4 reasons why the World Bank is wrong about off-grid solar

4 reasons why the World Bank is wrong about off-grid solar

Off-grid home solar systems are often held up as the answer to energy poverty in rural Africa. Small-scale solar systems, like a rooftop solar panel connected to a battery, are relatively cheap to install and can supply power for basic amenities like lighting, radio and charging a mobile phone.

The World Bank admitted in a 2017 blog that “the major downside of off-grid solar is that the relatively low amount of supplied electricity limits what those systems can do for the productive use of electricity.”

“However,” they continue, “electricity usage patterns in newly electrified areas in rural Africa are often such that solar is able to meet those demands.”

In other words, the poorest don’t need much electricity, so we only have to give them the bare minimum.

Here are 4 reasons why this muddled thinking is completely wrong.

1. Massive amounts of energy are needed to transform Africa’s rural economies

Africa currently spends $35 billion a year IMPORTING food from richer countries. This is because African farms lack the powered equipment and infrastructure to compete with the rest of the world.

As Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank put it in a recent speech:

“Africa cannot develop in the dark. Farmers cannot store food, irrigation systems cannot function and food agribusiness and industries cannot operate for lack of power.”

Without a revolution in African agriculture – which in turn requires large energy inputs – Africa’s rural poor will stay poor.

2. The benefits of “leapfrogging” have been wildly overstated

Leapfrogging is the argument that poor countries can use technology to bypass certain stages of development. For example, using drones to fly medicine “leapfrogs” the need to build decent roads, while mobile phones “leapfrog” the need for a fixed telecoms infrastructure.

The same argument is made about energy, where off-grid solar supposedly bypasses the need for power stations and pylons.

But as recent paper by Harvard Kenny School’s Calestous Juma argues, “leapfrogging industrial development is not an option”.

Juma’s point is that while it may benefit individuals to have access to mobile phones, to create a tech industry there is no getting away from the need for fiber optic broadband and mobile phone masts. It’s the same with energy. The ability to charge a phone using off-grid solar is better than nothing, but you can’t use off-grid solar to power a mobile phone factory.

Not only that, large complex infrastructure projects like power stations give Africans the engineering skills they need to create future prosperity. Kenya’s geothermal industry, for example, has spurred a whole generation of expert Kenyan engineers.

3. Solar panels are cheap to install, but hard to maintain

Solar equipment requires regular maintenance to work properly. India’s experience is instructive. A massive government-sponsored drive to electrify rural villages in Maharashtra ended in failure when villagers found they couldn’t fix the solar panels when they broke down.

“Most of the equipment is either stolen or not working,” said the project manager. “Now we have decided that a majority of these villages will be electrified in the conventional way.”

4. Given a choice, most people would prefer the grid

Something often overlooked in this debate, are the preferences of Africans themselves.

Yet polling evidence from Ghana and Tanzania shows that when people who aren’t on the grid but do have other forms of electricity are asked if they’d like a grid connection, a clear majority say yes.

It’s completely unacceptable that we live in a world where the average American fridge consumes 9 times more power than the average Ethiopian. But by pushing off-grid solar as an alternative to grid electrification that’s how things are likely to stay.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Shane says:

    One is looking at small panels and small battery packs when they talk of implementing off grid. Off grid can be designed to meet the power requirements of an entire village without having to worry about connection to main grid supply. Aid programmes have got to be thought over thoroughly before its implementation. This is where I find far too much time and money is wasted. For one side it is pure profit with repetition and on the other side – well they do not quite have a clue and claw at what they can get their hands on just for short term. If you are providing aid to countries then they must be throughly thought through.

  • Henry Luwemba Kasule says:

    My brother I see your point however you have not exactly addressed the basic needs of let’s say a rural farmer with regards to electricity. Does he need it for cooking, lighting, running a maize mill? When you talk of a mobile phone factory it’s not like a mine that you set up the infrastructure in a remote place in order to get the mineral out. You can set up the factory in an industrial park that many countries currently have. Off grid systems are usually in places it’s assumed the grid might not reach or might take considerable time to reach. I say having a number of options is better than nothing. Off grids should be put in place especially in places that are hard to reach. Currently there are solar plants that can be used for irrigation. But the point is what is the energy need for a rural farmer!? How can a number of options help him with his energy requirements

  • I. Patterson says:

    Maybe they should invest in contraception!

  • “African farms lack the powered equipment and infrastructure to compete with the rest of the world.” Rubbish Africa does not know how to farm and so creates dongas by burning fields during winters which are dry when most veld fires are started This then when it rains cause the top soil to erode and be washed away and so crops do not grow Africa is constantly at war with each other Fact and this means that their governments spend ludicrous amouynts of money on arms and ammunitions which which to kill each other off Africa also runs around between tribes and kills each others cattle by poisoning water wells This is alo well know

    Solar powered cellular base stations have been around for quite some time and yes they charge batteries and use inverters but never the less they are the answer to many a problem in Africa The world bank however being as greedy as they are would say this because like every bank they are only concerned with profits huge ones at that and so the idea of pollution free energy does not appeal to them because pollutions you see like oils makes money lots of it and that provides big huge bonuses Wind power is another alternative and when you see the size of solar powered farms both in the UK recently opened and the number of solar powered ventures now taking place you will laugh at the world bank as we do Include in this of you will solar powered vehicles Tesla being one such example which are now hybrid operating from producing hydrogen from water

    Whilst on the subject of water Africa has the ability to build dams but because iof their stupidity in eliminating education where they have target many a person no one wants to live thier anymore this is because of their feuding with each other and constants attacks on the whites and very nasty that has become too Not quite the same as educated British people are and so you need to stop your big fat lies and start telling the truth

    Most importantly Africa are one of the main reasons you are now at war and that is because many parts of Africa openly support terrorism of which you have seen much of in the UK particularly in these areas and are known to buy weapons off Communist China and Russia so hence most of us will not support charities in these regions because that whats they do with the money hence Africa remains poor because it has failed throughout life to recognize that supporting both terror and murdering people including aid workers is not quite the done thing

    PS there is point in arguing with me at all because Ive lived in Africa for many years and know exactly how they work too n

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