More than 1.1 billion people around the world—including 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa—lack access to reliable electricity. This means that businesses must shut down when the sun sets, children struggle to study by candlelight, and many families use kerosene lamps to simply light their homes. Critical facilities, like schools and hospitals, struggle to meet community needs, keep medicines cold, or perform life-saving procedures. It’s clear that economic development and quality of life is dependent on access to electricity.
Meanwhile, this problem is worsening. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where population growth is outstripping growth in access, which means the percentage of people in the region with access to electricity—and the benefits it brings—is set to decline. For example, in Nigeria, in rural communities like Mokoloki, there is high economic activity, but economic growth is limited by the electricity shortfall. We’ve met welders and shop owners that have to run diesel generators to keep their businesses running.
But I believe that we can solve this problem by harnessing the transformative power of clean, distributed, and affordable electricity, changing the lives of people who need it most. At Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), we imagine a world where billions of people around the world have reliable access to the clean, affordable electricity that can help their economies, their communities, and their families thrive.
Distributed, renewable energy is the most resilient, reliable, and cost-effective way to provide electricity access to rural communities.
Providing Clean Energy Access with Minigrids
Distributed, renewable energy is the most resilient, reliable, and cost-effective way to provide electricity access to rural communities. At RMI, we see this as a leapfrog opportunity for communities that lack energy to transition to clean minigrids—isolated distribution networks involving small-scale electricity generation and storage—which are commonly solar photovoltaics plus batteries. Fulfilling energy needs with renewably-powered minigrids has many advantages over expensive, fossil-fuel-powered centralized infrastructure.
Rapidly scaling minigrids can provide the larger amounts of clean electricity that communities and businesses need. They are of a sufficient size and power to underpin economic development. While a small solar system that might only have a 10- or 15-watt panel can power lights or charge a mobile phone, a minigrid can power a grain mill, factory, or hospital.
Scaling minigrids won’t happen overnight. It requires a collaborative strategy where government, power suppliers, technology providers, business owners, and other customers work together to pilot and scale strategies that benefit the community most. I’m confident we can solve this problem with an independent, market-based, whole-systems perspective, and collaboration that brings the right decision makers—from both the public and private sectors—to the table.
Our experience working in several communities in Nigeria, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, and small island countries has revealed five strategies that can help:
- Holistic integrated planning: An energy strategy should be developed in partnership with government, utilities, development, and the private sector so that it can incorporate a wide variety of complex and interwoven requirements and challenges.
- New business models: Identifying ways to bring the cost of minigrids down by a significant margin in rural communities can help this technology—and its benefits—take hold much quicker. For example, our report Minigrids in the Money detailed six ways to reduce minigrid costs by 60 percent for rural electrification—based on our experience in two rural communities in Nigeria. We’re also working to drive productivity improvements in electricity demand.
- Implementation pilots: Communities, political leaders, and funders want demonstrated evidence that this can be achieved effectively in target locations. So, “steel-in-the ground” is an important piece of the puzzle.
- Energy leadership development: It is crucial to build local capacity, and ensure it stays local. This can be done through “communities of practice,” which are groups of professionals working on similar issues who are provided a platform to engage with and learn from each other.
- Global knowledge sharing: By broadly distributing important lessons learned, they can be quickly adapted by others around the world who are looking to transform their own communities.
With a thoughtful, collaborative, country-based approach—plus the bold partnership of many who agree that energy access is the master key to unlocking a wide variety of social and economic benefits—we believe that the cost of power produced by today’s best minigrids can be cut by more than 60 percent—offering clean, reliable power to millions who lack it today. These efforts will also open a multibillion-dollar revenue opportunity to create sustainable energy for hundreds of millions of people and combine the power of global supply chains with local market entrepreneurs and communities.
This problem is solvable, and the solution is designed to scale and can be brought to Africa and applied to many rapidly growing countries around the world.
Learn more about how we can solve the world’s biggest challenges – watch the #Solvable mini-film series here.