[Viewepoint] Off-grid power for the poor

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[Viewepoint] Off-grid power for the poor

There are close to 1.5 billion people in the world without access to electricity, more than half in the Asia Pacific region. Renewable energy technologies (RETs) are invaluable to those who live outside the boundaries of power grids.

The Renewable Energy Policy Network for the Twenty-First Century (REN21) estimates that there are tens of millions of rural households served by renewable energy around the globe. But this is a mere drop in the ocean.

Why doesn’t the power grid reach these households in the first place? For starters, they are typically located in remote villages where grid access is prohibitively expensive. These households resort to traditional fuels such as wood, oil and candles for heating and lighting, leading to severe indoor pollution, not to mention fire hazards.

Off-grid RETs represent a viable solution and come in various forms: solar home systems, mini-hydroelectric generators, rooftop wind turbines, and village-level mini-grids using a mix of diesel generators and local renewable sources, to name a few. A solar home system connects a photovoltaic panel to florescent lightbulbs, radio and even TV via a battery and load controller. Many ask why the most expensive technology should be used for the poorest people. A 20-watt panel could cost roughly $200 - a huge sum for households earning $2,000 or less annually.

However, with installment financing, monthly costs become not only manageable but competitive with traditional fuels. The monthly leasing cost of the 20-watt panel in question, when stretched over 10 years, can be as little as $1.60.

Governments in poor and developing countries have been promoting projects to distribute off-grid RETs for decades, supported by multilateral institutions, bilateral aid programs or nongovernmental organizations.

But the nature of these projects is now changing. New projects are more market-driven, with donors’ focus gradually shifting to building the capacity of domestic regulatory and technical institutions, and to strengthening the position of existing private-sector firms to serve the market.

There are many ways to undertake rural electrification using off-grid RETs. The important thing is to recognize that there is a broad spectrum of available options, and that efforts need to be ramped up on a massive scale. In India alone, every third person lacks access to electricity.

If we want to avoid isolating communities and ensure inclusive economic growth, we need to start with the basics.

*The writer is a research fellow at the Center on Asia and Globalization at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.

By Malavika Jain Bambawale
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