A recent report from the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) initiative considered the benefits of using off-grid energy solutions to meet the organisation’s target of universal energy access by 2030.
The report attempts to quantify the financial, education and environmental dividends for the world’s poor, using the case studies of Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya. It argues that the fastest way to provide small electricity access is through off-grid power systems using solar.
This approach has its benefits in terms of the speed of connection and relatively cheap cost, but it is dangerous to believe that this is enough to provide sufficient power for business, hospitals and schools.
Todd Moss, a Senior Fellow for the Center for Global Development, recently presented evidence to the US Senate to make the case that while off-grid works as the “first step on the energy ladder”, it is not sufficient to provide power for industry and commerce. Relying on off-grid solutions encourages low levels of energy consumption, holding back economic growth.
Small solutions like Solar Home Systems (SHS) can only provide 50 kWh per per year, which an average American consumers in a day and a half. According to Moss, his refrigerator alone uses the same amount of electricity as nine people in Ethiopia use in a year.
Small-scale renewable projects, for all their good intentions, cannot and should not be seen as the answer for the 1.1 billion people currently living in energy poverty. Since 2000, 1.2 billion people gained access to electricity, mainly by an expansion of the grid and with fossil fuels (45 percent coal, 19 percent natural gas and 7 percent oil).
Earlier this year, the Breakthrough Institute, a leading energy think-tank, was worried that off-grid was misleading the argument on energy access. It maintains that that these technologies would provide “very limited development benefits” and may “risk confusing charity with development.”
The UN clearly understands that energy access is a prerequisite for poverty reduction and key for economic development, but it must not be sidetracked by the allure of off-grid and mini-grid energy solutions. These should be seen as transitional technologies, not as an alternative to large-scale baseload power. The evidence is very clear. Only with cheap and reliable, 24/7 power can people have any hope of escaping poverty and proving a better future for themselves and their families.