases, peripheral areas of a country may be easily reached by the grid of a neighbouring country, but in this case specific agreements are necessary. Networks are natural monopolies, and connection rules need to be defined if independent power producers are to be given the opportunity to access them.

Expanding grids to reach remote areas may be difficult or too costly and alternative solutions may be preferable.

Mini grids

Often the development of mini grids is the best way to provide access to electricity in isolated areas of a country. Mini grids may be gradually extended to reach new consumers and then integrated into larger networks.

The main characteristics of mini grid projects are the mix of different energy sources and a five megawatt maximum of total installed power capacity.

Most existing mini grids are powered by diesel generating units, yet recent technology developments and cost reductions make renewable energy sources the ideal generating option for mini-grid systems, with diesel generators used to provide back-up services. Most remote areas possess vast renewable energy sources, whereas the transport of fossil fuel is expensive and its conversion into electricity often highly inefficient.

A mini grid system faces the same challenges as a complex system in terms of capacity development, load management and service balancing. Balancing demand and supply may prove to be a challenging issue especially when mini grid systems rely on intermittent sources of renewable energy.

Storage technologies are an essential component of most mini grid projects. The adoption of energy efficient solutions for end users is also an important variable in mini grid design. There is a strong connection between the spread of mini grid solutions and the development of smart grid technologies in more advanced markets. The integration of small distributed generating units and advanced load management options are important features of future smart mini grid designs.

Concession rights and other regulatory aspects of mini grid systems, such as tariff setting, may differ between countries or regions. In some cases a central regulatory authority or a rural agency establishes the rules, in other cases there are no established rules for mini grids and the market develops freely, with possible problems of continuity in time and consistency among zones.  

Isolated systems

An isolated system usually provides electricity to a single user. It may be limited to a few watts of generation capacity to provide basic electricity services such as light, mobile telephone charging and radio to a remote household, or it may have a larger power capacity to meet the demand of a commercial enterprise (shop, hotel), a manufacturing site, or a public service entity (hospital, school).

The recent reduction in the cost of some renewable technologies and system components (inverters, control or interface devices) make the option of isolated systems much more attractive than in the past. Some national and regional government energy policies set targets for the installation of isolated systems in order to close the energy access gap in every area of a country.

However, the spread of isolated systems is still greatly hindered by the limited technical skills available in most remote areas. System installation and long-term maintenance are therefore barriers to their implementation and use in remote areas unless the projects are accompanied by technical capacity building of the locals. The initial cost burden may be covered upfront by end users or spread over a longer period of time with different approaches, including pre-paid meters or microcredit schemes. There is no single successful business model, and over the past years many innovative business-models have proven to succeed.

Connection and Metering

The measurement of end user electricity consumption is essential for billing and the overall economic sustainability of energy systems. A large variety of metering technology options exist, ranging from simple, cheap fuses to advanced smart meters.

The costs of meters and the initial connection charge often constitute a barrier to energy access for the poor which is why pre-paid meters are increasingly being used to ease the burden of the initial investment while guarantee payment by final consumers. Synergies between energy and telecommunications offer new measurement and billing options that can be adopted both in mini grid and isolated systems. In addition, meters may also provide other useful services for system management. Bi-directional meters are essential for net metering options, and smart meters may provide Demand Side Management services (DSM) to make load a factor in system balancing and optimization.

In some regions unpaid bills or unbilled energy uses may account for over one-third of final energy consumption. These revenue losses (called non-technical losses) drain economic resources from energy infrastructure investment. Policies and regulations to reduce non-technical losses are not easy to implement.

Energy efficiency

End user appliances and equipment are as important to energy systems as power generation technologies. Higher energy efficiency means that the same level of services can be delivered with a lower energy input. Energy efficiency increases the total productivity of a given energy source, supports economic growth and reduces costs for all citizens. The higher the energy efficiency of a country, the lower its electricity demand and the peak load on the system with consequent positive economic and environmental impacts.

The Sustainable Energy for All initiative has an energy-efficiency target to double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030.

Energy-efficient technologies can be encouraged through appropriate policies, market mechanisms and information campaigns. The introduction and spread of energy efficient technologies in developing countries poses additional challenges. Energy efficiency requires a context where product certification is possible and easy-to-understand information on the costs and benefits of energy-efficient options is available to end-users.

In areas currently not reached by an electricity service, the higher the energy efficiency of end users, the greater the advantage of isolated systems compared with grid expansion. The provision of elementary electricity services, such as lighting, may now be achieved with highly efficient technologies compared with in the past. If LEDs are used, a low capacity photovoltaic system is sufficient to provide lighting in remote households where consumption would not justify investment to expand the grid.

Clean cooking solutions

There are a variety of clean cooking technologies available on the market. The adoption of clean cooking technology reduces the need for wood as fuel and decreases smoke emissions in homes.

A clean cooking solution can be designed with the primary aim of either increasing energy efficiency or reducing indoor air pollution. The costs differ depending on the context in which it is introduced. Stoves may be produced locally at very low or no cost, or they can be purchased. Consideration must be given to people’s available income, the customs of the community and to the fuels available locally. Very efficient stoves may have very rigid and specific fuel requirements and be expensive, while less efficient stoves may not offer a visible advantage over a traditional open three-stone cooking fire. Technologies vary according to rural and urban contexts.

The introduction of clean cooking technologies are strongly linked to Sustainable Development Goals*, especially those for health and gender targets, because women are those most exposed to indoor smoke emissions, and because the collection of wood for fuel is a time consuming activity that is in most regions the responsibility of the women. The collection and use of firewood also plays a role in deforestation and local land conflicts.

There are a number of international and national programmes and policies, which focus on providing access to clean cooking technologies. Further information about some of these can be found in the “Initiatives” section of this website.

*The achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals is foreseen by the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development


Sustainability and capacity building

Any project designed and implemented to provide access to modern energy must be sustainable in the long run, from three viewpoints: economic, social and environmental. This requirement should be given careful consideration right at the outset of a project.

In order to be effective and useful, policies and technologies for access to energy need to be:

a) economically sustainable, i.e. able to generate the revenue needed to ensure that maintenance is carried out, capital investment is recovered and employee wages are paid. Donations and voluntary work can make the task easier at first, but they should not be taken for granted in the long run. Willingness to pay for energy services should be assessed and energy prices must be affordable. A project can make a positive economic impact on local development by facilitating the creation of new businesses in an area, initially to provide maintenance and ancillary services;

b) socially sustainable, i.e. in line with the local people’s needs and expectations and able to reinforce co-operative attitudes;

c) environmentally sustainable, i.e. they must respect local natural resources and, if possible, have a positive impact in terms of global environmental issues.

Monitoring and assessment of existing energy access projects and policies may help to increase understanding of the sustainability challenge.

Training and capacity building

Since there is no single strategy or best solution to the energy access challenge, training must be planned with attention paid to local situations. These include the national economy, the local energy market, local culture and circumstances and the availability of environmental resources.

Substantial training efforts must be planned to support infrastructure development.

Training must be carried out at all levels of society, from the highest levels in universities to training of the local people that will be responsible for the daily maintenance of the newly installed apparatus. Training must consider local contextsthe learning abilities of the beneficiaries and labour market openings for skilled personnel. Energy training can be provided by specific capacity building programmes and can also be part of the national educational curriculum.

Some important energy access technologies and solutions for rural areas have been developed in recent years; updating educational curricula is crucial. 

Ownership and business models

Local ownership requires an adequate level of technical and managerial skills. Innovative energy service business models and forms of ownership, such as local co-operatives and public-private initiatives, are being tested and implemented in various contexts.

So far, no single business model has proven to be the most effective for the spread of energy services. The sale of electricity, isolated generating plants and clean cooking technologies face different challenges and need different skills and models to succeed.

Government organisations, private sector businesses and non-profit organizations have important roles to play, which can often be constructively combined. Microcredit and community financing may also play a part in innovative business models for service provision in remote areas.